LIVE OAK—It’s been a little more than a decade since a Watsonville-based team won the District 39 Little League Tournament of Champions championship.
The Nationals of the Pajaro Valley Little League were on the cusp of achieving that feat on Tuesday, needing just one more win for the title.
They’ll have to wait one more day after a 6-3 loss to the Padres of Aptos Little League in the championship round at Green Acres Elementary School.
With the loss, the Nationals (3-1) snap their three-game winning streak. They’ll also have to clash once again with the Padres (5-1) on Wednesday in what will be a winner-take-all scenario.
Both teams are hoping to avoid 90-degree-plus temperatures like they endured in Tuesday’s meeting.
Nationals head coach Robert Brooks said they managed to overcome the heat, executing when they needed to.
But it wasn’t enough against a hot Padres team that has won four-straight to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament.
“They’re a scrapy team,” Brooks said. “We have to hit the ball and that’s what they did.”
The Padres’ hitters found gaps in the Nationals’ defense early in the game that allowed them to take a lead and never looked back.
“Everyone’s going to put their head down but you just tell them, ‘Hey, you got tomorrow to go at it,’” Brooks said. “Tell them ‘You’re going to have that battle and who wants to win that battle’, and don’t ever give up on that battle.”
The Padres have battled their way through the “survivors” bracket after losing to Capitola-Soquel Little League on June 15.
Padres head coach Tim Reilly said it’s a scenario no team wants to go through but they’ve managed to stay alive until this point.
“We knew it was a tough road ahead,” he said.
Reilly said the players are used to adversity and have fought throughout the entire season. He mentioned that they came in as the dark horse of the tournament and the success comes from how hard the kids play.
He also mentioned having assistant coaches such as Scott Lesan and Jake Castillo has been extremely helpful in the dugout.
“They’re the baseball guys, they’ve been teaching them the baseball skills and I handle a lot of the other stuff,” Reilly said. “It’s just a super resilient group of kids. It’s been fun to see when their backs have been up against the wall the last few days.”
The Nationals jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first.
It didn’t take long for the Padres to respond. They scored five unanswered runs starting with three in the first and two in the second inning.
Ryker Fitz gave the Nationals some life in the top of the third with a lead-off triple. A couple of batters later, he and a teammate scored to cut the deficit at 5-3.
After giving up five runs in the first two frames, Nationals starting pitcher Robert Anthony Lopez tossed his first scoreless inning in the bottom of the third.
In the fifth, the Nationals had runners in scoring position but another shutdown inning by the Padres’ pitching staff prevented any type of a comeback.
Thomas Quintero—who hadn’t pitched much in the tournament—got the green light to start for the Padres on Tuesday.
“[Quintero’s] been money for us all season,” Reilly said. “I wasn’t surprised to see him dealing out there. It was fun to see.”
The Padres added one more run in the fourth to cap off the scoring, keeping their postseason hopes alive for one more day.
As for the Nationals, they need just one more win to become Watsonville’s first TOC champion since 2009.
“They have to come ready to go,” Brooks said. “It’s not a one-man show, or a two-kid show, the whole team has to go out at it.”
The Nationals and Padres will play at Green Acres Elementary School on Wednesday at 5:30pm.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Padres were from the Pajaro Valley Little League, which is incorrect.