Rivals, and two proud, neighboring Little League programs. One classic game, and a well-earned trip to state.
The Auburn All-Stars broke through with two runs in the fourth inning then held off Kent 2-1 to capture the District 10 Majors (11 and 12-year-olds) tournament championship at Sunset Park on Saturday, securing a berth to the state playoffs later this month.
In a hard-fought showdown between similar teams, Auburn had just enough when it counted to survive and advance.
Manager Tom Watrous and his group of boys have never gone this far before. As 10-11 All-Stars a year ago, Auburn was denied in a crushing, last at-bat 6-5 loss to Federal Way National for the district championship.
This time, it came out differently.
“As hard as they have worked for the last three years in this tournament … to finally win it … I am so happy for them and all these people, all these fans,” Watrous said. “Love it.”
For Kent, the loss ended a solid postseason run that included a dramatic, 3-2 walk-off victory against Fife-Milton-Edgewood/Steel Lake in a semifinal playoff Thursday night.
“Great effort,” said Kent manager Ernie Hernandez. “The biggest thing I told them is hold your heads tall. There’s other teams that could have been here today. We battled every day. Every game was close. … They never gave up. They had heart today. They had heart the whole week.”
Austin Cook allowed two hits and struck out 11 in 5⅓ innings, while Kaidin McDaniel and Landen Richards doubled in runs for Auburn. Emilio Feliciano shut the door in relief, then celebrated his 13th birthday with teammates, friends and family.
Kent’s Vince Olsen, a lefty, was solid. He yielded five hits, struck out seven in 3⅓ innings and singled.
In the fourth inning, Auburn broke the silence. Feliciano led off with a double to right-center field. McDaniel followed with a double in the gap, scoring Feliciano. With one down, Richards doubled to right, plating McDaniel.
Kent threatened in the top of the sixth. With one out, Jackson Dulay singled home Patrick Sanchez, who led off the inning by beating out an infield single. But Feliciano retired the next two batters to end the rally and the game.
Feliciano, who pitched a perfect game for his regular-season Generals two months ago, was ready to close it out when Cook left the mound and went to first base after reaching his 85-pitch limit.
“That perfect game built his confidence,” said Feliciano’s dad, Alex. “It prepared him for this situation.”
In victory, Watrous lauded Kent.
“What a battle,” he said. “Ernie runs a fantastic program. His kids are disciplined, they’re spirited, they play the game right, they play the game hard. That was fun. I will take that level of competition every time. It had to be fun to watch.”
Auburn goes north to open the state tournament at Sedro-Woolley on July 22. Given the wide field of teams, Watrous expects a great challenge.
“The way we pitch, the way we catch the ball, and as clutch as we are at the moment that it counts at the plate, I’ll take my chances,” he said. “This will be tough because there are 13 teams (at state). … No matter how you go through the bracket, you’re going to play more games than you did in this tournament. Pitching will be key … you’ve got to be able to outlast everyone with your pitching.”
Auburn came up short to Walla Walla Valley 13-12 in last year’s state championship. Walla Walla Valley went on to take the regional title in San Bernardino, Calif., and reach the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. Auburn last made the trip as Northwest champions in 2010.
Cook was on the Majors’ state roster last year.
“He played on that team, so he knows,” Watrous said. “He’s been telling these guys, don’t leave anything on the field.”
Kent left it all on the field and came up short. It left the bases loaded in the third, and the tying run at third base in the sixth.
“You have to take advantage of players on base. We just didn’t execute like we needed to,” Hernandez said. “That’s a talented group over there. They came out a little bit better than we did.”