A lot of people told Ken Gill he was crazy for having 15 players on his Simi Valley, Calif., roster.
But for Gill, the 53-year-old who has coached in the Simi Youth Baseball League for seven seasons, it has taken all 15 to return to the Pony League World Series for the first time since 2006.
That team, 13 years ago, was guided by a California kid who continues to be a big hit – Milwaukee Brewers star Christian Yelich.
“We have had a 14U team for all of those 13 years and have fallen short,” Gill said.
Ethan Peña, a player for Simi Valley, wasn’t about to make it 14 years without a series stop.
Trailing 3-2 with one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the seventh inning against Maui, Hawaii in the West Zone Championship, Peña connected on the first pitch he saw and sent it over the left fielder’s head.
“I immediately saw it was going deep,” Gill remembered as he stood as the third-base coach. “As the left fielder finally got to the ball against the fence, Ethan was just rounding second base. I knew that I was sending him home. It was going to be a bang-bang play at the plate. A call that could have gone either way.”
A head-first slide from Peña beat the tag by inches, winning the game 4-3 on a walk-off, two-run, inside-the-park home run.
“I have played a lot, managed a lot, and that was one of the all-time finishes I’ve ever been involved in,” Gill said. “Finishes like that can catapult a team.”
Gill and the rest of Simi Valley are hoping that momentum carries over this next week at the Pony League World Series, which begins with a pair of games tonight at Lew Hays Pony Field. East Zone champion Hagerstown, Md., plays Arecibo, Puerto Rico in the series’ opener at 5:30 p.m. That is followed by a game between Youngstown, Ohio, and Guasave, Mexico, at 8 p.m.
Simi Valley won’t continue its wild journey until 1 p.m. Sunday. It will play the winner of Saturday’s game between London and Washington County.
It’s an opportunity that doesn’t escape Gill.
“It’s very special,” Gill said. “We may have different cultures and speak different languages but baseball is baseball. Regardless of where you are from, you play it because you love it. There is something special about that. This is an honor.”
Simi Valley advanced to the championship game in 2006 before falling to Caguas, Puerto Rico, 4-2.
It is the same success Gill is seeking with his 15 strong, a large roster that Gill hasn’t been afraid of using completely.
“Any given moment, it’s been a different young man who has stepped up and pulled through,” he said. “It hasn’t just been starters. It’s been the guys called off the bench to pinch hit or pinch run. It has truly been a team effort. If the heart isn’t beating as one, we never get this far.”
Welcome to Washington
Two programs will be making their first ever trip to the Pony World Series.
London will represent the European Zone and Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was the champion of the Caribbean Zone, each advancing in dramatic fashion.
In the zone championship, London scored three runs in the top of the sixth inning against Holland to break a tie and take a 7-4 lead. In the bottom of the sixth, the team from the United Kingdom threw out the tying run at home plate and held on for a 7-6 victory.
Arecibo started the zone championship tournament with two early losses to Panama and Aruba. Then, Arecibo’s offense came alive with 41 runs in the final four games.
Guess who’s back
Unlike the newcomers, some teams clear their plans for mid-August because advancing to the world series has become like an annual family vacation.
Chinese Taipei returns eyeing its 10th Pony League World Series championship. North Zone champion Bay County, Mich., is back for the seventh consecutive year and ninth time in the last 10 years. It also is the third straight year that Brownsville, Texas, will be in the tournament.