CORTLANDVILLE — After finishing the Crown City Little League Major Division regular season as the only team with a sub-.500 record, the Mariners entered the playoffs with a new mantra: “Shock the world!”
Well, consider the world, or at least Cortland County, shocked.
The Mariners completed their improbable underdog run through the double-elimination tournament by ousting the top-seeded Angels, 4-1, in the winner-take-all championship game Friday night at Ted Testa Park.
Jacob Griffin and Owen Johnson paved the way for the Mariners’ victory, both at the plate and on the mound. Griffin got the win in three innings of work, allowing four hits and one run while striking out three, and went 1-for-2 at the plate with a run scored. Johnson got the save with three innings of shutout ball, striking out three of his own, and went 1-for-2 with an RBI double.
The Mariners and Angels had opposite approaches at the plate in the early part of the game. The Mariners worked deep counts against Angels starting pitcher Owen Mulcahy, getting him up to 60 pitches before he even finished the third inning. They loaded the bases with nobody out in the first and scored two huge early runs against Mulcahy.
Meanwhile, the Angels wanted to attack Griffin early in the count. Griffin got through the first inning on just 10 pitches.
But one of those pitches was turned around by Blair Mulcahy for a home run to straightaway center that was just about out of the park by the time Griffin could turn his head and watch.
Two batters later, cleanup hitter Garrick Ott smacked a double and got into scoring position as the tying run with two outs.
Considering the Angels exploded for seven runs in the final two innings Wednesday to force this deciding game, there could have been a sense of dread in the Mariners that they were in for a similar night.
But any uneasy feelings were put to rest in short order.
The next batter, Ben Lickona, hit a single that looked to be deep enough to plate Ott, but the Mariners defense teamed up to get Ott in a pickle between third and home, resulting in a 9-4-2-5 putout.
“I knew Blair was going to hit it out of the infield,” Griffin said. “I tried to pitch him on the outside. I messed up, I gave him one right down the middle. Then I did what I could, I got angry and I just did my thing.”
From there, the Mariners never let another Angels runner get past second, and their defense made some fine plays, including a tough catch in left by Aiden Davis with the sun in his eyes, and two fielder’s choices at third squelching a two-on, nobody-out rally in the fourth.
“I trust my defense,” Mariners’ manager Abe Johnson said. “I know if they put the ball in play, they’re going to do what they need to do.”
The Mariners got some insurance in the top of the fifth with smart base running. Foster Eaton scored on a wild pitch, and Madalyn Thompson broke for home on a groundout to the pitcher, making the score 4-1.
Johnson got nine consecutive outs after allowing his first two batters to reach base, and a groundout to third off the bat of Adam Derado for the final out of the ballgame sent the Mariners and their fans into a frenzy.
Oftentimes, the team that finishes the regular season on a hot streak makes the deepest run in the playoffs. For the Mariners, their hot streak began during the playoffs.
“We had nothing to lose,” Johnson said. “We had a rough regular season, but I knew these guys could pull it together…We got better every game. After the game on Wednesday, I think everybody was a little too amped up. But we came back, everybody was calm today, and we scored early, which was really important. It was a really fun ride.”
As the No. 5 seed, the Mariners had to play the most games of anyone to make it this far. But they played their best games of the season when it mattered most, knocking off the No. 4 Orioles, 9-5; the Angels, 4-3, in an eight-inning thriller; and the No. 2 Pirates, 5-2, to make it to the championship round.
“I thought we were going to go two and out, but we clutched up and did our thing,” Owen Johnson said.
It was a thrilling conclusion to a unique season, as Little League International canceled the World Series and regional tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic. Local leagues such as Crown City and Homer were able to salvage a brief season over the summer, and now Crown City Little League will send its Maroon and Gold All-Star teams to the All-Star tournament in North Syracuse and Cortland starting today and concluding Sept. 5.