By Phil Barber
The Press Democrat
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Petaluma National on Thursday took the field for the 66th Little League World Series in front of ESPN cameras and a near-capacity crowd and against a team that had rolled through the New England regional undefeated.
But the Petaluma boys didn’t flinch.
Getting a dominant two-way performance from pitcher Bradley Smith and rebuffing the team from Fairfield, Conn., every time it closed the gap, Petaluma won 6-4 and advanced in the winners’ bracket.
Its next game will be 11 a.m. Sunday against Southeast champion Goodlettsville, Tenn.
“Once in a lifetime,” Petaluma first baseman Danny Marzo said. “Doesn’t get any better than this.”
For much of the game, the 13-year-old Smith carried Petaluma National on his big shoulders. He started and pitched four strong innings, giving up two runs (one earned) and striking out seven.
Then at the plate, Smith went four for four, knocking in Petaluma’s first three runs on a first-inning double and a third-inning home run.
“He mashed a couple curveballs, and we tip our cap to him,” Fairfield assistant coach T.J. Paoletta said. “… Ryan (Meury) has a fabulous curveball, and give the kid credit. He hit two curveballs right on the button today.”
Smith’s homer was a towering skyball on a 2-0 curve that hit the top of the wall in left-center field.
“I thought it was gonna get caught,” said his mother, Tina Stevens, who joined the sea of West-region yellow in the stands just up the third-base side from home plate. “I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord, that Bradley was not out there because he would have caught that.’ ”
Smith stands 6-foot-2.
The Connecticut team stayed in the hunt all game.
After Smith’s double put Petaluma up 1-0, Fairfield answered in the bottom of the first on a rocket of a home run by Biagio Paoletta, the assistant coach’s son. Smith’s homer in the third made it 3-1, but Fairfield got one of them back in the fourth on a delayed double steal that Petaluma didn’t execute well defensively.
Petaluma’s chances got a lot better when Smith’s teammates started helping him at the plate. His third hit, another double, also was the team’s third. But outfielder Austin Paretti followed with a single that scored two runs and made the score 5-2.
Even then, Fairfield wasn’t done, scoring two of its own on a double and a passed ball in the bottom of the fifth.
Petaluma got an insurance run in the top of the sixth on a single by Danny Marzo. Relief pitcher Andrew White finished off Fairfield in the bottom of the sixth, getting a double play that was started by shortstop Hance Smith and striking out Matt Clarkin for the final out.
White had a shaky, and scary, start on the mound.
Taking over for Smith in the fifth inning, his first pitch hit Meury in the face. The Fairfield player stayed down for several minutes. He was treated onsite and wound up getting two stitches in his lower lip.
White also gave up an RBI double to Will Lucas, then walked another batter. But he recovered to strike out two Fairfield players, ending the fifth.
The Petaluma pitchers, solid all afternoon, saved their best for tight spots. Fairfield got at least one man aboard each inning, but Smith and White ended every inning with a strikeout.
“I thought they came through really well in some clutch situations,” said Petaluma coach Eric Smith, Hance’s father.
“Strikeouts at the end of inning, one thing it does do is it kind of pumps the team up because you see that and then they come running in. … For me, I don’t necessarily ask them to strike guys out. I just want outs.”
Taking the field in fitted yellow uniforms after wearing red during their run through the West, the Petaluma boys looked loose and confident — and played like it.
Now, they get a couple of days off. Coach Smith said they’d probably visit the Little League Museum — right next to the compound in which all the players sleep and eat and looming above historic Howard J. Lamade Stadium — and watch some other games.
“Swimming,” Paretti chimed in as his coach was ticking off items.
Ahh, right, swimming. And Ping-Pong. These boys might be making a run at the national championship, but they’re entitled to act like 12-year-olds occasionally.
In other Little League World Series games Thursday:
Starting pitcher Brock Myers struck out eight and homered, and Goodlettsville, Tenn., beat Kearney, Neb., 12-1 on Thursday to spoil the debut of a Nebraska team at the Little League World Series.
Myers, a 12-year-old righty, kept the Midwest’s mini-mashers at bay with a fastball and off-speed pitch. He allowed one hit over 4« innings.
Myers added a two-run blast in the fifth, and Ryan Lyle also homered before Tennessee added seven runs in the sixth.
Tennesse next plays Petaluma National, an earlier winner over New England, on Sunday.
Zane Schmidt had a hit and RBI for Nebraska, which will play Saturday against Connecticut.
JAPAN 7, CURACAO 0
Kotaro Kiyomiya and Noriatsu Osaka combined for a two-hitter for Tokyo in the opening game of the Little League World Series. Kiyomiya didn’t allow a hit and struck out seven over 2-plus innings. Osaka finished on the mound in relief with seven strikeouts.
Japan took control early with three runs in each of the first two innings. Not bad for a team that hadn’t played since July 7.
TAIWAN 14, GERMANY 1, 4 INNINGS
Li-Wei Chiang homered and drove in four runs, and Feng Chen went 3 for 3 with three RBIs for the team from Taoyuan.
Kyle Glenn had Germany’s only hit, while Justin Wilson scored the team’s only run in the game that ended early because of Little League’s 10-run rule.
It hardly mattered to Wilson’s father, Marquis, who arrived in South Williamsport just in time to see his 12-year-old son play for the first time in two months. The elder Wilson, who serves in the military as a security forces trainer in Afghanistan, is on a 15-day leave.
Marquis Wilson said it was a little nerve-wracking watch Justin from the stands.
“It was hard, but he did his best and that’s all you can ask for,” the proud father said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.)
Associated Press contributed to this report.