The St. Helena Little League Junior All-Stars got closer to playing their high-caliber brand of baseball with each new inning Saturday, but the 13- and 14-year-old District 53 champions didn’t get there until it was too late.
District 35 champion Rincon Valley scored the game’s first five runs before holding on for a 6-4 victory in the second round of the Section 1 Tournament at Recreation Park in Healdsburg.
The Upvalley standouts needed to win losers-bracket games on Sunday and Monday to earn a rematch with Rincon Valley in Tuesday's championship game, and to beat Rincon Valley to force a second title game on Wednesday.
St. Helena, the District 53 champion, stayed alive on Sunday night by downing District 3 champion West Marin for the second time in the double-elimination tournament, 6-2. But it couldn't get past District 64 champion Vacaville National in Monday's losers-bracket final, falling 12-9 to finish 2-2 for the tournament.
Rincon Valley faced Vacaville National for the title Tuesday, and possibly Wednesday, for a chance to advance to the July 24-31 state tournament in Healdsburg.
Despite getting only two runners on base in the first four innings on Saturday, St. Helena ended up with a great opportunity to win the game in the bottom of the seventh.
Sam Beck, with his team trailing 6-2 after getting on the board with a two-run double by Joaquin Villegas in the fifth and giving up another run in the sixth, opened the seventh with a full-count walk, stole second base and scored on another Villegas double.
After Henry Ray was hit by a pitch, back-to-back strikeouts had St. Helena on the ropes. But Adam Herdell singled on a 2-2 pitch to drive in Villegas. Charlie Blaum kept the rally going with a four-pitch walk, before Xander Kelperis, hoping for a winning three-run homer, flied out to center field to end the game.
St. Helena starter Elias Kelly pitched the first four innings, allowing five runs on seven hits and five walks with no strikeouts. Villegas pitched the remaining three frames, yielding one run on four hits and no walks or strikeouts.
“What a team effort,” St. Helena manager Paul Villegas said. “I can’t say enough about Elias and Joaquin’s pitching. We were right in there. If the ball drops either way, it goes our way, but that’s baseball. That’s what I love about the game; I think it’s the greatest game in the world. Hopefully these younger kids come out and watch and maybe they get inspired.
St. Helena was retired in order in the first inning, striking out twice. It got a base runner in the second on a Ray walk, but two more strikeouts stranded him. In the third, Blaum led off with St. Helena’s first hit, Kelperis walked and, after a strikeout, Beck reached on an error to load the bases. But Blaum was thrown out at the plate and Kelperis was caught trying to steal third.
With the momentum solidly on Rincon Valley’s side, St. Helena used a huge defensive play of its own to get back in the game in the top of the fifth —a 5-4-3 double play turned by second baseman Blaum from third baseman Thomas Heil to first baseman Villegas.
Against West Marin on Sunday night, Heil, Kelperis and Spencer Nelson needed only 77 pitches to combine on a five-hitter with four strikeouts, three walks and one earned run between them. It's the same pitching rotation St. Helena used to beat West Marin on Thursday.
In a tight game that featured great pitching and defense on both sides, Villegas (2 for 4, two RBIs, run scored) broke a 1-1 tie with a two-out RBI single in the third inning that drove in Beck. Heil (1 for 5, RBI) doubled home Dean Sommer, who had walked, to make it 3-1 in the fourth.
St. Helena gave itself some cushion in the sixth, when Blaum led off with a walk. Two outs later, Beck (2 for 5, two runs scored) singled and Villegas singled home Blaum. After Beck scored on a balk, another two-out RBI single by Henry Ray (1 for 3) plated Villegas.
Kelperis (1 for 2, two walks, run scored) and Nelson (1 for 3) also had hits, Adam Herdell had an RBI, Sommer drew two walks, and Connor Cleland drew one walk.
“I really have to say for myself and everybody in St. Helena Little League baseball that if it wasn’t for our president, Jeff Blaum, this wouldn’t be possible,” Coach Villegas added. “What we’re doing right now is an incredible run and it’s all thanks to him. He was having us come out and play baseball and just keep playing baseball.”
The 13- and 14-year-old St. Helena Little League Junior All-Stars became the first team from their town to win a game at the sectional level — with a 7-5 win over the District 3 champion from Marin County on Thursday at Healdsburg Recreation Park.