So much for fighting through the loser's bracket depleting its pitching staff. So much for Quinton Gago being a relief specialist.
Perception entering Tuesday's U.S. elimination game at Lamade Stadium is that West titlist Petaluma, Calif., might be in trouble after losing on Sunday and going eight innings Monday.
Perception was not reality.
Gago looked every part the ace, throwing 5 1-3 innings of brilliant two-hit, shutout baseball as his team defeated New England champ Fairfield, Conn., 5-0.
Hance Smith hit a big three-run, fourth-inning home run for the West champions, who are one of three U.S. teams remaining and who will play the loser of tonight's Texas (Southwest)-Tennessee (Southeast) game Thursday for a spot in the national championship.
"I was surprised (to start) because I'm usually not a starter. I usually come in for relief," Gago said. "I was excited and nervous at the same time because in the back of my mind I kept thinking, 'I'm not a starter, I'm not a starter,' but as I got on the mound I felt better and kept rolling."
One night after Connecticut's Will Lucas threw a no-hitter, Gago did his best to duplicate it. The left-hander allowed only a second-inning single to Michael Ghiorzi before Ryan Meury doubled to lead off the sixth. Gago struck out seven and retired Biagio Paoletta for his final out while reaching the 85-pitch count limit. California fans stood and gave him a deserved ovation as he left the mound.
"We didn't game plan for him to go 85. We were hoping for three innings," California manager Eric Smith said. "We thought if we could get three and close with Alex (White) we'd be fine."
Gago appeared locked-in after getting out of a first-inning jam and struck out three of five batters at one point while retiring 11 straight hitters between the second and fifth innings.
Good luck trying to convince Connecticut that Gago is not a staff ace.
"He threw a great game. To hold off an offense like ours is not easy so give him all the credit," Connecticut manager Bill Meury said. "It was all about the pitcher from California tonight. He just kept grinding away. It was his night."
White closed out Connecticut, inducing a game-ending double play to Smith at shortstop after Connecticut put runners on first and third with one out. Smith stepped on second after making the stop and made a strong throw to first for the final out, the second time California turned a big double play.
California scored the only run it needed when Cole Tomei brought home Gago on a second-inning fielder's choice after Gago reached on an error.
The big blow came an inning later. A day after hitting a big two-run single against New Jersey, Smith again delivered in the clutch. This time he crushed a three-run home run into the center field bushes way beyond the wall.
"I had been in a slump and that helps," Hance Smith said. "Home runs definitely help."
Gago helped his cause in the fifth inning, hitting a two-out RBI double down the right-field line. That scored White who ripped a one-out double two batters earlier. The way Gago was throwing at the time, the five-run lead might as well have been 50-0.
California backed Gago with superb defense. Tomei started a huge second-inning double play after Connecticut had runners on first and second with no outs. Charging inward, Tomei stopped a hard-rolling bunt, threw to third for the first out and watched Smith throw to first for the double play.
"Double plays are always big. They are innings stoppers," Eric Smith said. "It was a great play."
Three pitches later, Gago recorded his third strikeout and California had snuffed out Connecticut's best scoring chance through five innings.
"That was completely awesome," Gago said. "That helped me a lot."
Matt Kubel threw his second straight solid Series game after shutting out Midwest titlist Kearney, Neb., Saturday. Kubel allowed no earned runs against a team that has been scoring runs in bunches.
California defeated Connecticut for a second time at the Series after winning the first U.S. game, 6-4. The team captured three straight state championships at different levels and lost only four games in three years.
"I told them you guys are like brothers and you've had three great years together," New England manager Meury said. "They have to hold their heads high."