Defense decides Little League championship
GRAND JUNCTION – For one night, at least, the old baseball axiom of “defense wins championships” was true.
When called upon, Grand Mesa made a couple key stops, thwarting a couple of potential Three Rivers rallies, then turned two ill-timed Three Rivers fielding errors into runs for a 3-1 win for the Grand Junction-based Little League team, which earned the District 1 Major Boys championship.
“You have to give Grand Mesa credit,” said Three Rivers manager Jeff Jensen. “They made some great defensive plays tonight.”
And Grand Mesa’s defense set the tone of the game early.
Three Rivers had baserunners at second and third in the top of the first inning, only to be turned away.
With two outs, Barrett Jensen, the manager’s son, hit a low liner just above third baseman Joey Garcia’s left ankle. The Grand Mesa infielder dropped the ball, but had enough presence to grab the ball and toss it across to first baseman Brandon Towles to end the rally.
In the bottom half of the inning, Brady Adamek, who had set up Monday’s championship match by pitching a three-hitter, 13-1 victory on Sunday, put Grand Mesa on the scoreboard.
He hammered a Zack Zerbato fast ball over the centerfield screen into the parking lot for a 1-0 Grand Mesa lead, then let pitchers Travis Key and Tim Mulkovich do the rest. Key pitched three shutout innings before tiring in the fourth.
In the fourth, Key had loaded the bases when Jake Kinney and Jensen opened Three Rivers’ half of the inning with back-to-back singles. A walk to Jason Whiting loaded the sacks after a strikeout, but Three Rivers came up empty.
Grand Mesa manager Troy Whiting, no relation to the Three Rivers player, sensed his starter was out of gas, and summoned Tim Mulkovich from shortstop to put out the fire.
His herky-jerky, three-quarter motion baffled Three Rivers, who concluded the inning scoreless.
“That’s what we thought would happen,” said Whiting of the shift in pitchers. “That awkward motion of Tim’s shut them down. It was beautiful to see.”
But not to hit against.
Mulkovich retired Casey Weaver on a called third strike, then ended the threat when Key, who had changed positions with his teammate, snared Alan Prater’s slow infield roller and fired to first just ahead of the runner.
The play energized Grand Mesa, who after Adamek’s homer had found Zerbato unhittable.
Prior to the error-plagued fifth inning, when Grand Mesa scored two unearned runs, Zerbato had retired 10 of the next batters he faced, ringing up seven of the 11 strikeouts he had in the loss.
Mulkovich got aboard on a Whiting throwing error after pulling Weaver, Three Rivers’ first baseman, off the bag. Weaver made up for his teammate’s wild throw when he forced Mulkovich out at home on a backhand stab and throw to Jensen for the force.
The play kept Grand Mesa off the scoreboard momentarily.
Three batters later, Grand Mesa cashed in.
Connor Radkowski, the Three Rivers second baseman, dropped the ball on a apparent force out at second, and the bobble allowed Nick Paddock to score. Clay Kame raised Grand Mesa’s lead to 3-0 with an RBI-single.
Down by three heading into the sixth and final inning, Three Rivers mounted their only attack.
With one out, Jensen smoked a double down the left field line and Whiting brought him in two batters later on a scoring single. Three Rivers’ rally died when Mulkovich tagged out Weaver after fielding his tapper back to the mound.
“Our sticks never came alive tonight,” Jensen said. “We hit the ball right on the button, but there defense came through.”
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