One of the smallest of the Smurfs made the biggest play of his life Friday.
James Rendine dove to his right with two out and the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position to steal a hit from Delaware’s Brandon Hoeflinger in the sixth inning and give underdog Paramus an amazing 2-1 victory in the semifinals of the Little League Mid-Atlantic Regional.
“It was just a reaction, it happened so fast,” said Rendine, still clutching the ball that will make the detour from center field in Bristol to the second baseman’s trophy case in Paramus. “Once I knocked it down, I knew I was going to get it.”
The win sends the Jersey boys into Sunday’s regional championship against Pennsylvania, a 3-0 winner over New York. Pennsylvania handed Paramus its first loss of the tournament, 8-4, last week.
Paramus went into the top of the sixth with a 2-0 lead as pitcher Conor Heim and the defense bailed the team out of huge threats in the first and fifth innings.
But Delaware’s Andrew DelPercio lined Heim’s first pitch over the fence just inside the foul pole in left to cut the lead to 2-1. The next two batters reached to put the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second with nobody out.
Then Rendine got into the act at second, getting the first two put-outs on a soft liner and a pop-up. That brought up Hoeflinger, who already had two hits in the game.
“I knew he was a good hitter and Conor was going for the outside corners,” Rendine said. “So I was ready for it.”
Hoeflinger hit a smash that looked destined for center field. But Rendine dove right, parallel to the ground, to knock the ball down and picked it up to get Hoeflinger at first to end the game.
“I thought it was through,” Delaware coach Nick DiMartine said. “I was going to try to score [Alex Barker from second]. That kid made a heck of a play.”
“That was a great play,” said Heim. “James is such a great fielder, I knew I could trust him.”
The Jersey boys, who only managed three hits in the game, scored their two runs in the second inning on two wild pitches by Barker, the Delaware ace. Mike Daniele set up the inning, knocking the ball out of the shortstop’s hand covering third as he mistakenly tried to steal on a missed sacrifice.
“I thought the coach gave me the steal sign, but he didn’t,” Daniele said.
“He caught some heat for that when he got in there,” said Paramus coach Frank Smith. “It was aggressive baserunning, but those are the plays that change games.”
Still, pitching and defense have been the hallmark of this club, the third straight New Jersey team to reach the regional semifinal but the first from North Jersey since Palisades Park in 1984. And it came through against Delaware, which beat New Jersey, 2-1, Thursday.
Heim loaded the bases on two hits and a walk with no out in the first. That brought Smith to the mound.
“There were some butterflies, playing this game and knowing they were playing on TV,” Smith said. “I told Conor just throw strikes and we’ll get the plays.”
Danny Criscione made the first one, snagging a DelPercio grounder at first and throwing home for the force to cut down the run. Danny Miller followed with a grounder to third baseman Hiro Mizutani, who hooked up with catcher Brandon Smith to turn a crisp 5-2-3 double play to end the inning.
“You could just see their energy level pick up,” Smith said.
Paramus again escaped in the fifth. Hoeflinger led off with a double, but pinch runner Donnie Weaver was erased after a rundown trying to advance to third.
Gavin Niland then took a bad-hop grounder off his shoulder at third and picked it up to get the out before Heim got the final out on a grounder.
Paramus got a scare when ace pitcher Mizutani, who is slated to start Sunday, was hit in the ribs by a pitch. But Smith said the wind was just knocked out of him and he came out to play third in the next inning.