Special to the Rafu
LODI — It’s usually pretty hot during the summer in Lodi – but the temperature was nothing compared to the hot streak that the Lodi JACL Templars went on during the 63rd annual California State AA Japanese American Baseball tournament held in Lodi over the Labor Day weekend.
Four teams from Southern California — the Gardena Rebels, the Gardena Knights, the Lil Tokio Giants and the Los Angeles Pirates — drove up I-5 to meet the four representatives from Northern California — the San Francisco Hawks, the Florin Athletic Club, the Lodi JACL Templars, and the Fresno Sansei — to determine who would walk away with the 2015 Championship trophy.
Funnily enough, this tournament and the Lodi team itself almost did not happen due to lack of players on the Lodi roster – too many other activities were taking Nikkei kids away from baseball. Or so it seemed.
Conceived in 1915, the team was celebrating it’s 100th anniversary – the former coach and benefactor, Lodi baseball legend Mauch Yamashita, who passed away in 2011, had left the team a very healthy endowment, so finances were not the issue. But, through an aggressive PR campaign and grassroots recruiting, the Templars managed to assemble enough of their veteran players with a healthy addition of new young players to grind out a 9-9 record through the regular season, including winning four of the last five games.
Lodi earned the #3 seed in the North, so they met the #2 seed from the South, Lil Tokio Giants, for the opening round of the tournament. Behind a superb complete game pitching performance by the Templars’ Alex Rivers, who struck out 13 Giants batters, Lodi defeated Lil’ Tokio, 3-1. Rookie Keoni Mark provided the big bat in the game with a two- RBI double and Lodi advanced to the semi-finals against the #4 seed Los Angeles Pirates, who had upset the #1 seed from the North, San Francisco Hawks.
In the Semi-final, Lodi had Reid Yamamoto on the mound. He did a great job of keeping the powerful Pirates lineup off balance and was able to keep the Templars in the game until the Lodi bats came alive in the sixth inning with seven runs. The Templars cruised to a 14-4 victory and were headed to the Tournament Championship game.
In the past, Lodi had been a powerhouse in the single “A” division, winning three consecutive titles in the ’60s and most recently in 1992 – but they had never even won an AA tournament game in their 100-year history. To win two and now be in the Championship game was completely uncharted territory – and to make things more interesting, Lodi would be facing their good friend and nemesis, the Florin Athletic Club, who defeated the #1 seed from the South and defending champions, the Gardena Rebels.
Lodi and Florin played each other six times during the regular season, Florin taking the series 4-2, so the Templars had their work cut out for them.
First year player/manager Mike Furutani and general manager Dwight Ota decided to go with Yamamoto to start the Championship game played at Tony Zupo Field in Lodi, a former minor league park. Yamamoto had had great success against Florin during the season, but since he would have less than 24 hours’ rest, the leash would be short. He proved to be up to the task as he battled through five innings and left the game with a 6-4 Lodi lead.
Rivers then took the ball and blew through the Florin line-up for the next three innings, striking out five. It looked like the Templars were on their way to their very first AA title – until the top of the ninth. Florin had been coming from behind all tournament and this game would be no different – after a couple of defensive miscues by Lodi, Florin not only tied the game with two outs but went ahead by six runs until Furutani came in to get the last out of the inning.
Mirroring the beginning of the season, things looked pretty dismal for the Templars – the taste of victory champagne gave way to drymouth and heartache; what was a euphoric high now became a pit of despair – but one of the great things about baseball is: it ain’t ’til it’s over…
Lodi got a jolt of lightning from Justin Uemura with a leadoff triple – then they started chipping away with a couple hits, a couple walks (including a walk by Brendan Noguchi, the youngest Lodi player at age 15, pinch-hitting), a hit-by-pitch, a sacrifice fly, and all of sudden, the Templars were only down by two runs! The veterans had come through, the younger players matured and the rookies played no fear!
So many things went the Templars’ way including Corey Furuoka, a pinch runner, stealing second during the rally, with his slide knocking the ball out of the shortstop’s glove. With two outs, the tag would have finished the game with a Florin victory.
Then, with the bases loaded and two outs, another rookie, Davis Yasuda, who had struck out looking twice this game, came to the plate. After taking the first two strikes, the magical run seemed to have come to an end – it had been a valiant effort by the Templars, but for naught; however, Yasuda fouled off a couple pitches down the right-field side and things got a little interesting. Perhaps there might be a little drop of luck left in the bottle that Lodi had been drinking from…
And in what could possibly be one of the biggest hits in Lodi JA baseball history, young Davis, son of former Lodi player Dr. David Yasuda, lined a slicing shot down the right-field line that landed half a foot fair and went into the corner.
Jason Callejo scored from third, Cory Furuoka scored from second and Sensei Katsu Kusunoki, the reverend of the Lodi Buddhist Church, huffed and puffed all the way around from first to come in and score the walk-off game-winning run to complete the inconceivable and magical seven-run rally comeback that gave the Lodi JACL Templars the 13-12 win and the 2015 California State AA Nisei Baseball Tournament Championship – the first-ever AA Championship crown in Lodi JA baseball history.
“I just thought, I have to keep running. I’m 38 years old, I’m not so fast anymore,” Kusunoki said. “I knew I’m the winning run, so if I become out, game is over, so I was just thinking to run as fast as I can.
“Kent Furuoka, the third-base coach, was just saying, ‘Go go go go!’ Everybody was saying, ‘Go go!’ so I just followed their voices.”
And when he crossed the plate, the celebration was on. Teammates first mobbed Kusunoki at the plate and then turned their attention to Yasuda at second base. No jerseys were torn off, but there was a bottled water dousing. The Templars lined up to congratulate the Florin team and then the parents, family and fans that had stuck around for the whole amazing episode.
“That was a really great moment for me in my life,” Kusunoki said. “Because this Lodi team has 100 years’ history, but this is its first time to be a champion.”
“Call it luck, call it destiny, call it whatever you want,” Furutani said after things had settled down. “I still can’t believe what happened, but I’m holding this trophy – this belongs to Mauch Yamashita and all the guys who never got a chance to play in a championship. This was a complete team effort – I got nobody left on the bench. We hit Florin with everything we had and then some.”
“I knew we were going to win the whole thing,” Ota said, still brimming with confidence and coincidentally wearing the number 13 – the number of runs needed to beat Florin. “There was no way we were losing that game. Hollywood wouldn’t be able to use this ending in a movie – no one would believe it. I heard people say we won this for Mauch. What I really believe is that somehow, Mauch won this game for us.”
This game has already stirred up excitement in the community and new recruits have been inquiring about next season. During the Tournament Banquet held on Saturday night, it was announced that the Lodi JACL baseball club will have a 101st season, with Marty Sakata, the father of one of the current players, as the new manager.
“Going from the brink of extinction to championship title – you could say it only happens once a generation,” Yamamoto said during the post-game photo shoot at Yamashita Field, named after the former coach in Lodi.
“I want to make sure I never forget one of the best games in a hundred years,” added Corey Fukumoto, who remembers sitting next to Mauch and running around the fields during the games going to get the foul balls when he was younger.
It’s a sure thing that this game will remain in the hearts of all the Lodi players and their families for the rest of their lives.
Addendum – Lil Tokio Giants won the consolation game over the Gardena Knights, 12-7.