Mateo more than just a big 12-year-old; he’s talented

Jairo Labrador once played and now coaches football. He is a big man, a former lineman who sometimes can dwarf his players.

But even he is looking up at Yadi Mateo.

The hard-throwing, sweet-swinging Elizabeth, New Jersey pitcher/infielder stands out on the field and above everyone he competes against at the Little League World Series. Mateo is 5-foot-11, 231 pounds, but he is so much more than just a big 12-year old.

He is an outstanding player who just happens to be one of the tallest to ever play at the Series. Mateo has provided stellar hitting, pitching and fielding all summer and entered Tuesday’s elimination game against Rhode Island 1-0 on the mound with a .500 average at the Series.

“Yadi has done that all year for us,” Labrador said after Mateo threw 4 2/3 strong innings against Oregon. “He’s just a dominant force. We’re joking around and saying he’s like a Greek God that walks around here because he’s so big. He’s very mythical.”

Mateo tried living that part against Oregon when he hit two deep flyballs that sounded and looked like sure home runs coming off his bat. But a stiff wind was blowing in that night and knocked both balls down, resulting in long flyouts to the warning track.

Those close calls could have demoralized Mateo, but kept grinding on the mound and struck out six. He also hit a single and scored a run against Hawaii. Mateo made one of the game’s best plays in that 6-0 loss when he stopped a hard-hit smash and stretched out his entire frame to make a hustling tag that ended the second inning.

“If those balls are hit at Volunteer (Stadium) they’re both gone because the wind was blowing in their face. He pounded those baseballs. Those were two of the hardest balls he’s hit,” Labrador said. “I told them it would have been hard for Barry Bonds with the ratio (of field sizes), with the wind blowing in your face like that to hit a ball out of a park like that. He’s a 12-year old boy and who doesn’t want to hit a home run? I know I would want to. I never got to hit home runs like Yadi.”

But while Mateo looks the part of the power-hitting destroyer, he can do plenty of damage without blasting baseballs over the fence. Mateo hit .500 in six games at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament, helping Elizabeth win four straight elimination games to reach its first Series. He did not homer, but belted five doubles, drove in nine runs and scored three times while hitting safely in five of six games.

Mateo, who pitches, plays first base and third base, did not make an error in those six games and also went 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA, striking out 14 in 10 innings. Whatever Elizabeth has needed, Mateo has been able to provide at crucial times, helping fuel this historic run.

“He’s a big player and people see his size, but his talent is ever better,” Elmora Youth Little League President Manny Medina said. “His talent is big.”

Mateo is a big man who can do it all on the baseball field. He also features some electric dance moves. Mateo sometimes will do what some have dubbed, “The Jersey Shake,” after delivering a big hit or scoring a run or being moved around the bases.

This is a big player, but he is just a kid. He is playing the game he loves and having fun as are his teammates. The crowd feeds off that energy and has been the most boisterous at the Series. That is exactly the way Mateo likes it, too.

Although he is having fun, Mateo also is a thinking-man’s player and there is a method to his dancing.

“I only dance because the crowd is not pumped up so I try to get them pumped up. We do better with more fans,” Mateo said. “If the fans are quiet the only way we can start them up is with a hit or chanting. They stayed with us the whole game (against Oregon).”

Fans also often chant, “Yadi, Yadi!” when he bats or is pitching. Between receiving that Major League-like treatment, being so physically imposing and playing so well, Mateo has remained the same grounded person the Elmora Youth Little League has known over the years.

He is a lot bigger than his teammates, but Mateo is just one of the guys. He is a normal 12-year old experiencing the thrill of a youth’s lifetime and playing the game he loves with the people he loves.

Success is not changing Mateo.

Forget his size and his talent. It is Mateo’s heart that those around the league, Elizabeth and New Jersey like the most.

“He’s a kid inside a man’s body, but he’s a really talented player that cares about each and every player on his team and his opponents as well,” Medina said. “He really cares and loves this game tremendously. We’re proud to have him in our league.”


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