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Xavier Navarro is at the heart of Torrance Little League’s success

Evelyn Schultz, left, and Haunani Brigoli hold big heads of Torrance Little League's Xavier Navarro and Skylar Vinson.
Evelyn Schultz, left, and Haunani Brigoli hold Fathead big heads of Torrance Little League’s Xavier Navarro and Skylar Vinson.
(Jack Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Evelyn Schultz’s eyes welled up Sunday morning.

Usually, watching her grandson play baseball isn’t so emotional. But as her boy, Xavier Navarro, pitched a nearly flawless game for Torrance in the Little League Baseball World Series, she sat in the stands of Volunteer Stadium and fought back tears of joy.

“It’s like, somebody pinch me,” Schultz said. “It feels like a dream.”

For a Torrance team that will try to advance to the World Series semifinal when it faces Sioux Falls, S.D., on Wednesday (2 p.m. PDT, ESPN), Navarro has been one of the driving forces, a constant source of energy and direction for the roster of 12-and-under players.

“He’s the heart of the team,” coach Javier Chavez said. “When he performs well, the rest of the team does also. He picks up the team in the dugout. When he’s out there, likes to put the team on his back. It’s great to have someone like that.”

And as it all coalesced Sunday, Navarro’s infectious smile planted on his face during a scoreless 4⅔-inning start in a 9-0 win over Hamilton, Ohio, Schultz soaked up every moment — thinking about how surreal it felt and reflecting on how different his story could have turned out.

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A decade ago, Navarro and his two older brothers were taken out of their parents’ custody and put in foster care.

Schultz and her husband offered to care for the kids, but state officials initially kept the siblings in foster care near their parents in Santa Maria, along the Central Coast, with hopes they could reunify the family.

When that didn’t happen, the couple had to decide whether they wanted to go to court to fight for custody instead.

Torrance Little League shuts out Hamilton, Ohio, to advance in the Little League World Series. Shohei Ohtani shows up to sign autographs.

“I told my husband: ‘We’re going to do this. This is what they deserve. They’re not going into foster care,’ ” said Schultz, who already had raised her kids but never hesitated about parenting the three boys.

“I could never look myself in the mirror knowing we let them go to foster care.”

It took about two years, but a judge finally ruled in their favor. At 4 years old, Navarro and his brothers moved into their grandparents’ home in Torrance. And since, “we never looked back,” Schultz said. “I tell the boys that all the time: ‘I have no regrets. Just make us proud.’ ”

Baseball always has brought out the best in Navarro.

Schultz has a video of him as a 2-year-old, during a visit while still in the foster care system, swinging a Wiffle Ball bat in the grandparents’ backyard. When she would take him shopping, he always made a beeline to the toy section, seeking a new piece of baseball equipment each time.

“No trucks, no nothing,” Schultz laughed. “It’s always been about a ball.”

Though he’s one of the smallest players on the Torrance team at 4 feet 11 and 85 pounds, Navarro is also one of the most dynamic.

Torrance Little League's Xavier Navarro delivers a pitch.
Torrance Little League’s Xavier Navarro delivers a pitch at the Little League World Series on Sunday in South Williamsport, Pa.
(Tom E. Puskar / Associated Press)

Xavier Navarro with his grandmother Evelyn Schultz.
Xavier Navarro, right, with his grandmother Evelyn Schultz.
(Evelyn Schultz)

As the squad’s leadoff batter, he has two hits and two walks in the World Series. On the mound, he was not only dominant as a pitcher Sunday but also made a couple of key defensive plays.

“You know you can’t make too many mistakes,” he said of playing in Williamsport. “It makes me feel confident that I won’t make them.”

More importantly, Navarro is a spark plug behind the scenes. He’s often the one to lead drills in practice. He’s at the center of every pingpong battle and pool session away from the field. He was even the one who prompted the team to slide down the steep, muddy grass hill behind the Little League complex during a rainstorm over the weekend.

“Xavier definitely has the most energy and has the most fun on and off the field,” assistant coach Ollie Turner said. “We need him to lead, in the sense of listening to the coaches and everybody else following. I personally have relied on him a lot when I’m trying to get the team anywhere. I get him and say, ‘X, this is what we got to do.’ ”

Navarro’s unshakeable joy has rubbed off on his teammates, making him a calming presence amid the pressure of playing in a 10,000-seat stadium and on national television.

“He does very well under pressure,” said Haunani Brigoli, whose son Skylar Vinson is one of Navarro’s best friends on the team. “It’s like home for him. He’s comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”

On Sunday, Navarro had to dive to snag a line drive hit back at his head, lying on the ground for a moment — “I thought he got knocked unconscious,” Schultz said — before popping up and immediately laughing with his teammates on their way back to the dugout.

With its 9-0 win over Hamilton, Ohio at the Little League World Series, Torrance, California is two wins away from the tournament final.

When Chavez came to replace him on the mound a couple of innings later — wearing a microphone connected to the TV broadcast — Navarro joked at his coach’s subtle demeanor: “Coach, why is the mic making you talk like that?”

And rather than feeling nerves under the spotlight of the World Series, Navarro likes the idea that players back home are getting to watch him and his team — that they could be making an impact that reverberates through their community.

“It feels good knowing all the little kids at the Little League are looking up to us,” he said, “watching us on TV.”

The one thing missing right now: the in-person contact with his grandparents, as Schultz and other family members are only able to interact with the kids through the fence at games because of Little League’s health and safety restrictions.

It’s not lost on him the role they’ve played in his life. When asked by ESPN before the tournament what he would do if he won the lottery, Navarro explained he would make sure his grandparents are taken care of, he said, “because they take care of me.”

But for Schultz, what Navarro is doing right now is more than enough. It’s not just that he’s made it to Williamsport, or playing like one of the best on his team. Instead, it’s the way he has handled this moment — like all the other obstacles he already has overcome in his life — that make her choke up.

“I could have sat and cried the whole game,” she said, thinking back again to Sunday’s game. “That’s my kid up there, shining like a star.”


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