SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Powerful Petaluma, Calif., can pitch, too.
Hance Smith’s three-run homer in the third broke open a tight game, and reliever-turned-starter Quinton Gago struck out seven over 5 1-3 innings in a 5-0 win Tuesday night over Fairfield, Conn., in the Little League World Series.
California moves on to the U.S. semifinals on Thursday night. Connecticut was eliminated.
The 12-year-old Gago said it was the best performance of his young career, even though he was a little nervous when the night started.
“In the back of my mind, I said ‘I am not a starter,’” Gago said as he held on to an ice pack strapped to his left shoulder. “But right as I took the mound, I felt it went away.”
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico also is moving on after a 6-2 victory over Willemstad, Curacao, and Lugazi, Uganda made the biggest splash Tuesday with a win in its tournament finale.
The first team from Africa to qualify for youth baseball’s biggest tournament notched another first with a 3-2 victory over Gresham, Ore. in a consolation game. Uganda dropped its first two games in the series.
In the nightcap, Gago stifled Connecticut.
Fairfield’s best chance came in the second when Michael Ghiorzi led off with a single, and an error made it runners on first and second with nobody out.
But third baseman Cole Tomei charged a bunt and started a 5-6-4 double play, and Gago got a strikeout to end the threat.
“That was completely awesome,” Gago said about the double play. “That double play really helped me out a lot. I really liked that.”
Ryan Meury led off the Connecticut sixth with a double, and Gago left after a groundout because he had reached his pitch limit. He got a hug from a teammate before heading to the dugout.
Reliever Andrew White closed it out, and the teams exchanged handshakes at the plate before the California kids returned calmly to their dugout while a marching band played in the stands.
After his team won elimination games in three consecutive days, manager Eric Smith said he planned to give his boys Wednesday off. But White quickly reminded him of one trip he promised they could make.
“What about Dairy Queen?” the 12-year-old White asked.
“Oh yeah,” Smith said, “I did tell them they could go to Dairy Queen.”
Connecticut plans to stick around Williamsport for a little while so the players can finally enjoy some time with their families after three weeks of tournament play. Manage Bill Meury gathered a Fairfield all-star team that’s played together for three summers for one final meeting in left field.
“You guys are like brothers. The (coaches) love you guys, and we’ve had a great three years together,” Meury said in recounting the meeting. “You should walk off this field with your head held high because you gave Fairfield one of the best summers they’ve had in a little while.”
Earlier Tuesday, 11-year-old Ronald Olaa put Uganda in front when scored from second on a throwing error in the bottom of the fifth.
Manager Henry Odong said he urged his team to just make contact because hitting had been a challenge in South Williamsport.
Uganda plans to play more exhibition games this week, but the players already have become Little League stars. They are being hounded by young autograph-seekers, and Odong was stopped several times by fans for pictures while going to his seat in the stands to watch California’s victory.
“I’m thankful we could come here,” Odong said. “This win was so great.”
Mexico also was feeling pretty good after clinching a spot in Thursday night’s international semifinals. Ramon Ballina hit a three-run drive for his third homer of the tournament.
The World Series success is hardly a surprise for the 13-year-old pitcher.
“I hit the ball better in our national tournament, actually,” Ballina said through an interpreter.
Mexico played without manager Fernando Rios, who was suspended for two games after a player on his roster did not bat during a 4-3 victory over Taiwan on Monday night.
Coach Cesar Mata took over for Rios.
“I was worried when I get up this morning,” Mata said. “We got the kids together and had a long talk in the dorms. They listened and they were very relaxed. I didn’t worry about it after that.”