By Jeff Keeling
Little League parents and fans witnessed an instant classic at Lions Field Thursday night as the Bucs clinched first place with an extra-inning, 7-5 thriller over the second-place Express. The game went three extra frames.
The Bucs produced a two-out rally in the top of the ninth, and Bucs’ reliever Jose Chavez got out of a one-out jam with runners on second and third in the bottom of the inning, striking out the first and second runners in the Express order to seal the win.
The Bucs, managed by Mike White, entered the game 14-3, while the Express, under Daniel McKenzie, stood at 14-4. The Bucs plated two unearned runs in the top half of the first against Express starter Camden Oakley. The Express followed with a two-run first themselves, with only one of those runs being charged to Bucs starter Daniel Pogue.
“There were a lot of great defensive plays, but the reasons some of the runs scored is that there were also a lot of errors,” White told News and Neighbor.
Oakley and the Express defense settled in after the first, and the team’s offense tacked on runs in the third and fourth. The Bucs hadn’t mustered much offense when third baseman Avery Stewart, who was four of five on the night, singled with one out in the top of the sixth. Jackson White followed with a single that put the tying run on base. The runners advanced to second and third on a passed ball.
With Oakley still pitching and needing two outs to get the complete-game win, number eight batter Nolan Blevins came up. After quickly getting behind in the count, the 10-year-old ripped a base hit between shortstop and third base, driving in Stewart and White to tie the game. Pogue then helped his cause by driving in Blevins, and returned to the mound with a 5-4 lead and a chance to close it out in the bottom of the sixth.
Instead, Pogue allowed a runner and was replaced by Jose Chavez, whose pitching work had been limited most of the season due to an arm injury. Parker Trippeer, the Express runner Chavez inherited, scored on an error to force extra innings.
From there, both pitchers dueled, with Chavez escaping a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the top of the seventh. Relying at times on what White called a “sidearm slurve,” Chavez finished four innings of work with nine strikeouts and no earned runs. “That was the most impressive four innings I’ve ever seen from him,” White said of the 12-year-old.
In the top of the ninth, Oakley’s replacement, Parker Trippeer, picked up where he had left off in his duel against Chavez, retiring the first two Bucs. After a Baylor Brock walk, Stewart picked up his fourth hit, a single, but when White hit a slow roller down the first base line, it looked like inning over as Trippeer came up to field it and apply the tag to White.
Instead, Trippeer bobbled the ball, then rushed a throw to first. Stewart and White scored on the play.
Chavez struck out the first batter he faced in the ninth before allowing a walk, which was followed by a Devin Edwards bunt that Stewart misfired his throw on. That left two runners in scoring position and the winning run at the plate in the form of Express leadoff batter Trippeer, with Jayce Birchfield following.
“It was a tough call as to how we would approach that, but we decided to go strength versus strength,” White said.
The gambit paid off, with Chavez striking Trippeer out on three straight breaking balls. After a first pitch strike on another “slurve,” Birchfield stepped up to the front of the batter’s box to try and catch the ball before it broke too much, only to have Chavez blow a fastball by him. After a ball made the count 1-2, Chavez got Birchfield to bite on one last curve, and the game was in the books.
“It was everything Little League’s supposed to be about,” White said. “The kids were hugging each other after the game and exhibiting great sportsmanship even though one team went home disappointed.”
The Bucs finished their regular season 17-3, while Express lost a battle for second place to Lakebridge Tuesday night. The city tournament, featuring the American, National and Major leagues, begins June 13.