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Overcoming an unexpected chapter in an otherwise storybook season, the Arcadia American Little League Minors Angels won the District 17 City Championship Friday by defeating the Pasadena American Tigers, 5-2, before a standing room only crowd at Hamilton Park in Pasadena.
It was AALL’s first District title since 2004, and capped a sensational year that saw the Angels become the first team in the 54-year history of their league to complete an undefeated regular season. After being upset by the Indians, a team they had previously defeated twice in convincing fashion, in their own postseason tournament, the Angels returned to form in the City tournament by defeating the Pasadena Central Dodgers, 11-1, in the first round and the San Marino Tigers, 22-9, in the semifinals. By winning Friday, Manager Don McIntire’s team finished 2012 with a record of 20-2-1, winning all games against opponents from District 17 rival leagues Santa Anita, Sierra Madre, Arcadia National, Pasadena Central, San Marino and Pasadena American.
On Friday, it was a familiar formula for the Angels, as catcher-shortstop Mikey Easter drove in three runs with a two-run home run and triple and Matt McIntire (victory) and Michael Gruppie (save) combined to pitch a three-hitter against a Tigers team that had soundly defeated the Santa Anita Red Sox, 12-1, and beat the Pasadena Southwest Phillies, 8-5, to earn a berth in the final. But the Angels got a little unexpected help as Bailey Shen, who did not see much action behind the plate during the season, made the most of a chance to catch by helping to pick off a runner, throw out a runner trying to steal second base and then deftly handle a bunt in the fourth and fifth innings to help keep the Tigers’ offense in check.
When Gruppie struck out the side in the sixth, it set off a raucous celebration that preceded the awarding of championship medals and a championship banner that had eluded the AALL for eight years and its minors teams for longer than that.
McIntire, making his third tournament appearance in as many games, earned his third overall postseason victory, one more game than he won during the regular season. Again, he exhibited good control, walking only two and allowing but two hits in three innings while striking out three. The 8 year-old right-hander was supported by strong infield play, inlcuding a nice stop by third baseman Brandon Lustig of a Ulius Hoffman ground ball in the second inning, and nice grab and throw by Gruppie at shortstop with two on and two out in the third when the Tigers three baserunners on in a row but still did not score.
Easter connected on his second inside-the-park home run of the year in the first to score McIntire, who had bunted to lead off the game. Gruppie followed with a double to right center of losing pitcher Greg Pavon, and then scored on a double by Brandon Lustig. Just like that, it was 3-0 and the Angels seemed on their way to an easy victory.
However, Pavon settled down after that before the Angels erupted again in the third, with the “Mike and Mike” team coming through again as they had all season in one of the area’s best if not the best offensive one-two combinations. With one out and McIntire on first after working a walk after being down in the count 0 and 2, Easter hit a booming triple and Gruppie followed with a line drive single to make the score 5-0.
Gruppie came on in relief and was helped by some spectacular throws by his catcher, Shen. He helped pick Katie Golbranson off first on a 2-3-6 play for the first out in the fourth, then threw Julius Hoffman out on a laser of a throw for the final out of the inning. In the fifth, he pounced on a great bunt by Ethan Williams and threw him out on a close play, and by then Gruppie has really found his rythym. The righthander, who compiled an 8-1 record during the season, smoked three straigtht fastballs past the final batter of the Tiger fifth, and then retired three Tigers on strikeouts on 12 total pitches to finish with six strikeouts and close out the game for his third save.
Easter added a single to finish a perfect 3 for 3 game, Gruppie was 2 for 3 and Will Meeks added a double as the Angels had five extra-base hits among their total of nine hits. The Tigers had three hits, two of them of the infield variety.
To get to the final, the Angels had to outslug the San Marino Tigers, 22-9, on Wednesday in their best offensive output of the year. The pitching of Gruppie and McIntire restored order to a game that was tied 7-7 after two innings and 8-8 after three, when the Angels took command and scored 14 unanswered runs. Five Angels had two hits, including Easter who drove in three runs with a double, single and sacrifice fly, Ryan Nguyen and Shen who both had two RBI, and Brandon Lustig and Nick Patton who had an RBI each.
But the offensive hero in this game was Gruppie, who had a perfect 3 for 3 game himself, including two triples (one to left-center field and one to right-center), drove in three runs and scored three times. Kade Wentz of San Marino literally kept his team in the game with six RBI in the first three innings on a three-run home run to left-center and a three-run triple to right.
Last Sunday, the Angels won their tournament opener against the Pasadena Central Dodgers, 11-1, in a game that ended after 3 1/2 innings as McIntire and Gruppie limited the Dodgers to one hit and one unearned run. Gruppie, McIntire and Easter combined on a spectacular pick off to conclude a strike out-to-shorstop double play that ended the game. Before that, the Halo offense erupted for 13 hits including two-run doubles by Carter Jones and Brandon Williams, and RBI triple by Nguyen. Nguyen and Patton both had two hits.
The Mike and Mike tandem, which so terrorized pitching during the regular season, was even more formidable during the City tournament. Gruppie was 6 for 8 with two triples, a double, five RBI and five runs scored. Easter was 6 for 9 with a home run, triple, two doubles, six RBI and five runs scored. Overall, they hit .637 and .581 in a season to remember for the AALL Angels. McIntire won two games and had one strong relief effort in a dominant Tournament on the mound, throwing a total of 8 1/3 innings while allowing no earned runs and only two walks while scattering seven hits and striking out 10. Gruppie, who had a victory and two saves, struck out 12 batters in 5 1/3 total innings of work, allowing only an infield hit and two earned runs.