As the reigning back-to-back champions of the Triple Crown Fireworks Super 64 bracket, all the pressure was on Athletics – Mercado/Smith once again to deliver on Championship Sunday in Aurora.
Head coach David Mercado’s squad was up to the challenge, however, outlasting the EC Bullets, 6-3, to once again claim the crown in the 16u division.
“I think it shows how close this team is to each other,” said Mercado. “They’ve been playing together their whole lives and have really jelled to produce outcomes like this.”
The Bullets struck the first blow of the heavyweight bout, mashing a solo home run off starting pitcher Lexi Sosa in the bottom half of the first inning.
“She got a good hit off me,” said Sosa. “With that behind me, my teammates really calmed me down and I was able to focus on one batter at a time.”
It didn’t take long for the Athletics to respond. Catcher Kinzie Hansen led the top of the second inning off with a walk. Two batters later, with Hansen’s replacement runner at third, Paige Smith dialed up a sacrifice fly to tie the game at one.
Pitching with a lead, Lexi Sosa was able to make some key adjustments which seemed to fool the EC hitters. Through the next three innings, Sosa gave up just one walk and never let any one batter further than second base.
Offensively, Mercado looked for a little breathing room in the fourth inning. With two runners on, Alyssa Garcia delivered a monstrous 2-RBI single to give the Athletics the lead, 3-1. Lexi Sosa helped herself out with an RBI of her own to stretch the advantage, 4-1.
An inning later, EC threatened to climb back on top. The Bullets’ second extra-base hit plated two runs for EC and suddenly, the margin shrunk to one, 4-3.
“It’s important for us to match up inning for inning,” said Page Smith. “The quicker we can respond, the quicker we can stop their momentum and regain ours.”
Smith would have to wait until the top of the seventh inning for her chance to respond, but it was an opportunity she wouldn’t wasted. When she arrived at the plate, two runners already in scoring position. Smith promptly blasted a double to left field, scoring two runs and separating the Athletics from the Bullets, 6-3.
“They changed pitchers right before my at-bat,” explained Smith. “With a rise ball pitcher in then, with that wind, I knew I could keep my hands level and drive one.”
The Athletics then leaned on Shannon Bustamante, who had come in relief during the fifth inning, to close out the championship. Bustamante weathered the storm nicely, navigating through multiple scoring chances for the Bullets before forcing the final fly out to right field to seal the Super 64 title, 6-3.
“Shannon has been our go-to this week,” said Mercado. “Our pitching wasn’t as good as it normally is this week. We’ve nick-named Shannon ‘Engine 57’ because she put out so many fires this week.”
Impressively, Athletics – Mercado/Smith capped off its third straight championship with the same roster at the Triple Crown Fireworks tournament. The 2017 edition featured multiple come from behind victories, including a walk-off against a talented Firecrackers Brashear squad.
“It says a lot about this group of individuals that they didn’t take it lightly,” said Mercado “We know that when we come to this tournament, we’ll be facing the best in the country. For them to hold it together and play like they did is outstanding.”