The PenCities White Sox were 90 feet away from the Palomino League World Series.
But the mission of reaching the big dance in Laredo, Texas — the goal of this 18-and-under dream team since Day One — fell short of being realized, as the White Sox were overcome 10-7 in extra innings by host MLB Academy in the West Zone Tournament finals at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton.
“You have such a great season with all these highs, and the lows are shocking when they happen because they just don’t happen very often,” White Sox manager Lenny Souza said. “These kids had a great season. I thought they deserved to go to the World Series. And we’re crushed.”
The one-game championship showdown featured some big swings on the scoreboard. The White Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead after two innings, but Academy rallied back to take a 7-5 lead into the seventh inning. In the bottom of the seventh, the White Sox rallied to tie it on a bases-loaded walk by Noah Marcelo.
“The whole team, 1 thru 9, they put their best at-bats of the season out there,” White Sox slugger Jordan Brandenburg said. “We really left everything out there those last few innings.”
But with the bases loaded and two outs, Brandenburg grounded out to shortstop to end the seventh-inning threat, sending the game to extra innings. Academy answered with three runs in the top of the eighth, which proved to be the difference.
The White Sox outhit Academy 12-11, with Brandenburg, Kasi Pohahau and Kevin Jacobs totaling three hits apiece.
“We hit well,” Souza said. “Twelve hits is a lot of hits. I felt like it was good enough to win.”
With its fourth game in four days, PenCities turned to untested starting pitcher Nathan Peng. The right-hander has been dynamite in relief all season with the best sheer velocity on the team. Despite giving up six earned runs between the third and fourth innings, Peng found his footing for a gutsy performance, totaling six innings while allowing six runs on eight hits and a walk, while striking out five.
“In the bullpen, to be honest, he was kind of wild,” White Sox catcher Elliot Biagini said. “But I think it was the (bullpen) mound, because when he got out in the game he was really locating.”
Getting strike calls was another issue, according to Souza. PenCities’ skipper said Peng was not getting the outside corner, while Academy’s pitchers were. Souza’s frustrations for his starting pitcher carried over to the whole dugout, he said.
“I felt like Nate had more command today than he did all year,” Souza said. “And it was like he just wasn’t getting the calls early. We were all frustrated for him.”
Still, the White Sox jumped out to an early lead, knocking out Academy starting pitcher Tyler Tilton in the second inning.
In the first, Pohahau got PenCities on the board with an RBI double, followed by an RBI single by Jacobs. In the second, the White Sox doubled their lead. After a leadoff home run by Mitchell Plane to straightaway left field, Brandenburg produced an RBI single to drive home Jaxon Skidmore, giving PenCities a 4-0 lead.
Academy rallied back in the third to tie it, though, with the big swing of the bat coming on a two-run double by James Espalin to knot it up at 4-4. Then in the fourth, Jonathan Robinson clubbed a two-run homer to give Academy a 6-4 lead. And it wouldn’t be Robinson’s last round-tripper of the day.
With Academy reliever Cole Kitchen cruising — he ultimately went 5 1/3 innings, allowing four runs (one earned) on five hits and a walk, while striking out seven — PenCities finally scratched out a run against him in the sixth. After Plane got hit by a pitch, and Marcelo drew a two-out walk, Brandenburg produced an RBI single to close the deficit to 6-5.
In the top of the seventh, Academy added an insurance run on an RBI double by James Williams (4 for 5 with two doubles and an RBI) but the White Sox battled back to prolong their season. Pohahau led off with a single and Jacobs reached on an error. Then with one out, Plane singled home Pohahau to close it to 7-6. With two outs, Biagini singled to load the bases. Then Marcelo walked to force home Jacobs with the tying run.
“I’ll be honest with you, at that moment I thought we were going to the World Series,” Souza said.
Brandenburg stepped to the plate looking for something he could drive. But the first pitch was off-speed and got him on his front foot, causing him to roll over to the shortstop for a routine grounder to end the threat, sending the game to extra innings.
Still, Souza said his team was in a good place emotionally.
“We were pretty fired up,” Souza said. “We thought we were going to win at that point and then the first guy comes up and hits a home run.”
