They have gone as far as they can, and it isn’t over yet for the boys from Eastlake Little League’s memory-making 12-under all-star team.
The east side Chula Vista team earned the right to play one final game in its championship run to the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., and, perhaps fatefully, it’s the team’s biggest of them all: the LLWS title game.
Eastlake will measure up against a team from Tokyo, Japan, in Sunday’s climactic LLWS championship game after clubbing New England region champion Westport (Conn.) by a score of 12-1 in Saturday’s United States Division championship game.
Earlier in the day, Japan defeated Mexico region champion Tijuana, 3-2, in the International Division title game.
While Eastlake and Japan will play for the coveted LLWS title, the trip of a lifetime isn’t over quite yet for both the Tijuana and Westport teams, which will now meet in Sunday’s third-place game.
The third-place game gets under way at 8 a.m. PDT and will be telecast on ESPN.
Eastlake and Japan — the two remaining undefeated teams in the 16-team LLWS pool — will take the field at noon PDT in a game to be telecast by ABC-TV.
Eastlake carries a commanding 22-1 record into its final game of the 2013 all-star tournament season.
Japan matches the West region champions with a 4-0 record in Williamsport.
Obviously, winning the U.S. championship has produced a rush for the local Little Leaguers.
"It's history-making — it's fantastic!" Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett said via telephone from Pennsylvania after the game. "I know everyone is excited about it. We put Chula Vista back on the map."
Find a way
Saturday's U.S. championship game proved to be a rematch of the winners bracket semifinal contest between Eastlake and Westport — a thriller that went nine innings before the District 42 champions pulled out a dramatic 6-3 victory.
Westport rallied to defeat Northwest region champion Sammamish, 14-13, in Friday's elimination game.
Chad Knight, the hero of Friday's comeback win for Westport, got the start in Saturday's U.S. bracket final. While he proved overly dominant in the teams' earlier match-up on Aug. 21, Knight proved somewhat more mortal in the rematch.
Eastlake rolled across three runs in each of the opening two innings to take control of the game with a 6-1 lead. The California Section champions put an exclamation mark on their biggest victory thus far by batting around in the top of the sixth inning while tacking on six more runs.
The only disappointing aspect of the watershed win for the Eastlake team was that starting pitcher Nick Mora could not finish the game because of Little League's mandatory 85-pitch count.
Mora reached the limit after striking out the first two batters in the bottom of the sixth inning — finishing one out from putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece.
Teammate Giancarlo Cortez came on to strike out Knight, perhaps appropriately, and secure Eastlake's entry in the history books.
Eastlake becomes the second team from District 42 to win the U.S. Division LLWS championship title after Park View first accomplished the feat in 2009.
Park View went on to defeat Chinese Tapiei, 6-3, in the 2009 LLWS championship game.
Eastlake now has come unfinished business to attend to in order to place its name among Little League royalty.
Mora allowed two hits and struck out 10 batters in five-and-two-thirds innings of work. He also clubbed a tape measure three-run home run in the second inning to help his team's cause.
He received a standing ovation from the crowed estimated at 30,000 upon leaving the mound with one out remaining in the contest.
While there was elation at winning the U.S. title, the Eastlake manager said things remained calm in the dugout throughout the game.
"The kids were their typical selves — they were having fun, they were loose," Tibbett said. "They just like going out and playing the game (of baseball)."
Eastlake's players have proven to be masters of the game so far.
While the New England region champions provided a serious challenge to Eastlake's LLWS championship run in the first meeting — Westport held a seemingly safe 3-1 lead late in the game — the Connecticut state champions could not match their previous excellence.
Westport committed five errors in Saturday's U.S. final to hand Eastlake seven unearned runs.
Grant Holman, who will likely get the start in Sunday's LLWS championship game against Japan, drove in two runs on a shot into left field that got past the Westport outfielder and rolled to the wall. Cortez then drove a ball up the middle to score another run to put the West region champs in front 3-0 before the powerful New England region champions could even come to the plate.
