SURPRISE, Ariz. – On this day, in this setting and on Perfect Game’s most prominent West Coast tournament stage, the Giants proved to be just a play or two better than the Birds. Rewind and replay this one over 10 more times and the final tally just could be a 5-5 split.
But again, on this day it was the So Cal team with the Giants nickname that prevailed over the So Cal team that goes by the Birds.
Ah yes, nothing like a nice little Southern California regional brawl – without any of the accompanying animosity generally associated with that word – to close out another extremely competitive chapter in the always intriguing story that has become the PG 17u World Series.
The SoCal Giants scored a single run in the bottom of the second inning and added two more in the third, leaned heavily on their calling cards of pitching and defense and topped the So Cal Birds, 3-0, in the 17u PGWS championship game played Saturday on the Rangers’ side of the Surprise Spring Training Complex.
An overnight monsoon-season cloudburst created havoc with the playing fields and delayed the start of play by four hours Saturday morning. Because of the delay and after playing seven-inning semifinal games, Giants head coach Christian Fick and Birds head coach Mike Cosgrove agreed to shorten the championship game to five innings so the teams could get a head start on their road trips back home.
“It was great to have So Cal representing both sides; it’s good for our community,” Fick said of the shared respect between the two programs.
The Giants are based in the town of Newbury Park in Ventura County west of Los Angeles and the Birds in the city of Corona in Riverside County east of LA so it’s not like they’re next-door neighbors. But they share a common appreciation and an almost parental concern for the young people they’re serving and decisions will be made with their welfare in mind.
“We’re never going to run a guy out there too long,” Fick continued, talking about the pitchers. “We were in agreement that, hey, we’re both kind of running out of pitching – it’s been a long week – so let’s not get anybody hurt. Let’s play a solid few innings and see what we can do; I think it was good for both sides.”
The title game between the No. 1-seeded So Cal Giants (6-0-0) and the No. 2 So Cal Birds (4-1-1) was a good thing and a pitcher’s duel from the start; those are also the kind of games the Giants make a habit of winning.
After a scoreless first, the Giants scratched a run across in the bottom of the second when Boston Baro reached on a one-out infield single, stole second and moved to third on a one-out ground ball single from Frankie Carney; Baro then crossed on a long sac fly to center off the bat of Jason Hall.
The Giants scored what proved to be the game’s final two runs in the third on the strength of a leadoff walk to Finley Buckner, a double to left-center from Cody Nitowitz to put runners on second and third and back-to-back sac flies from Easton Rulli and Owen Martin.
“I just do whatever I can,” said Martin, a 2023 outfielder who on Saturday hit in the cleanup spot in the order. “The whole squad is just amazing. We all bond, we all connect really well with each other on and off the field; it’s unexplainable to be honest.”
The Giants totaled five hits: the double from Nitowitz and the singles from Buckner, Baro, Carney and Trent Liolios.
Meanwhile, out on the mound, 2022 right-hander Leo Uelmen was keeping the Birds at bay. He worked three two-hit, two-strikeout shutout innings before giving way to Baro, a ’23 right-hander, who pitched the last two, two-hit scoreless frames.
The Birds were limited to four singles over the five innings, including two from George Huerta and Zach L'Heureux that both came in the top of the third; they were left stranded.
Austin Kiernan singled with one out in the top of the fourth but was doubled-off when the Giants second baseman Frankie Carney made a terrific pick of a hard-hit line drive and delivered a throw that beat Kiernan back to the bag at first; Cohen Gomez also singled for the Birds.
“Pitching and defense wins baseball games,” Fick said. “We gave up seven runs in seven games and just the grit that my boys showed throughout this whole week – it was a long week for everybody. Once we ran through the other teams we kind of knew, they could smell it. It got closer and it got closer and you know what? It was all about the pitching and the defense and it picked us up.”
Leo Uelmen, a top-500 uncommitted 2022 out of Las Vegas, was making his third appearance of the tournament when he started the championship game and was effective all week. He finished with six scoreless innings overall, allowing four hits and striking out six with one walk; he was named the MV Pitcher.
“I just came in and made no moment the same,” he told PG. “I was only expected to pitch one day and then I [threw] like 10 pitches and then I’d come out and pitch again. Then I’d pitch a little bit more and I’d come and pitch again and I ended-up pitching six shutout innings. It was a good experience; I got some great exposure and it was a great time.”
Ethan Hedges, a 2022 infielder and the Birds’ leadoff hitter out of Fountain Valley, Calif., earned MVP honors after a week of stellar play in the desert. He finished 12-for-22 (.545) with a home run, two doubles, six RBI and eight runs scored; he also threw two shutout innings in two appearances, allowing two hits, striking out three and walking one.
“We’ve just been kind of playing as a team,” Hedges told PG on Friday, deflecting to his teammates. “We’ve kind of stayed humble, stayed together and fought through some of the tough times. We’ve really gone out and showed everyone what we’ve got.”
The 17u World Series, one of the most significant events on PG’s tournament calendar, was the first PG championship in program history for the So Cal Giants and the achievement is one all of these guys will long remember.
That goes for everyone on the roster, including “glue guys” like Owen Martin and catcher Brady Francisco who Fick singled-out in front of his teammates during the post-game celebration. Francisco is, after all, the guy who handles this talented pitching staff. This is a team’s team in the truest form if that makes any sense.
Here’s what Martin had to say: “It’s a brotherhood out here with us and I couldn’t ask for anything better...I can’t even explain my happiness right now. I’m speechless right now; it’s amazing.”
And Uelman: “These guys are just so much fun to be around; everyone has a great time. All the coaches are amazing and they all want to see us to succeed.”
And finally, Coach Fick: “We didn’t come this far to go home with nothing. We know the type of ball players that we’ve got and we know the crew that we have and we were excited to get on the field. I didn’t even sleep last night, so I was ready to go.”
Both the Giants and the Birds received outstanding pitching performances in their semifinal victories early Saturday afternoon.
The Giants topped No. 4 CBA Marucci National, 1-0, behind five sparkling innings of relief from Ryan Featherston. The No. 470-ranked 2023 right-hander, an Oregon commit, worked five shutout innings out of the 'pen and allowed just one hit while striking out eight and walking two.
The Birds rolled past the No. 6 Banditos 17u Scout Team, 8-0 in six innings, with 2022 righty Sean McCance working five, one-hit shutout frames, with four strikeouts and no walks.