A relief pitcher turned starter and the 'other' Smith guaranteed the Petaluma Nationals will stick around the Little League World Series for at least two more days following a decisive victory over the New England Region Tuesday night.
, Petaluma cruised against Connecticut, 5-0, thanks to Quinton Gago’s solid night on the mound and Hance Smith's clutch hitting.
Petaluma also beat Fairfield, Conn. earlier in the tournament, though the outcome was a little closer.
Gago was named the starter to his astonishment. He doesn't like of himself as a starting pitcher.
“I’m usually better at relief,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m not a starter, I’m not a starter.’ I was excited and nervous at the same time.”
His coaches weren't so worried. “We knew Q had the stuff to be a star for us,” said manager Eric Smith, Hance's father.
Gago proved the coaching staff right. He allowed one hit over the first five innings and never allowed Connecticut, which won its last game with a no-hitter, to get anything going.
“Gago threw a great game,” New England manager Bill Meury said. “He just kept getting stronger and stronger. He was even better in the fourth and fifth than he was in the second and third.”
Gago also scored Petaluma's first run, coming home on a Cole Tomei RBI single in the second.
Bradley Smith opened the third by reaching first following a wild pitch on a strikeout. He reached third on Austin Paretti's bunt single and both scored when Hance Smith whacked a homer deep over the center field wall, putting his team ahead, 4-0.
Gago’s impeccable night of pitching continued all the way into the fifth inning, longer than he or his coaches expected him to stay on the mound.
“We would have been happy with three good innings from Q,” Eric Smith said.
As a result of his frugal pitching, though, Gago's pitch count remained low and his coaches weren't forced to pull him from the game.
Little League rules require pitchers to rest for a certain number of days depending on how many pitches they threw in the previous game. After their victory, Gago's shoulder was iced, like Petaluma put the game on ice.
The crowd began shuffling out in the fifth inning, assuming the game was over. Gago also drove in a run with a line drive single into right field, stretching California’s lead to five.
Things looked bleak, but Connecticut would try one last time to mount a comeback.
Gago, who pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits and striking out seven, stranded five Connecticut runners in the first three innings before retiring the side in order in the fourth and fifth.
Andrew White relieved Gago in the sixth after he reached the 85-pitch Little League limit, and forced Connecticut to ground into a double play to end the game.
The Petaluma family section burst into their now-familiar victory cheers as their boys still have a shot at becoming Little League World Champions.
The duo of Smith and Gago spoke to ESPN after the game.
“It was just outstanding,” said Smith of Gago’s outing. “I think that’s the best he’s ever pitched.”
Gago said he knew Smith was going to do something special with two runners in scoring position in the third inning.
“He’s kind of been struggling a little bit and kind of broke that tonight,” Gago told the ESPN reporter. “And I thank him very much because he helped me with that. I calmed down once I had four-run run lead or three-run lead. I don’t even remember what it was. Thank you very much, Hance.”
Smith said he felt the home run ended his recent struggles.
“To come out and hit that home run felt good,” Smith told ESPN.
The California team gets a much-needed day off from action and play Thursday against the loser of Wednesday's game between the Southeast (which beat Petaluma, 9-6) and the Southwest.
Manager Eric Smith said that the team didn't have plans for the off-day. His players looked to him as if he was forgetting something. Seeing their expressions, he remembered what it was: “I did mention that we might go to Dairy Queen.”
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