BRISTOL - Heading into a second elimination game in as many days, New Jersey starter Derek Escobar knew his team needed a strong outing against Pennsylvania in the Little League Mid-Atlantic Regional.
Escobar didn’t expect to match the complete game two-hitter that teammate Yady Mateo threw on Tuesday, but he took the mound hoping to keep his team in the game.
Instead, Escobar nursed an immediate four-run lead and matched his friend Mateo, going the distance and allowing just two hits in a 4-0 New Jersey win.
“Our team is built on pitching and defense,” New Jersey head coach Jairo Labrador said. “I know everyone thinks we’re sluggers and we’re big boys, but we knew that with (Derek) having the ball, he was going to hit his spots and pitch to contact.”
Escobar did just that, striking out only three but forcing 10 groundouts while allowing just one runner to reach scoring position in a second straight dominant outing by a New Jersey starter.
“I really tried to jam a lot of the kids and throw inside and then get them to chase,” Escobar said. “That’s mostly where most of my strikes are from. I just jam kids and get them in the right spots.”
Pennsylvania entered the contest with a prolific pitching staff of its own that had allowed just one run in its first two games of the tournament, including a narrow 1-0 loss to New Jersey on Sunday, but New Jersey pounced right away. With two outs and J.R. Rosado on first after a single, New Jersey began a parade of three straight hits by Jayden Capincida, Escobar and Justin Labrador to take an early 2-0 lead. With runners at the corners, Labrador took off for second on a double steal, prompting second baseman Eric Foster Jr. to cut in front of the bag to prepare for a throw home. But the throw from catcher Lucas Martz sailed over Foster’s head and into the outfield, allowing Escobar to score and give New Jersey a 3-0 advantage.
“We just had to have the right mindset and take their hearts away,” center fielder Justin Labrador said of jumping out to a quick lead.
Pennsylvania tried to answer in the top of the second with what looked like a pair of two-out singles, but the latter was hit on a rope right to Josiah Sharpe in right field, and Sharpe fielded the ball cleanly and quickly fired to first for a rare 9-3 putout.
New Jersey tacked on in the bottom half of the second, putting a runner in scoring position after a leadoff walk to Emmanuel Nunez, who advanced to second on a pitch that kicked to the backstop. Nunez’s aggressive baserunning paid off two batters later, when Sal Garcia ripped a hard grounder into left for an RBI double, putting Jersey ahead 4-0 with just one out recorded in the inning.
Escobar got it done at the plate in New Jersey’s three-run first and was just as effective on the mound, allowing one hit through the first four innings. He recorded only one strikeout in that stretch but allowed just three batted balls out of the infield. In the top of the third, Escobar forced three straight groundouts to Mateo at first base, helping Escobar get through four innings, needing just 38 pitches along the way.
“We have in my mind the strongest defense here,” Jairo Labrador said. “And one of the strongest defenses in all of Little League.”
Pennsylvania didn’t find the hit column again until a pinch-hit single in the top of the sixth by Jon Erdossy, but Escobar settled down to force a pair of groundouts to send New Jersey to the next round.
“It was a special performance,” Jairo Labrador said. “I’m proud of the whole team, but man I’m so proud of this kid. He was supposed to pitch in states and cut his arm and wasn’t available, but we kept him and he was ready today.”