ONTARIO — Amid the jubilation, Art Martinez struggled to find the words.
The president of Lemon Grove Little League had just watched his Senior Division baseball team clinch the league’s first-ever trip to a Little League World Series, and he was holding back tears.
“All the hard work … this is what we get,” Martinez said as he looked at players and family members celebrating their 6-0 victory over Hilo, Hawaii on Tuesday night at Ontario’s Jay Littleton Ballpark. “This is the payback we get for all the hard work.”
For a while Tuesday, that payoff was far from a sure thing. The two teams were locked in a pitcher’s duel for the first four and a half innings.
But in the bottom of the fifth, Lemon Grove got a break – and took advantage of it.
Alex Estrada led off the inning and bounced the ball to third. But the throw to first sailed over the first baseman’s head out of play, putting Estrada on second base.
Frankie Nunez followed and failed on two bunt attempts. But with two strikes, he looped a single into left field, advancing Estrada. Derrick Clark followed by grounding the ball into the hole between shortstop and third, scoring Estrada, with Clark safe at second on an errant throw, which chased Hilo starter Kihei Serrao.
Brandon Weed welcomed reliever Alika Guillermo with a bunt. But a throw to third was high and wide, loading the bases. Dominic Sawyer squeezed home Nunez, and Brad Moreno grounded out, scoring Clark.
With two out, Esteban Lieras walked and stole second, setting up designated hitter Ray Peterson’s two-out double to make it 5-0. Pitcher Deandre Simpson followed with an insurance single to close out the scoring – and the game.
Because on the mound, Simpson was cruising. He allowed four hits, struck out five and walked one for the complete game victory.
But getting the six-run lead helped him relax a little more in the final two innings.
“A lot of pressure was gone after that,” Simpson said. “I was like let’s just put the fastball and let them hit it and get themselves out, instead of just pitching around them.”
And for his father, manager Andre Simpson, the fastball was key for him Tuesday night.
“His fastball, he was hitting his spots,” he said. “He was in a zone today. I knew after the first inning, I was like ‘He’s in a zone.’ ”
With the win, the team is off to the Senior League World Series in Bangor, Maine. The team will have opening ceremonies Saturday, with their first game Sunday against South Beaches/Greater West Melbourne Little League of Brevard County, Fla.
Other teams in their pool at the tournament will be West University Little League of Houston, Texas; Bayside Westhaven Little League of Auckland, New Zealand; and Emilia Little League of Emilia, Italy.
With the quick turnaround, parents and officials were scrambling on the field in Ontario, trying to plan ways to get back East to root on their team. The league has been raising funds, and has an account at Wells Fargo for donations, according to league board member David Doane. There is also a fundraising event set for Wednesday night at the Comedy Palace.
But as family and friends took pictures on the field and celebrated Tuesday’s win, there was acknowledgement that winning the West Region is not the final goal for this team.
“I want that sixth flag. That’s what we want, that sixth flag,” Andre Simpson said.