Two Fairfax County All-Star baseball teams gave it their best shot in a championship Little League game on Wednesday evening which, while being far from the best played game one would ever see, had all the intensity and will-to win that could be mustered by a group of 11-12 year olds.
At stake in the Majors’ division contest was a Virginia state crown and the right of the winner to advance to next week’s Southeastern Regional Tournament in Georgia.
The Reston Nationals versus Southwestern Youth Association (SYA) East All-Stars title game, which took place on the Steve Reavis Field at Freedom Park in Leesburg, was a high-scoring, back and forth tilt in which one huge half inning — a nine-run outburst by Reston — proved to be the difference in Reston’s 14-9 victory.
With the win, Reston Nationals, who earlier this postseason captured the District 4 Tournament championship to earn a state tournament seeding, moves on to the eight-team Southeastern Regionals set to take place in Warner Robins, Ga. from Aug. 5-12. Reston Nationals are scheduled to meet the South Carolina state champion on Friday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m.
Other state champions to be represented at regionals will come from Florida, West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
This marks the first time in 13 years that a Reston Little League team has won a state title, the last occurrence coming back in 1998 when the Reston-Herndon Americans did so. This summer’s Nationals reached the state championship game with wins over teams from Richlands (pool play game), West Moreland (pool play), Bridgewater (quarterfinals), and Poquoson (semifinals). In the title game, they went up against an SYA East team, made up of players from Centreville, which had captured the District 10 championship. Reston did lose one game at states, that coming to Loudoun South in their third pool play game.
“I told them before the [championship game with SYA East], ‘Don’t even consider this a state championship,’” said Reston Nationals Manager Jeff Grammes, who wanted his team to be settled going into a game of such magnitude. “I told them to just have a good time. Put it all in perspective and have the time of your life.”
SYA East, which won the 2010 state title before going 2-2 at the Southeastern Regionals, finished a remarkable 2011 All-Stars summer in which it went 8-2 overall. The team, under manager Jamie Brusick, defeated rival Chantilly for the District 10 tournament crown. At states, the squad went 2-1 in pool play before, in the single-elimination portion of the tournament, winning games over Loudoun South, 10-0, in the quarterfinals, and West Springfield American, 10-4, in the semifinals to reach the finals. SYA East, throughout the postseason, belted 32 home runs over its 10 games.
Brusick was manager of the SYA East team that won the state championship last year. Only two members of that team were a part of this year’s SYA East All Stars.
“I experienced the Southeast Regionals last year and I wanted our 10 players [who had not] to get that taste,” said Brusick, following his team’s title game loss to Reston. “We played way above my expectations [over the postseason], especially hitting wise.”
NERVES DID SHOW in Wednesday’s state finals, especially on the mound where pitchers from both teams, throughout the six inning, 2-1/2 hour affair combined for 15 walks, eight by SYA East pitchers and seven by Reston Nationals pitchers. Also, SYA East pitching accounted for two hit batters. Continuously, pitchers from both teams struggled to find a tight strike zone and worked deep in counts. As a result, batters waited the pitchers out and zeroed in on balls down the middle of the plate. The result was lots of base hits — 12 for Reston and 10 for SYA East — and base runners.
Runs were scored in every half inning with the exception of the top and bottom of the fifth inning. That inning saw SYA East leave two runners on base and Reston leave the bases loaded.
The Reston Nationals’ hero of the night was Brian Lawson, who earned the pitching win with 3-2/3 innings of relief in which he allowed three runs (one earned) and four hits while striking out six and walking five.
But his most dramatic effect on the ball game came at the plate where, during Reston Nationals’ nine-run bottom of the second inning which saw them overcome a 5-1 deficit and surge ahead 10-5, the right-handed slugger, who had been slumping throughout the playoffs, connected on two home runs. Thirteen Reston players batted in the game-defining inning.
Lawson, batting from the No. 8 position in the line-up, got his team within 5-3 in his first at-bat of the second inning when he sent a high fly ball over the left center field fence for his first home run of the inning.
“Before the game my dad had me hitting in the batting cage and cranked it up to 70 miles per hour,” said Lawson. “That at-bat [in the game] I just relaxed and hit it over the fence. I had been in a slump with no [playoff] homers and few hits.”
By the time Lawson’s turn to bat came around again in the second inning, Reston was ahead 6-5 and had the bases loaded. This time, Lawson smacked a fly ball down the right field line and over the fence for an opposite field grand slam, giving his team a 10-5 lead it would never lose.
Lawson said he went to the plate that second time in the inning determined not to be overconfident by the home run he had hit earlier in the stanza.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to stay relaxed and not get cocky and strikeout,’” he recalled. “I told myself I was going to swing and that’s what happened. I knew the ball was going to be fair, but not so much [that it would clear the fence]. I just threw my hands out to hit the ball.”
SYA EAST kept battling hard, scoring a run in the third and two in the fourth to get within 11-8. But Reston, which had scored a single run in the bottom of the third on an RBI double by Will Rippey, tallied three runs in the fourth to extend its lead to 14-8. SYA East looked as if it would get out of that fourth inning down by just three runs. But with two outs and two runners aboard, Reston catcher and No. 2 hitter Johnny Micka knocked a ball into deep right center field which hit off the fence for a two-run double. Brendan Grammes followed with a line drive RBI single into left center field.
SYA threatened in both the fifth and sixth innings, but plated just one six-inning run to account for the final 14-9 score.
The game ended when Reston Nationals reliever Antonio Menendez forced a pop fly several feet behind third base which third bagger Max Kidd, after backing up, caught for the state title-clinching final out.
“I knew we would put runs on the board,” said Jeff Grammes, the Reston manager. “I thought the magic number [to win] would be 13.”
Manager Jeff Grammes was thrilled with his team’s showing. He was proud of Lawson’s game, not only for his prowess at the plate but also for his gutsy effort on the mound. Despite walking five, the right-hander kept SYA East at bay in his middle relief role.
“It was a very stressful situation and he handled himself with great composure and has done that throughout [the postseason] when he has pitched,” said Grammes.
SYA East hit two homers in the loss – back-to-back shots in the top of the second when the District 10 champs took a 5-1 lead. No. 9 batter and left-handed swinging Steven Kirk, who had homered in his team’s semifinals win over West Springfield American the night before, hit a towering solo shot over the right center field fence with one out. The next batter, leadoff man and left-handed hitter Tyler Gambone, also hit one out over the right center field fence.
While SYA East would score four more runs over the course of the game, it was not enough.
“After we took the 5-1 lead, from that point on we couldn’t recapture the momentum and were fighting up hill,” said Brusick, the SYA team’s manager. “We just couldn’t get out of that [nine-run Reston] third inning. To their credit, they got the big hits. It’s a tough loss.”