Little League World Series: Gago, Smith lead Petaluma to another victory

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — With two younger sons back home in Petaluma, Sonny and Claire Gago decided their joy ride was over. The couple made plans to fly back to California on Tuesday.

Then they found out their son Quinton would start on the mound for Petaluma National in an elimination game that day. The Gagos scrapped their plans.

“We had to stay,” Claire said. “We couldn’t let him do that without us here.”

You could say they made the right decision. It’s always a good idea to be in the stands when your son plays the game of his life in the glare of a nationally televised elimination game. Quinton Gago shut out Fairfield, Conn., for 5 1/3 innings, and Petaluma backed him with tight defense, timely hitting and yes, a little luck, in a 5-0 victory that means the West champion lives to play again.

Petaluma National plays another win-or-exit game at 5 p.m. Thursday, against the loser of Wednesday’s contest between San Antonio and Goodlettsville, Tenn. — the last remaining undefeated U.S. teams.

While he pitched a lot for his team during the Little League regular season, Gago had not started a game for the 2012 all-stars until Tuesday — a fact that was not lost on the beefy 12-year-old.

“I was excited and nervous at the same time,” he said of getting the start against New England. “Because in the back of my mind the whole time I was saying, ‘I’m not a starter. I’m not a starter.’ Then right as I took the mound, it kind of went away.”

Just like most of the Fairfield hitters. Gago struck out seven, walked two, and allowed just two hits. At one point, he retired 11 consecutive Connecticut batters, including perfect innings in the third, fourth and fifth.

“I thought the kid from California got stronger and stronger and stronger,” Fairfield coach Bill Meury said about Gago. “He was tougher in the third and fourth innings than he was in one and two, and it showed. … He threw a great game.”

The coach’s son, Ryan Meury, finally ended Gago’s streak when he led off the sixth inning with a double. Gago got an out but reached his pitch count in the process, and Andrew White came on in relief.

Two outs away from elimination and desperately trying to rally, Fairfield put runners on the corners with one out after a single by Will Lucas, who had pitched a no-hitter against New Castle, Ind., a night earlier. But shortstop Hance Smith ended the game by snagging a ground ball up the middle, stepping on second base and throwing to first for a double play.

Petaluma had some help in scoring their first four runs. Gago reached on a two-base error in the second inning and came around to score on Cole Tomei’s groundout. In the third, Bradley Smith struck out but made it to first base when the ball skipped past the catcher, and Austin Paretti then reached base on an error. Hance Smith made Fairfield pay, planting an 0-1 fastball beyond the wall in dead center field to make the score 4-0.

“The hit that followed up the mistakes is big,” said Eric Smith, Hance’s father. “Because you always want to take advantage of mistakes … The kid (Fairfield’s Matt Kubel) threw a great game. He really pitched well. If he comes in and gets two outs right behind it, those baserunners don’t mean anything.”

Petaluma added another run in the fifth when White and Gago both doubled.

Gago had his shaky moments early. He walked two batters in the first inning; in the second, Fairfield’s Michael Ghiorzi led off with a single and the next batter, Matt Clarkin, reached on an error. Gago got out of trouble both times. He was helped by a brilliant defensive play in the second, as Tomei charged to field a bunt, wheeled and threw to third, where Smith was covering; Smith stepped on the bag and threw across the diamond to complete the double play.

Gago’s paternal grandfather was a Peruvian soccer star. The two never met, but Quinton, intrigued by the family history, says something to his deceased ancestor before every game — a conversation he does not divulge to his parents.

Sonny played soccer, too, but not as well as the old man.

“They say it skips a generation,” Sonny noted Tuesday. “I’m gonna say it landed on my son.”

Even after changing her travel plans, Claire almost didn’t see Quinton’s heroics. She gets so wound up during his pitching performances that she leaves the stands and wanders around outside the ballpark. During the Fairfield game, she paced near the dining tent, where TV monitors were showing the action.

“I’d kind of peek in there and say, ‘OK, there’s one out. Oh, look, there’s two outs,’” Claire said. “Once I hear the music, I come back and say, ‘What happened?!’ But I got brave. I sat here more. He was on fire. I had to watch it.”

We all did, and we saw quite a show.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.