Relief pitchers a plus for California

New England champ Westport, Conn., player Matt Brown sent shock waves through Lamade Stadium Wednesday when he crushed a three-run home run off seemingly invincible West Region champ Chula Vista, Calif., pitcher Grant Holman.

Holman, a 6-foot-4-inch fireballer, opened the Series by throwing 10 1/3 no-hit innings and striking out 24. Brown finally delivered the breakthrough hit and when California manager Rick Tibbett pulled Holman following the home run, many thought Westport, Conn., might unload.

Instead the New England champions discovered that California is more than just a one-man pitching show. Three relievers combined to throw 5 1/3 shutout innings while revealing how deep the team’s pitching really is.

“They were fabulous. That’s what they do,” Tibbett said. “We knew we had solid pitchers coming in and that they could take care of business.”

They did.

Giancarlo Cortez, Ricky Tibbett and Rennard Williams were brilliant in relief, allowing just three hits and striking out seven as California rallied for a dramatic 6-3, 9-inning win. The victory vaulted California into Saturday’s U.S. championship.

Had it not been for that trio of relievers, California would have had to play Thursday to try and earn a spot in the national championship. The West champ scored two sixth-inning runs to force extra innings, then went ahead in the ninth on Holman’s three-run home run.

Had just one of those relievers allowed a run the late-game heroics never could have happened.

“They used four pitchers and they were all solid,” Connecticut manager Tim Rogers said.

Holman is the team’s undisputed ace, but the rest of the staff has been outstanding throughout the summer and especially at the Series.

Jake Espinoza pitched a strong game against Delaware and the bullpen has surrendered just one run in three games. Holman has earned his share of headlines but without its other pitchers California would not be playing here, sitting two wins from capturing a world championship.

Pitchers like Tibbett, Cortez and Williams were starters throughout their Little League regular season. Now they are proving effective in a different role. They are part of a staff that has shut out eight all-star opponents and held 12 of 22 to two runs or fewer.

“They are starters regularly, but they’ve learned to have that role,” coach Tibbett said. “They have done well with it.”

That was most evident after New England took that 3-1 fourth-inning lead and seemingly grabbed control of the winner’s bracket final.

Following Brown’s home run, Connecticut loaded the bases with two outs and appeared poised to break open the game. Instead, Cortez delivered big, recording an inning-ending strikeout.

New England only advanced one runner past first base the rest of the night.

Tibbett entered to start the fifth and was dominant, throwing 2 2/3 hitless innings while striking out five. His clutch relief pitching gave California a chance to make its sixth-inning rally.

“I was nervous,” Tibbett said. “I just didn’t want to let up a run.”

“We knew we had other guys ready,” coach Tibbett said about being confident after pulling Holman.

Williams was one of those players, and also one of the game’s most valuable players. The right-hander entered in a tough spot, with runners on and first and second and two outs. He was facing Chad Knight, Connecticut’s best hitter.

Inside, Williams’ heart was racing. On the outside, he remained calm and shined in a big moment, inducing Knight into hitting a pop-out down the third-base line. Williams closed out the game and earned the win, striking out one and allowing a hit in 2 1/3 innings.

“I was nervous because I didn’t want to let the team down,” Williams said. “I wanted to get that win and it felt good to get a win.”

California has won a lot this summer. Those relievers are a big reason why.

Their roles have changed, but the team’s results have not.