Menlo-Atherton doesn't have a lot of time to think about its new role as tournament darlings. There's another game to play and M-A has been playing a lot of them lately.
Picking Menlo-Atherton to win the District 52 Little League Majors All-Star Tournament would have placed one in the minority. But after stunning San Mateo American, 4-1, in an elimination game at La Entrada Field on Friday, the Menlo Atherton stars are just one of four teams remaining in the 17-team field.
"Nobody was thinking about us," Menlo Atherton manager Rod MacLeod said. "We're a scrappy team."
MA meets Hillsborough, which earned an 11-10 win over San Mateo National, at Ford Field in Portola Valley on Saturday at 10 a.m. The winner plays Pacifica American on Sunday with a berth in Monday's title game at stake. Unbeaten Belmont-Redwood Shores holds the hammer.
MacLeod is hoping ace Nate Baxter will get to pitch, at least, one more time. Baxter was superb against SM American, fanning 10 hitters in five innings, striking out the side in the fourth and fifth innings.
Baxter, son of former minor league pitcher Bob Baxter, a Harvard grad, left two runners stranded when he recorded his final strikeout to end the fifth. Baxter was pulled after reaching the 85-pitch limit, a tournament rule.
MacLeod did not use Baxter in the opener against San Mateo National, a 13-0 loss. Baxter, instead, went the distance in a 13-7 win over Half Moon Bay on July 4th.
"For us to keep winning, we would have had to play four straight games," said MacLeod as to why he held back Baxter against SM National. "We didn't want to burn Nate."
Baxter had a no-hitter through 3 1/3 innings before Wyatt King lined a solo homer over the left-center field fence on an 0-2 fastball. Baxter walked the next hitter, then allowed a single before striking out the next two hitters to end the threat. SM American had just three hits in the game.
"SM American is a great hitting team, very disciplined," MacLeod said. "Nate has a great velocity on his fastball. He locates well and has a fantastic curveball."
"In the early innings, I had a lot of control with my curveball," Baxter said. "Against the better hitters, I was able to spot the curveball where I wanted. In the later innings, the fastball helped me."
MA had something brewing in the first inning when Jack Giesler and Matt MacLeod singled with no out. With one out, Baxter singled to the right of King in center field. Giesler rounded third and headed to the plate, but was thrown out on a tremendous one-hop throw by King with catcher Jace Clayton making the quick tag on Giesler.
SM American got more defense when first baseman Dominic Gonzalez made a sweet, over-the-shoulder catch of a pop-up in foul territory off the bat of Ramsey VanDermeer to start the bottom of the second inning.
Rory Ferrick lined a single to center, then Braden Fitzgerald went the opposite way with a single to right. John Quinlan got behind in the count, but worked a walk to load the bases. Giesler hit a hard grounder that went under the glove of the SM American third baseman, bringing home Ferrick and Fitzgerald.
Another error contributed to two insurance runs in the fourth inning. Giesler swung and missed in what should have been the third out, but the ball hit the dirt, meaning Giesler can hustle to first base. The throw to first went awry and Giesler was safe. MacLeod proceeded to drill a two-run homer to left-center, his second home run of the tournament.
JJ Jones worked a 1-2-3 sixth inning to record the save, but it took a dazzling stop by MacLeod at second to make that come to fruition. MacLeod threw the runner out at first for the first out of the inning.
Baxter did a lot of the heavy-lifting in the best win of the tournament for MA, but he credits timely hitting for the impressive run.
"We're doing a good job hitting," Baxter said. "We've had good hitting previous years, but we've stepped up our game."