The 9/10-year-old all stars from Aston-Middletown Little League in Pennsylvania have already made it further than any team in their league's history.
Thursday, they took one more step.
In a game it needed to win to be assured of advancing, Pennsylvania rallied from an early deficit and out-slugged Berlin, Md., 12-10 to finish 3-1 in pool play and clinch a spot in Friday's Mid-Atlantic championship game.
“We're excited,” said manager Chris Chelo. “This is the first time ever in our organization. The 12's went to regionals once. But in 65 years, we've gone the furthest.”
Pennsylvania had opened the tournament with a 3-2 win over Delaware. It also beat New Jersey 17-10 before taking one on the chin in a 13-2 loss to New York. That game opened the door for several other teams to get into the Mid-Atlantic championship mix. New Jersey clinched one spot in the title game early Thursday, but Delaware and New York would still be mathematically alive if Pennsylvania lost to Maryland, bringing tiebreakers into play.
Maryland, coming in at 0-3, looked like it might make that a reality. After Pennsylvania jumped ahead 2-0, Maryland delivered its best offensive outburst of the tournament in a six-run second inning. Ashton Snelsire's two-run single was the key hit.
But Pennsylvania was undeterred.
In the bottom half of the second, it immediately responded with five runs of its own. Roman Tozzi knocked in a run with a groundout, while Sammy Benvignati and Nico Partsanakas each delivered two-run singles.
“This is our 25th game I think, and they just never give up,” Chelo said.
Pennsylvania added three runs in the third on a two-run double by Roman Tozzi and a sacrifice fly by Brett Bonebrake.
“That's how we've been playing,” Chelo said. “Our bats are phenomenal. We put a lot of runs on the board.”
But just when it seemed like Pennsylvania would pull away and cruise into the championship, Maryland had other ideas. Eric Berry doubles, Brenner Gursky singled, Evan Truitt had a sacrifice fly, Luke Mergott knocked in two with a base hit and Emmanuel Aroh brought a run in with a double.
Just like that, the game was tied 10-10.
“Maryland could really hit,” Chelo said.
One more time, though, Pennsylvania came back. In the bottom of the fourth, Benvignati walked and Partsanakas reached on an error. Quentin Perilli plated the go-ahead run with a single and Jimmy Hallinan made it 12-10 with a sacrifice fly.
From there, Pennsylvania finally stopped the back-and-forth trend. Benvignati took the mound in the fifth and worked a scoreless frame, with the help of a pickoff throw from catcher Christian Reed. After a two-out double by Snelsire, he got a ground ball to shortstop that Bonebrake handled for the final out.
In the sixth, Maryland's Logan Topman led off with a screaming ground ball to shortstop that looked like it was ticketed for the outfield, but Bonebrake made a sweeping scoop and fired to first for the out. After a walk, Bonebrake made another play at short for out number two. Benvignati then induced a pop-up to second for the final out.
“We've been making some mistakes the past couple of days and that's not how we typically play,” Chelo said. “The pitching and defense we had in the last two innings – that's what we've had all summer.”
The result was a big win, and for Maryland, another tough loss. But the Berlin stars played their best game of the tournament and nearly threw the standings into chaos. Berlin, which was making its second appearance at the Cranston Regional, finished 0-4 in pool play.
Pennsvylania will now get set to face Upper Township, N.J., for the Mid-Atlantic title on Friday at 5 p.m. The winner of that game moves into the East Region Championship on Saturday at 11 a.m.
“We keep it simple,” Chelo said. “We're going to pitch and catch, play defense and we're going to hit. Nothing more than that.”