SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - The best compliments often come from the opposition, and Post Falls Little League pitcher Jake Pfennigs left Boulder Arrowhead of Billings, Mont., in awe Thursday.
Pitching in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN2, Pfennigs threw a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts in a 3-2 victory against Montana in a Northwest Regional semifinal baseball game at Al Houghton Stadium.
"I haven't watched every game here at the tournament, but I've watched enough of them and I haven't seen anybody better than him," Montana coach Troy Tallman said of Pfennigs. "He's got great stuff. He throws hard - he's tall, so he's throwing downhill to these 12-year-olds, and he's a pretty imposing figure out there."
After a shaky first inning in which he allowed the only two runs for Montana, Pfennigs settled down and retired 12 straight batters, striking out nine. That gave Post Falls an opportunity to rally and tie the score with two runs in the third inning and take the lead for good with a run in the fifth.
“After the first inning, I kind of got settled in and got into a groove,” Pfennigs said.
On his 88th pitch of the game, Pfennigs induced a game-ending ground out to send Post Falls to the regional final Saturday at 1 p.m. against Gresham, Ore., which beat Mercer Island, Wash., 6-2 in the other semifinal. The title game will broadcast on ESPN.
Post Falls will attempt to become the first Idaho team to reach the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., since 1999.
Post Falls hasn’t faced Oregon in the tournament, but played Washington on Monday, losing 10-5.
With a game-time temperature of 106 degrees, Montana got off to a hot start in the top of the first. Joaquin Bodine hit a soft line drive up the middle with two outs to drive in lead-off hitter Braxton Haws from second for a 1-0 lead. Max Egan then hit a hard grounder up the middle that got under the glove of Post Falls shortstop Kodie Kolden to make it 2-0.
Pfennigs settled down after that, retiring the next 12 batters before Haws reached on a two-out error in the fifth.
“Since he started pitching, it seems like sometimes he just gets off to a slow start,” said Dusty Pfennigs, Jake’s father and the manager of Post Falls. “Sometimes he throws a lot of pitches in the first inning, but then he settles down and gets into a groove. Once he gets into a grove, he’s tough.”
Post Falls, which beat Montana 12-2 in a tournament opener last week, failed to take advantage of two walks in each of the first two innings, but capitalized on a lead-off walk in the third.
Quin Bennett scored on a two-out, two-strike double to left-center by Kolden, the first hit of the game by Post Falls. Following a wild pitch, Kolden scored the tying run on a single to right field by Jake Shelton.
No player has homered in the Northwest Regional, but Pfennigs came close with one out in the fifth, hitting a curve ball off the bottom of the fence in left for a double. Pfennigs took third on a wild pitch and scored the go-ahead run on a well-placed bunt up the first-base line by Shelton.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Dusty Pfennigs said of Shelton’s bunt.
Pfennigs retired the first two batters in the top of the sixth, but issued his first walk of the game on his 83rd pitch. Two pitches shy of his limit, Post Falls pitching coach Pat Call paid a visit to Pfennigs and encouraged him to bear down. After Egan lined the next pitch into left to put runners on first and second, Pfennigs got Bradyn Sears to ground to first base to end the game.
“I knew they had runners on first and second so I got some butterflies in my stomach,” Jake Pfennigs said. “I knew I needed to strike him out or make him put it in play.”
Members of the Post Falls Little League team listen to coaches during a break in the action Thursday.