SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — From the first pitch off the mound to the final out at shortstop, Big Sky Little League’s fate was safe in the hands of Cole McKenzie.
McKenzie threw 52/3 dominant innings against Lewiston, Idaho, then switched to shortstop and made a brilliant play for the final out of a historic 6-2 win Thursday.
“I just dove, pretty much, and (got) lucky,” McKenzie said.
Little did the 13-year-old know that when he dove glove-first to tag second base, he put a Montana team into a Little League (11-12-year-old) regional championship game for the first time ever. Big Sky will play Bend, Ore., a 4-3 semifinal winner over top-seeded North Bothell, Wash., on Saturday for the Northwest Regional championship and a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Saturday’s game will be televised live on ESPN at 3 p.m. Mountain time. Big Sky is 4-1 in the regional, with its only loss coming to Oregon in pool play last Saturday.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Big Sky head coach Gene Carlson said. “I’m sure it will in the next couple days, Saturday morning especially.”
McKenzie allowed only three hits, no runs, and pitched around five walks against a patient Idaho team.
But the right-hander began to tire in the sixth, allowing a walk and a single to lead off the inning. Big Sky shortstop Patrick Zimmer snagged consecutive Idaho line drives for a quick two outs, then switched positions with McKenzie.
Back-to-back RBI singles off Zimmer allowed Idaho to score its only two runs of the game, before Riley Way hit the game-ending grounder to McKenzie.
Big Sky got its first run in the first
inning, when Connor Kieckbusch walked and later scored on a wild pitch. Five more runs came around to score in the second inning on two walks, two singles, and a controversial triple by Ben Askelson.
With one out, Sean Jones singled, Gabe Sulser walked, and both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Zimmer then beat out an infield single that allowed Jones to score Big Sky’s second run, and Sulser scored on a fielder’s choice groundout by Kieckbusch to make it 3-0.
McKenzie walked, putting two runners on for Askelson, the Big Sky cleanup hitter. What happened next was an unfortunate turning point for Idaho: Askelson’s fly ball, tailing toward the foul line in left field, bounced in and out of the left fielder’s glove and landed on the grass. Umpire David Crooks ruled the ball fair as momentum carried the fielder into foul territory.
“The umpire called it fair,” Idaho manager Linc Way said. “He had a better angle than me.”
“I didn’t have a good view because the umpire was blocking my view,” Carlson said. “He was right on top of it.”
Idaho’s fans at Al Houghton Stadium were audibly angered, but replays on ESPN2 showed that the call was correct. Askelson was credited with a two-run triple, then scored Big Sky’s final run on a wild pitch.
The only bad news to come from Thursday’s win was that McKenzie can’t pitch Saturday. Little League Baseball limits pitchers to 85 pitches per game and a minimum three days’ rest if they throw 61 or more pitches.
In his only two appearances of the tournament, including a no-hitter against Wyoming on Aug. 5, McKenzie finished 2-0 with a 1.69 earned-run average. Carlson said he didn’t know who would start Saturday.
“We have everybody but him available,” said Carlson, whose team is Big Sky is the first ever from Billings to win four games in the San Bernardino regional. “I think we’re OK.”
In the meantime, the team planned to visit a nearby Oakley sunglasses factory and the beaches of Orange County.
Standing on the verge of history never sounded so relaxing.