Midway through Saturday’s Little League West Region championship game in San Bernardino, the ESPN camera flashed to a crowd shot of an Eastlake fan holding up a homemade sign.
It read: “Go to school or … go to Williamsport. Find a way, Eastlake.”
Eastlake Little League’s 12-under all-star team did indeed find a way — a 9-0 victory against Northern California state champion Belmont-Redwood Shores — to punch its ticket to the Little League World Series.
Eastlake becomes the second team from California District 42 to advance to the LLWS, joining 2009 LLWS champion Park View.
Ironically, members of that history-making Park View team were in attendance at Al Houghton Stadium Saturday to take in Eastlake’s own history-making win.
Luke Ramirez, now a senior at Eastlake High School, and Kiko Garcia (St. Augustine) both were introduced during pregame ceremonies, and later got some face time on television while enjoying the game from the stands.
Southern California state champion Eastlake (18-1) never trailed in Saturday’s game but it was nervous going early on as the Nor Cal state champs placed a runner at third base in the top of the first inning.
But Eastlake starter Grant Holman quickly settled into a groove and proceeded to toss a two-hit shutout, striking out nine batters, to give him 28 strikeouts in 12.2 innings in the tournament.
He also drove in a run in the victory that clinched a berth in the LLWS.
“It was their ace against our ace,” Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett said.
Saturday's win served to make amends for a 3-2 loss to the Bay Area team in the final round of pool play on Wednesday.
Top-seeded Belmont-Redwood Shores, which carried a 5-0 regional record into the game, appeared to have an answer for Eastlake's 6-foot-2 Holman in six-foot hurler Sean Lee, who had fanned 19 batters without issuing a walk in eight prior innings on the mound.
Lee threw smoke to start the game, striking out four batters in Eastlake's half of the first inning. Lee whiffed pitches past Micah Pietila-Wiggs and Jake Espinoza for two quick outs before facing Holman.
Holman also went down on strikes but the ball got loose from the Belmont-Redwood Shores catcher and the throw down to first base hit Holman on the arm.
Holman was safe even through Lee had recorded three outs on strikeouts.
Nick Mora, the hero of Friday's 12-0 semifinal win over Nevada state champion Mountain Ridge, made the Nor Cal state champs pay for their miscue by ripping a standup triple into the right field corner to score special pinch runner Michael Gaines.
Lee battled back to strike out Rennard Williams to end the inning. But the damage had been done, Eastlake held a 1-0 lead.
In retrospect, it turned out to be the only run that Eastlake would need in the game.
Holman allowed an infield single to start the second inning and then wild-pitched the runner to second base. But second-seeded Eastlake caught a break when Holman uncorked another errant throw to the plate and the Belmont-Redwood Shores baserunner attempted to advance to third base. The throw from catcher Patrick Archer was high but the Belmont runner overslid the bag, allowing him to be tagged out by an alert Eastlake player.
Holman then struck out the final batter to end the inning.
Eastlake put up two more runs in the bottom of the second inning to lead 3-0.
With one down, Charly Peterson stroked a double. Following a strikeout by Archer, Pietila-Wiggs drew a walk. Espinoza then smashed a two-out basehit to score one runL: 2-0 Eastlake.
A passed ball advanced runners up a base, placing runners at second and third base. A wild pitch then brought in another Eastlake run.
3-0 SoCal state champs.
Holman set Belmont Redwood-Shores down in order in the top of the third inning; his teammates added two more runs on the scoreboard to support his excellent pitching effort.
Mora hit a standup double to start the bottom of the third inning. Giancarlo Cortez then safely reached base on a hit, though Mora was held at third base.
Mora, however, didn't stay there long as Lee let loose another wild pitch to give Eastlake a 4-0 lead.
Tibbett bounced out to first base but Kevin Bateman, a special pinch runner for Cortez, moved over to third base. Gaines was then hit in the helmet to place runners at the corners with one down.
Dominic Haley then scored Bateman on a fielder's choice to extend Eastlake's lead to 5-0.
Midway through the game, Holman was clocked at 73 mph and appeared to be gaining strength. He induced a comebacker for an easy out-put and struck out two batters in the top of the fourth inning to preserve his shutout in front of a crowd of 11,238.
In four innings, Holman had fanned seven batters.
Eastlake tacked on another run in the bottom of the fourth inning. Pietila-Wiggs singled and took second on a bobble. Espinoza then brought him around on another basehit, though it took a bit of artful maneuvering for Pietila-Wiggs to score.
After rounding third base, Pietila-Wiggs slipped on the Little League logo and had to get up off the ground and continue running to slide around the tag at home plate.
Lee reached the mandatory 85-pitch count on Eastlake's final batter in the frame and had to leave the game.
The District 42 champions scored three more runs off his replacement in the next inning.
Peterson led off Eastlake's fifth with a single and advanced to second base on an error. Archer then drew a walk to place two Eastlake runners on base.
A wild pitch then brought in one run. Peterson initially had stopped at third base upon seeing the errant throw and, when the catcher had trouble finding where the ball had gone, he started up for home, just sliding under the ensuing tag.
Pietila-Wiggs then rapped a single to score Archer and the score was suddenly 8-0 in Eastlake's favor.
But the California Section 7 champions weren't finished.
Espinoza followed with a walk and Holman collected an RBI on a ground-out.
Mora was then intentionally walked to load the bases with one down.
At this point, Eastlake had the opportunity to end the game via the 10-run mercy rule.
However, the next two Eastlake batters struck out.
That left Belmont-Redwood Shores with one last at-bat. Holman retired the Nor Cal state champs in order to seal the win.
Perhaps appropriately, Holman collected a comebacker to end the game at 78 pitches.
Eastlake scored nine runs off 12 hits and committed two errors to secure a berth as one of eight regional champions in the United States portion of the LLWS bracket.
Eastlake opens LLWS play on Friday, Aug. 16, against the Great Lakes regional champion (Michigan's Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores).
While the majority of Chula Vistans watched Saturday's game from the comfort of their homes, some elected to share the moment at viewing parties at various restaurants and eateries around the city.
Chula Vista North Pony League had a rooting section going at La Bella Pizza and Games on the west side of the city.
The Aranda and Bacling families were front row and center, sampling tasty pizza and chicken wings during the broadcast.
The message they wanted to convey: events like this bring the community together.
Chula Vista North Pony-14 all-star manager Pete Luna dropped in as well. His CVN team advanced as far as the Pony Super Region tournament. He said he was impressed by the Eastlake victory.
"There's a lot of talent in Chula Vista," he said. "We're getting it at a young age. The travel team baseball is a reason for it. The kids are getting better."
Eastlake’s history-making trip to the LLWS has not been lost on the large number of alumni from the league.
"As a former Eastlake Little Leaguer myself, watching these young ball players advance to the Little League World Series is truly inspiring,” said former Eastlake High School student/current University of Oregon track runner Trent Warren, who played in the Eastlake league from third grade through Majors. “Not only as a former baseball player but even as a resident of the community, you automatically become a huge fan. They represent the city well and they put Chula Vista on a map."
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