When Woodland Hills West right-hander Lance Gibson learned he had drawn Jeff Thelen of Janesville (Wis.) as the opposing pitcher in Thursday night’s second-round American Legion World Series game, he knew it might take everything he had to survive.
“I knew it would be a battle to the end,” Gibson said. “I knew I’d have to fight him tooth and nail, that it would be a real dogfight.”
Using a curveball that had plenty of bite indeed, Gibson pitched a five-hitter and struck out a career-high 12 batters as West remained unbeaten after two rounds of Series play with a 3-1 defeat of Janesville at Millington Legion Field.
West plays Gonzales, La., tonight at 6:30 p.m. Gonzales defeated Fargo, N. D., 9-6, Thursday.
Gibson (13-2) outpitched Thelen (14-1), regarded as the best pitching prospect in the tournament. Thelen, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the eighth round of the June free-agent draft, entered postseason play with an earned-run average of 0.26.
And from the first pitch of the first inning, it was obvious to many that one run might make a world of difference.
“From then on, just from looking at him, I knew (Thelen) would do real well,” said West’s Paul Geller, who had three hits. “I knew we weren’t gonna run it up on him. No way.”
It seemed destined to be a game where the first pitcher to blink would take the loss. And in the top of the first inning, Gibson could only close his eyes and wince as West made the first mistake.
Gibson issued a two-out walk to Dan Milligan, who moved to third on Kyle Anderson’s bloop single to right. Dan Bloom followed with a chopper to third that went through the legs of Del Marine for an error, allowing Milligan to score an unearned run for a 1-0 lead.
“For awhile there, I didn’t know if we could come back against (Thelen) and win it,” Marine said. “Then I started thinking, ‘God, and it’s gonna be my fault.’ ”
Gibson, however, settled down, striking out seven batters through the next three innings, primarily with off-speed stuff.
“My splitter was horrendous and the ump wasn’t giving me the low strike at all,” Gibson said. “I got by mainly with the curve.”
In the bottom of the fourth, a curve would have been a good idea for Thelen.
After Geller singled to center to lead off the inning, Thelen grooved a fastball to Marine. Marine, who has five hits in two games, sent Thelen’s pitch to center, a rocket that bounced off the base of the fence near the 414-foot sign. Geller scored easily, and Marine, who trotted into third with a triple, scored when Jason Cohen lofted an 0-and-2 pitch to right for a sacrifice fly and a 2-1 West lead.
Thelen said he realized that the fastball he threw Marine was a mistake as soon as he let it go.
“I made three or four mistakes in the whole game,” said Thelen, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-hander. “The triple was a perfect example. I look in at the sign with an idea of what I want to throw and end up saying, ‘Well, OK, I’ll throw that instead.’ I’m not saying I threw it half-heartedly, but maybe I threw it tentatively.”
And Marine, who only half in jest says the baseball currently looks, “as big as a watermelon,” was waiting for Thelen to unload. To be sure, there was nothing tentative about Marine’s blast.
“The last three or four guys said he’d started them off with fastballs,” Marine said of his teammates. “Lately, I’ve made some lucky guesses at the right time.”
Luck had little to do with Gibson’s performance in the final innings. As he started to tire, Janesville threatened, but Gibson continued to hold his ground. With West holding a one-run lead in the seventh, Gibson walked Thelen on five pitches and gave up a single to Dan Molden.
But Gibson retired Milligan on a grounder to short to end the inning.
West took a 3-1 lead in the seventh on a perfectly executed hit-and-run play. Carl McFadden led off with a single and moved to third when Bobby Kim drilled a shot into the hole on the right side as Brad Freeburg left to cover the bag. Jeff Marks then drove in McFadden with a single.
In the Janesville eighth, Tom Drew lined a two-out single to left--only Janesville’s third hit of the game--but Gibson struck out Jerry Wellnitz to end the inning.