SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Hance Smith’s eyes widened in the dugout as he watched Quinton Gago send a homer well over the left-field fence.
The boys from Petaluma, Calif., are packing quite the punch from the plate at the Little League World Series.
Smith hit two homers, including a first-inning grand slam, and California pounded out 12 hits in an 11-1, five-inning victory over San Antonio on Thursday night to reach the U.S championship game.
California will play Goodlettsville, Tenn., on Saturday.
Smith, 13, is trying to remember to keep his hands out in front of his body before every at-bat.
“With that thought in mind, I keep going to the plate,” the power-hitting shortstop said. “It’s been working out so far.”
Smith finished 3 for 3 with five RBIs, and Gago had two hits and two RBIs.
Starter Danny Marzo, already a California hero for hitting a game-ending homer this week, came up big on the mound with 11 strikeouts in five innings.
He was gracious on the mound, too, after Texas’ Jordan Cardenas went deep in the third. The 12-year-old Marzo greeted Cardenas with a high-five with his glove hand as Cardenas jogged down the third-base line.
Earlier, Aguadulce, Panama, edged Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, 2-1 to advance to the international final against Japan.
California didn’t have quite as difficult a time against Texas, the game ending in the bottom of the fifth due to Little League’s 10-run rule.
“Runs early help,” said California manager Eric Smith, Hance’s proud father. “It gives confidence to our pitcher and just makes everything a little easier.”
The Petaluma boys managed just two hits off Texas pitching in the decisive six-run first — but both balls landed over the outfield fence.
California loaded the bases on three walks. A wild pitch brought home the first run, and the bases were loaded again after Austin Paretti reached first on a dropped third strike.
Smith then hit a 2-2 pitch that just cleared the wall in left-center 225 feet away.
“Petaluma! Petaluma!” shouted California’s fans.
Two pitches later, Quinton Gago went deep, too, and left no doubt about his shot. It easily cleared the wall in left and landed amongst fans perched on the grassy hill beyond the outfield.
It was such an impressive shot that even Smith stopped to admire the blast from the dugout as the ball carried under the night sky.
But Smith wasn’t done himself.
Another homer to left in the third earned the 13-year-old slugger another set of pats on the helmet from happy teammates who greeted him at the plate.
And to think, Smith has been borrowing teammate Andrew White’s bat.
He may not ever give it back the way he’s hitting.
Marzo allowed just two hits and a walk, and retired the last seven batters he faced.
California has a chance to avenge its only loss in South Williamsport — a 9-6 defeat to the Tennessee crew from Goodlettsville on Sunday. Texas was eliminated.
Texas manager Jack Wideman Jr. gathered his players in a circle in left field after the game for one final team meeting as the players’ families and friends waited in the stands.
“We ran up against a great team ... One through 12, every one of them can put the ball in play,” Wideman said. They were just smashing the ball.”
In the early game, 12-year-old Edisson Gonzalez had 11 strikeouts and James Gonzalez provided the offense with a two-run homer in the first to lift Panama.
The victory sets up another rematch in the international final. Tokyo beat Panama 4-1 on Wednesday night.
Mexico starter Ramon Ballina struck out 12, but allowed James Gonzalez’s big blast.
Panama manager Luis Gonzalez is also a proud uncle after his 12-year-old nephew hit the homer.
“It was a difficult game, but our pitcher did his job,” Luis Gonzalez said through a translator. “One pitch decided the game.”
Mexico scored in the fifth on Marcelo Perez’s RBI single, and had the tying run at second with two outs in the sixth.
But Edisson Gonzalez got a strikeout to end the game.
“I was not nervous in the beginning of the game,” he said, “but in the last inning when the first batter got on, I got nervous. (James’) home run helped because I’m not having a good tournament at the plate and we needed it to win the game.”
After the teams exchanged handshakes at the plate, Edisson Gonzalez joined several teammates to exchange high-fives one more time with Mexico’s disappointed players. He tapped counterpart Ballina, 13, on the shoulder, as the Mexico starter walked back to his dugout to offer kind words and an embrace.
Looking as cool and confident as a big-league ace, Edisson Gonzalez consistently worked ahead of the count and didn’t allow a runner to get past first until Eduardo Abrego doubled to left in the fifth.
“Yes we can! Yes we can,” Mexico’s vocal fans yelled in Spanish in trying to urge a comeback.
Perez followed with his solid RBI single to center, but Gonzalez got two strikeouts to end that inning.
Renowned earlier in the tournament for their power, Mexico hitters struggled at the plate until the final innings. The loss eliminated Mexico.
After beating Curacao on Tuesday, Mexico lost its second game without manager Fernando Rios, who was suspended two games after failing to have all his players take a turn at bat in a 4-3 win earlier this week over Taiwan.
Mexico’s acting manager elected not to speak with reporters after the game.