Sure enough, Robinson jumped on the first pitch of the eighth in Skidmore’s second inning of relief and drove it out of the park for a go-ahead solo home run.
Then, a disputed call at third base opened the door for two more runs. With runners at first and second and one out, Noel Soto hit a fly ball to Marcelo in center. The runner at second, Sean Blandino, tagged to go to third. But as the relay throw from Marcelo, to the shortstop Plane, to Peng at third was there in time to peg Blandino, the umpire ruled Peng missed the tag, according to Souza.
“He was clearly out,” Souza said. “[The umpire] said there was no tag but that was b—s—. We were really upset. It was a tough way to go out.”
For the White Sox, it was a historic season. The PONY Palomino 18U team reached the West Zone tourney for the second straight season, the first time it has ever advanced as far in back-to-back seasons.
“The entire season it was pretty smooth sailing,” Brandenburg said. “Our team has a lot of guys on it from a lot of the local high schools and we were just super hot all season.”
MLB Academy now advances to the Palomino World Series, beginning Aug. 2 in Laredo, Texas.
The White Sox finish their season with a 29-6 overall record.
“It’s just hard to end this way,” Souza said.
For the second straight year, the PenCities White Sox are heading to the West Zone Tournament at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton — one step away from the PONY Palomino 18U League World Series.
White Sox manager Lenny Souza has advanced as far as the West Zone tournament in four previous seasons. Twice he has achieved runner-up status. He has yet to advance to the Palomino League’s big dance. As Souza has proclaimed since the summer’s outset, though, this year’s PenCities team is built to change that.
Advancing to the West Zone tourney by virtue of a four-game sweep through the Super Region tournament is proof positive the White Sox have made strides this year. With the top two finishers in the Super Region tourney advancing to West Zone play, last year’s second-place finish was enough to see PenCities move on.
This year, the White Sox outscored opponents through the four wins at Santa Clara’s Washington Park by a cumulative 27-4, including back-to-back shutouts through the quarter and semifinals. A 4-2 win last Friday over All-Star Academy-Santa Clara in the championship game then sealed the title.
“It was great,” Souza said. “We gave up four runs in the tournament. It feels good. It’s great having bats but, in my experience, when you make deep playoff runs, you’ve got to have the pitching to do it.”
Two Carlmont graduates dominated to fire the consecutive shutouts. In a previous quarterfinal matchup against All-Star Academy, right-hander Lucas Billot went the distance in a 10-0 win. Then in last Thursday’s semifinals, a 4-0 win over the Santa Clara Red Sox, right-hander Mitchell Plane set down nine of the last 10 batters he faced en route to a three-hit shutout.
“The Carlmont kids were big,” Souza said. “They played really well.”
Plane has been a cornerstone two-way player for the White Sox all summer, and showed it Thursday. In addition to his dominant pitching exploits, he went 1 for 4 with an RBI double at the plate.
“He was great,” Souza said. “He was sharp. He is tough because he changes arm angles so well and changes speeds so well. He talked me out of DH-ing for him and had a good game at the plate. So, he was big.”
Then in Friday’s championship game, the private-school kid out of Sacred Heart Prep, left-hander Angelo Tonas, showed up to bring home the championship, working five innings to earn the win in the 9-2 victory.
The Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division Pitcher of the Year for SHP in the spring, Tonas is a commit to Georgetown University, and therefore had his innings limited at the start of the summer. He made his first start for Souza in late June, and has quickly earned ace credentials. In fact, Souza said Tonas would have pitched earlier in the Super Region tournament but the southpaw didn’t return until Friday from a family vacation.
And, so, the White Sox went into the championship game with their ace on the mound.
“It just kind of worked out that way,” Souza said. “It was probably the first time going into a championship game situation with my ace.”
Right-hander Nathan Peng gives PenCities another surefire ace, though. The recent graduate of Saratoga High School features a fastball that touches the low 90s, but was used exclusively in relief throughout the regular season. Souza, though, unleashed the big righty to start the Super Region opener. He responded by striking out 12 through six innings to earn the win.
It was a comeback win, as PenCities trailed 2-0 early. But a two-run single by Elliott Biagini in the fifth gave the White Sox the lead. Right-hander Jaxon Skidmore retired the side in order in the seventh to earn the save.
