SANTA CRUZ—A dozen years have passed since a Watsonville-based Little League team won the District 39 Majors Tournament of Champions title.
Pajaro Valley Little League Nationals manager Robert Brooks came close to bringing a championship home two years ago, only to watch it slip away in a heartbreaking fashion.
“We made a good run at it but that left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth because we’re always the low man on the totem pole,” Brooks said. “They don’t think we can put this all together.”
Nationals starting pitcher Jared Verdia knew what was at stake going into Wednesday’s pivotal elimination game.
The right-hander delivered his best performance of the season en route to a 16-2 victory over the Padres of Aptos Little League in the second game of the championship round at Green Acres Elementary School. The game ended in the fourth inning due to the 10-run mercy rule.
“It means a lot to bring it back home,” Verdia said.
Brooks, who walked around with the championship banner on his shoulder, was speechless after the game.
“The boys put in a lot of hard work and Jared [Verdia] stepped up,” he said. “He had a struggle throughout the year and he stepped up this game, relied on his defense to do the work and our bats came alive.”
With the win, the Nationals (4-1) bring back a District 39 TOC title to PVLL and the city of Watsonville for the first time since the Cubs won in 2009.
The Nationals were on the cusp of achieving that feat on Tuesday, needing just one win for the title.
But they had to wait one more day after a 6-3 loss to the Padres, who extended their season into what was a winner-take-all scenario.
The Padres had already battled their way through the “survivors” bracket after losing to Capitola-Soquel Little League on June 15.
Brooks was in a similar situation two years ago when he led a PVLL team as the top seed in the TOC championship round. They lost twice to Capitola-Soquel, including a 15-4 blowout in the second and deciding game.
Brooks knew from the get-go that this year’s Nationals team was built with enough talent to get over that hump.
“They wanted it more than anybody else,” he said. “I told them I can’t do it for you, the coaches can’t do it for you. You guys gotta want it.”
Brooks said the players were focused from the start, especially after putting in extra work at the batting cage.
“I said when they put it over the plate, go swing, and our first three kids swung at the first three pitches and put the ball in play,” Brooks said.
Verdia said he felt a lot more confident going into Wednesday’s matchup against the Padres despite having their backs against the wall.
He mentioned the 90-degree temperatures in Tuesday’s game prevented them from playing to their full potential. Verdia added that most players just weren’t mentally prepared.
“Since it was a lot cooler, we played better and the bats were just really hot today,” he said. “We were really hyped about this game, we really wanted to win it.”
Verdia said one of the keys to victory was to go light on the mustard, which helped Verdia locate his pitches in the strike zone more effectively.
“I was surprised because I’d been struggling this season,” he said. “I was just focusing on throwing strikes and not throwing as hard because when I throw it hard it kind of gets wild.”
Verdia looked sharp coming out of the gate by retiring the side in the top of the opening frame.
Kenny Allen led the bottom half of the first with a base hit and fellow teammate Ryker Fitz followed up with a single.
The Nationals capitalized with an RBI single from Tyler Brooks, followed by a two-run double by Robert Anthony Lopez that made it 3-0.
Verdia got in on the action with a two-run home run that sailed over the left field wall, and the Nationals added three more runs for an 8-0 lead.
The Nats continued to light up the scoreboard with six runs in the second and a pair in the third, giving them a 16-run cushion.
Fitz—who is the shortest kid on the roster—finished with a pair of base hits including a 2-run single that dropped into right field.
“There’s nothing that scares him, you can put him in any situation and he will go at it 110%,” Brooks said. “Everyone thinks that he’s not going to be able to do it as small as he is and he just smokes that ball.”
A two-run double in the fourth put the Padres on the scoreboard, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a big deficit.
The Nationals rallied back after losing the first game of the championship round.
Brooks said what makes this team special is one minute they can be down and out, but then they always find a way to spark themselves back up.
The Nationals suffered a pair of losses late in the season that didn’t sit well with the players. So one can imagine how they felt after losing Tuesday’s game.
“You can tell, we had our meeting afterwards and there was that bitter taste,” Brooks said. “They knew that they could play better baseball and they showed it today.”