Westport, which slammed five home runs in its elimination win over the Washington state champs a few hours earlier, chipped away at that early Eastlake lead with a run in the bottom of the frame. But Mora quickly put his team back in the driver's seat with his blast into the outfield bleachers.
The game remained 6-1 in Eastlake's favor until the finish. Mora remained cool on the mound throughout the contest. He struck out Knight, Westport's star player, in the bottom of the third inning for his sixth strikeout of the game; he struck out three of the final five hitters he faced before making his premature departure from the hill.
Knight's final swing and miss gave Eastlake pitchers 11 strikeouts in the U.S. championship game victory.
The West region champions battered Knight (five strikeouts, 17 first-pitch strikes) and his three replacements for 12 hits.
"We had a plan to attack that one kid (Knight) — to hit him a little better this time," the Eastlake manager said. "We had two days of practice. It worked out well.
"After he threw 40 pitches in the first two innings, I thought that we were going to take care of business."
Michael Gaines drove a single off the base of the wall to start the top of the sixth inning. He was the final batter Knight faced in the game after throwing 87 pitches.
New Westport hurler Charlie Roof promptly struck out Eastlake's Patrick Archer and Charly Peterson for two quick outs. But the Chula Vistans somehow found a way to score six more runs before they could finally be retired.
Micah Pietila-Wiggs, who had two hits earlier in the game, slapped a bad-hop single off the lip of the grass into left field. Jake Espinoza then drew a walk to load the bases for Mora.
One run scored on a passed ball to plate Eastlake to a 7-1 lead.
Mora then connected for a base hit to score another run and give Eastlake an 8-1 cushion. Mora finished the game with four RBI.
That brought on another Westport pitcher. But Matt Brown had little success in containing California's "Golden Boys."
With Holman at the plate, Brown uncorked a wild pitch to score another run — 9-1 Eastlake. Holman then drove a seeing-eye ball through the legs of a Westport infielder to score another run and give Holman three RBI in the game.
The inning continued as Cortez blooped a double down the right field line, just inside fair territory.
Ricky Tibbett then drew a walk to load the bases for the second time in the frame. Gaines made the most of his two trips to the plate in the inning by launching a pitch off the base of the wall (again) for a double to score Eastlake's final two runs.
As Knight strode to the plate as Westport's final batter in the LLWS, a new chant began to suddenly be heard throughout Lamade Stadium.
The familiar "Eastlake!" chant that had been heard throughout the team's LLWS run was replaced by excited chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Eastlake had become America's team.
The newly crowned U.S. champions took a final victory lap with the 2013 U.S. Division championship banner. The players stopped short of home plate, however. Instead, they gathered in front of the third base dugout over which their families had been cheering them on from the first few rows of seats.
It was time for the players and parents to share in the magical moment.
For television viewers, the scene dissolved into a sea of yellow and green.
For fans watching at home, the celebration was only beginning.
Eastlake Little League: U.S. Division Little League World Series champions!
That has a nice ring to it.
"It's been a case of timely hitting and good pitching — we have one more game to play," the elder Tibbett said.
In other words, business as usual for this team that has found a winning way.
Cortez and Pietila-Wiggs each finished Saturday's game with three hits.
Mora has struck out 16 batters in nine-and-two-thirds innings in the 2013 LLWS while hitting three home runs at the plate.
Holman tossed a no-hitter in Eastlake's opening game at the LLWS, hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the team's second game — a 15-3 win over Mid-Atlantic region champion Newark (Del.) — and stroke a game-winning three-run home run in the first meeting against Westport.
Pietila-Wiggs has the 2013 LLWS lead with 10 hits.
The U.S. representative in the LLWS championship game has the lead with 33 titles and Eastlake will be out to add to that in Sunday's game.
Japan earned the right to meet Eastlake in the 2013 LLWS final as Takumi Gomi cracked a solo home run in the top of the sixth inning to snap a 2-2 deadlock with Tijuana.
Jorge Rodriguez led the Mexico champs with two hits while Ramon Mendoza led Tijuana with two RBI.
Shunpei Tagaki paced Japan with two hits and drove in one run. Kensuke Tsuchida struck out four batters in three innings.