West Zone play opens Thursday. The eight-team, double-elimination tournament features squads from three states, including six from California (four Southern California, and two Northern California) along with one team from Hawaii, and one from Washington state.
The White Sox took third place last year, and earned runner-up honors in 2009 and ’11. The winner advances to the Palomino World Series in Laredo, Texas, beginning Thursday, Aug. 2.
After winning six straight games to start the Palomino League season, the PenCities White Sox finally suffered their first loss of the summer. But manager Lenny Souza welcomed the tough competition.
The White Sox (7-1) continued their annual rivalry with the Reno Muckdogs, as the Sparks, Nevada-based team made the four-hour drive to the Bay Area to play five games in three days, including a doubleheader with the White Sox Saturday at Sea Cloud Park.
“I feel like we haven’t really been tested this year,” Souza said. “So, it was nice to finally be tested.”
The Muckdogs were founded by manager Ken Camel 15 years ago, and the team has now played the White Sox in consecutive seasons for approximately half that time. The matchup always presents Souza’s club with a quality opponent, even more the case this year as Reno travelled with only the collegiate contingent of its 32-man roster, with the team’s local high schools all holding graduations in recent days.
The White Sox had their win streak halted with a 2-1 loss in the first game of the twin bill. Muckdogs right-hander Brendan Talonen — an all-Golden Valley Conference pitcher as a community college freshman at Feather River College — worked six innings to earn the win.
In Game 2, though, the White Sox bounced back with a 4-1 victory. Right-hander Jordan Brandenburg (Carlmont), more synonymous with offense, whirled six innings to earn the win. Then right-hander Nathan Peng dazzled with a blazing fastball by striking out the side in the seventh to close it out.
“[Peng] was good,” Camel said. “It’s late in the day and you’ve got face a guy who was 87-88 (mph), it makes it tough when you’re trying to tie it up.”
Reno had its chances to catch PenCities on the scoreboard in the late innings. In the sixth, the Muckdogs plated their only run on a sacrifice fly by Derek Laferriere, but it almost tied the game as, with runners at the corners, the fly ball was driven to the fence in deep left field. Colton Forman followed with a similar blast that White Sox left fielder Tommy Ozawa hauled in just in front of the fence.
“I thought they were well enough hit to do some damage,” said Camel, who noted both runs in Game 1 were scored on hits to left field, including an RBI double by Laferriere. “But I think they learned well enough from the first game, so they were playing a little deeper.”
In the seventh, Reno set the table with a walk and a hit batsman to start the inning. But Peng settled in, chewing off the inside half of the plate to record three straight strikeouts to end the threat, and the game.
Like Brandenburg, Peng is more known for his bat. In fact, the tandem was batting in the No. 3 and 4 spots in the order respectively Saturday. But Peng throws gas. It was his second pitching appearance of the summer. The right-hander out of Saratoga High School has recorded saves in both of them.
“He’s good,” Souza said. “He’s impressive. We got lucky with him.”
PenCities is on the verge of fielding its entire roster for the first time this summer. Additions this week included leadoff hitter Noah Marcello (Serra) and first baseman Kyle Nichol (Aragon), as well as Brandenburg returning to the lineup after missing the second game of last Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Brandenburg was kicking himself after missing the doubleheader nightcap against Santa Cruz. It was for a good cause, as he left to umpire a Little League game in San Carlos. Had he known how good the hitting conditions would get in Game 2 though — the White Sox homered five times in the game — he may have stuck around.
“We only hit one jack in the first game,” Brandenburg said. “Then (after the second game) when I got a text that they hit five jakcs, I was like, ‘wow.’”
Facing the Muckdogs was a different beast. The White Sox totaled 11 hits in Game 2, all singles. Nichol got PenCities on the board with a two-run single on a flare to left field in the first inning. In the second, Marcelo and Brandenburg singled to set the table, and Peng produced an RBI single to center before Mitchell Plane added an RBI groundout.
Nichol — a recent graduate from Aragon after three years as a varsity starter — said the White Sox refocused after scoring just one run in Game 1.
“We know that we’re a good team,” Nichol said. “We just had to piece it together. We know we can hit. We’ve done it before. We just have to keep doing it.”