Jacob Nieves is a diminutive right fielder who bats in the No. 9 slot for the Washington Park Little League 11-and-12-year-old All-Stars, the team that captured the 2017 District 7 championship two weeks ago.
Juan de la Cruz is the team’s No. 3 hitter, the power hitter supreme, the player that most opponents fear the most.
Together, the two teammates are perhaps the biggest reasons why Washington Park is headed to the overall New Jersey State Little League championship for the first time in league history.
Washington Park punched its ticket to Kittatinny in Sussex County this weekend with a thrilling 5-4 victory in eight innings over Nutley American to capture the Section 2 championship Tuesday night at Tom Mellody Field in Rutherford.
It was the first time this postseason that Washington Park had been truly tested. They rolled through the District 7 tourney, winning all four games by the 10-run mercy rule, then took care of business in two prior Section 2 contests with ease.
After having already defeated Nutley American by a 10-2 score, Washington Park knew it was going to be a battle to eliminate the scrappy Nutley team.
“I knew they were coming to fight,” Washington Park manager Roberti Severino said. “Winning the sectional is never easy. We know.”
Two years ago, after winning the District 7 title for the first time since 1969, Washington Park was just one win away from going to the state tournament, but couldn’t get that elusive victory and were turned aside of the states.
Severino was an assistant coach with that Washington Park team, so he knew the disappointment first hand. In fact, Severino made a vow that this team would go further than the 2015 District 7 champs.
“I knew our boys were ready,” Severino said. “They practiced hard and were coming to battle.”
Early on, it was de la Cruz, the starting pitcher, who supplied the firepower. De la Cruz belted a solo homer to give Washington Park a 1-0 lead in the first inning, then after he surrendered the lead in the third inning by allowing three runs on back-to-back homers, de la Cruz came to the plate once again to provide the fireworks.
“Somebody had to start things off,” de la Cruz said. “Then, when I got up again, I was expecting someone to get on base so I could do my job.”
Sure enough, after Justin Hernandez had singled, de la Cruz smacked his second homer of the game, a long drive to straight away centerfield some 300 feet away. De la Cruz’s two-run cannon tied the game at 3-3.
“We knew that Juan was our biggest bat on the team,” Severino said. “You expect your leaders to come through in a big game like this. He was lights out and left it all on the field.”
De la Cruz’s brother was on the Washington Park team that suffered the heartbreak two years ago.
“When my brother [Luis] lost in 2015, I was praying to God that it wouldn’t happen again,” the younger de la Cruz said. “We couldn’t allow that to happen.”
Jayden Colon came through in the bottom of the fourth with an RBI double that gave Washington Park a 4-3 lead.
But the locals couldn’t hold that lead. In the top of the fifth inning, Nutley American pushed across the tying run on a sacrifice fly. Washington Park had to then go to Christopher Villavicencio to relieve de la Cruz on the mound.
The stocky Villavicencio came in throwing flames at Nutley and eventually would allow just two hits over four relief innings, striking out five.
“My hat goes off to Christopher,” Severino said. “He came in and was clutch.”
The game remained tied until the bottom of the eighth inning. Sebastian Morales led off with a single to right field and Colon reached on an infield single, his second hit of the game.
With two runners on, it was Nieves’ job to bunt the runners over to scoring position.
“Yesterday [Monday] in practice, I told Jacob that we might need him to bunt,” Severino said. “So we practiced bunting. Little did I know that it would boil down to exactly that.”
Nieves was the little-known hero, but he got down a perfect bunt that rolled for a hit and loaded the bases with one out.
“I had butterflies when I was up,” Nieves said. “I knew I had to get the ball in play.”
Then, catcher D’Angelo Ponce hit the sacrifice fly that sent Washington Park to Kittatinny.
“I have no idea where that is,” de la Cruz said. “But we’ll be there. We just have to load up the ship and get there. It’s fun to make history.”
“This team is like family,” Nieves said. “We’ve been playing together since we were eight years old. So this means a lot.”
The Washington Park squad managed to move on despite missing standout first baseman Jonathan Rodriguez, who will now return for the state tournament, which begins next Thursday, July 27.
Washington Park will play the Section 3 champions, either South Wall from down the shore, Sayreville or Holbrook. The Section 3 tourney will play on until Saturday, July 21. Washington Park will be well rested.
“We’re not finished yet,” Severino said. “We are all loving this. The pressure is off a little, knowing that we have a week off.”
Thanks to Washington Park coaching legend John Brunn, who provided a lot of the historical perspective about the league, the Jersey City Heights gang will be in full force next Thursday in rural Sussex County.
It’s a trip the Jersey City contingent has never taken, going to the state tourney.
“We’ve been at it since 1951,” Brunn said of the league. “We came close two years ago. We’re happy to go now.”
Brunn made the reporter remember some of the founding fathers of the Washington Park Little League, guys like the late Willie Wolfe, who was the most generous human being to ever grace Jersey City. It was Wolfe who ran a Christmas party to give toys to thousands of Jersey City youngsters over the years.
Or the late Howie Fink, who was a sponsor of a team in the league since the infant stages. There were hundreds of Heights kids who wore Howie Fink Association T-shirts because of his involvement in the Little League.
Both Wolfe and Fink had streets in Jersey City named after them after their passing.
Or the late Charlie Straub, who died only a few years ago, but was also instrumental in that league for decades.
Those three men are gone, but Brunn is still here to enjoy this champion and this trip to the state tourney. It’s safe to say he’ll be bringing a lot of Wolfe, Fink and Straub with him up to Sussex County.
It’s also safe to know that those people in rural Sussex County are going to know who these kids from Jersey City are, because they can hit the ball – hard and far – and pitch like champions. It should be interesting to see what transpires. On to dairy country.