Two California players carry big sticks

Micah Pietila-Wiggs and Jake Espinoza have long-flowing hair that makes them look more like typical California surfers than Little League Baseball all-stars.

But they and their teammates from West Regional champ Chula Vista, Calif., are not the laid-back San Diego type. These players pack a punch.

A big one.

Pietila-Wiggs and Espinoza were two of four players who homered Sunday at Volunteer Stadium when California routed Mid-Atlantic titlist Newark, Del., 15-3, in four innings. The win not only revealed the team’s hitting prowess but also earned it a spot in Wednesday’s U.S. winner’s bracket final against Westport, Conn.

“The California kids are very impressive. They smoked us,” Delaware manager John Ludman said. “They hit the ball very hard.”

California had piled up the runs throughout its run to the Little League World Series before being stymied through six innings of its opener by Grosse Point, Mich., ace Chad Lorkowski. The West champions, though, scored three runs in the seventh to win 3-0 and have not stopped hitting since.

California has scored 18 runs and delivered 14 hits in its last five at-bats. Things are returning to normal after that slow start.

“That’s what we do,” California manager Rick Tibbett said. “Our bats are what brought us here.”

The pitching and defense have been outstanding, too, but Tibbett is right. California enters Wednesday’s game 18-1 and is averaging close to 12 runs per game this summer.

The fewest runs California averaged in district, section, state and regional tournament action was 11. Along the road to the Series, California has made some of its games look more like a slow-pitch softball league than baseball.

Everyone can hit and everyone has. Reserve Michael Gaines drove home that point Sunday, going 2 for 2 off the bench with a long home run, three RBIs and two runs.

“Our players one through 12 can come out and hit every single game,” Tibbett said. “Every game someone comes through. We don’t have any weak spots all the way through the lineup.”

That makes it easy to stay calm when things seem tense. Delaware built a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning but almost as soon as it did, California erased it. Pietila-Wiggs led off the bottom of the first with a single and Espinoza tied it a batter later, homering to left field. The rout was on from there.

“I had two strikes on me and I knew I had to protect the plate,” Espinoza said. “I just wanted to put the ball in play.”

“Two runs is not going to keep us down,” Tibbett said. “It didn’t bother us. We knew we were going to hit.”

Even when teams appear to be keeping California hitters down, things can immediately change. Grant Holman had struck out his first three times up Sunday. He then ended the game with a charge, slamming a long, walk-off grand-slam homer way over the center field fence.

Opponents can keep this team down for a while, but the hitters almost always turn it around.

“Coming off my last three at-bats I had weren’t so good and I just wanted to get a base hit,” Holman said. “I wanted to get those two runs in and win the game. It felt good.”

The entire California team is feeling good these days. It has a shot at becoming the second world champion from Chula Vista since 2009. Through it all, players such as Pietila-Wiggs and Espinoza remain soft spoken.

But they carry big sticks.