The Petaluma National Little League 11-year-old All-Star team ran out of time and luck, but not out of grit and determination in the finals of the Section 1 Tournament in Mill Valley Thursday evening.
In a game that had more twists and turns than Lombard Street, the Nationals lost in the final game of the tournament to Mill Valley, 8-7. The win gave Mill Valley a 2-1 advantage over the Nationals in head-to-head confrontations, but, more importantly, the section championship and a trip to Turlock where it will compete for the Northern California championship, the highest level of 11-year-old competition. The Nationals finished with an 8-2 All-Star record that included an undefeated run to the District 35 championship and three wins in as many days in the section tournament after their initial 8-6 loss to Mill Valley in the second game.
Thursday's game was a match in excitement for the first two meetings between the two evenly matched teams. Both those games were decided by last-inning grand slam home runs. The tournament-deciding game featured outstanding defensive plays and big rallies.
It was a three-run rally by Mill Valley in the top of the sixth inning that made the difference. Everyone of those runs was needed as Petaluma battled back in the bottom of the inning to score a run and had a potential tie at third base when lefty Alex Pasco, the third Mill Valley pitcher, managed to somehow escape with the victory and the tournament title in place.
Down by two, 8-6, with just three outs in their tournament life, the Nationals refused to go quietly into the fast-approaching night. Cole Santander started that last inning with a solid single to left. He narrowly saved himself by diving back to first when Jack Gallagher's bullet line-drive was snared by the Mill Valley first baseman.
Cort Gago raised Petaluma fans' hopes with a single to right field and both runners moved up when Nicco Bertolucci bounced back to the pitcher. Now it was two on, two out and two rooting sections going bonkers. Sam Highland slammed a shot off the glove of the first baseman as Santander scored, narrowing the gap to a single run, 8-7.
With the tying run at third and potential winning run at first, Pasco finally got the last out on a pop-fly to second.
The wild inning was a disappointing end to a wild game that took emotions on a high speed roller coaster ride.
Petaluma started the game in spectacular fashion when starting pitcher Gallagher sailed a home run over the left field fence in the first inning.
Gallagher gave up a run in the second inning, but the Nationals stopped a rally when catcher Nathan Linstrom alertly nailed an over aggressive Mill Valley base runner with a perfect throw to third baseman Jacob Sullivan.
After getting a runner nailed at the plate trying to score on a passed ball, Petaluma fans began checking Trip Advisor for hotel rooms in Turlock when the Nationals took advantage of two Mill Valley errors and solid hits by Gallagher, Bertolucci and Linstrom (a triple off the center fielder's glove) for five runs and a 6-1 lead.
The advantage remained through four innings as the Petaluma defense, anchored first by Santander and then Gallagher at shortstop, held Mill Valley at bay.