With a crowd of close to 1,000 and online viewers of 17,000 directed toward an action-packed final battle for the gold last Friday at the Francisco “Tan’Ko” M. Palacios Baseball Field, the CNMI National Baseball Team beat Guam, 12-9, to come up victorious and maintain its baseball supremacy in the Northern Marianas Pacific Mini Games 2022.
This win against their archrivals came after the host island had no baseball field to practice on and no league to play in for the past three years due to the damage sustained by the Oleai Sports Complex from Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018. The Tan’Ko field was finally reconstructed anew in the nick of time for the Games.
Just a few hours earlier, Team NMI advanced to the finals after beating team Palau, 2-1, in a pitching duel.
Winning pitcher Joshua Jones, who came all the way from Arizona to represent the CNMI, threw all nine innings in the semis against Palau and had 17 strikeouts. The lefty amazingly came in relief starting in the fourth inning and added nine more strikeouts against Guam.
Jones’ performance is reminiscent of the 2011 Pacific Games in New Caledonia when Jones came out to pitch in the third inning and beat Guam for the gold in the baseball finals, 8-4.
Starting pitcher Franko Nakamura gave up four runs to Guam in the bottom of the third inning after goose eggs for both teams in the first and second inning.
Team NMI’s bats then came alive and rallied in the fourth inning to tie the game up, 4-4, after Guam’s starting pitcher Paul Pangelinan gave up a triple to Jerald Cabrera who started off the momentum for the next batters. Nokki Saralu then scored him in after he hit a sacrifice fly and after Juan Iguel stepped up to the plate to score two more runs, as the crowd exploded in excitement at the comeback of the home team.
Guam replied with one run after Jones stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning, giving Guam a lead of 5-4, but Jones managed to hold them off. NMI’s offense then gave Jones more insurance by scoring five runs, for a score of 9-5, in a two-out rally in the fifth inning, with Guam’s pitcher finally shutting them down after going through nine NMI batters. Guam was unable to put up a run against Jones in their at-bats in the same inning.
NMI scored two more runs in the sixth inning to widen the gap, 11-5. Jones seemed to be slowing down a little after Guam managed to score three runs against him, to put Guam closer, 11-8.
In a nail-biter seventh inning, both teams put up zeros after Jones managed to get out of a sticky situation with runners on base and finally shutting down the lineup. NMI and Guam put up one run each in the eighth inning to put the score 12-9, as the crowd and both teams could almost see the end of the game, with the shiny gold medals, just a little out of reach, calling out to the NMI and Guam players.
Finally, in the ninth inning, with pressure mounting on both teams and the crowd hyped up with the possibility of Team NMI taking the gold, NMI could not put up more runs to widen the lead, giving Guam an opportunity in their last at-bat to possibly tie the game or bust it wide open to win the gold.
However, with the home crowd and Team NMI backing up him up on the mound, Jones managed to shut down the last of Guam’s batters to give the NMI the gold, with the crowd around the baseball field erupting in cheers over the victory of their home team.
The NMI star pitcher was immediately hugged by teammates and coaches on the field and afterwards Team NMI did a victory lap to salute the whooping and hooting fans in attendance.
Jones tossed a total of six innings in relief, while allowing eight hits and five runs, with nine strikeouts.
After the game, Jones was interviewed and was seen bursting with excitement and emotion. He credited the win to the support of the fans and “of course my teammates. We all did this together, we all chipped in… Gold medal baby, let’s go!” exalted Jones.
When asked how it felt to win the gold medal game against Guam, he said “it feels good. It’s like I told others before, these guys are a really young squad. It’s just the beginning for them, just keep your head up… just keep working hard. I’ll see them again for sure.”
“It’s been eight years since I represented my island. I knew I was still able to play, I was still able to pitch… I was ready for this. I’ve trained my butt off since November. I put softball aside and it was just strictly baseball and I was just working all the way hard. I came in April and just helped out,” added Jones.
Cather Jerald Cabrera said, “We have been practicing for eight months. Unfortunately, we never had a league, but the boys pulled through, we came every day, we grinded it out, and here we are, gold medalists. Here I am, still in shock.”
J.P Sablan, the designated hitter for the game, said, “we did it for everybody. I did it for my family. I’ve been practicing so hard, I missed a lot of birthdays… Thank you [fans] for all your support every day, thank you for showing up,” he said.
Head coach Derron U. Flores was also emotional after the gold medal win, “I’d like to thank God for guiding NMI baseball to the gold. The management staff with Manny [Sablan], our manager, myself the head coach, and Gary [Cruz], assistant coach, and Chris [Nelson], pitching coach. It’s just an awesome combination. Our boys never let up even being the third seed. The game versus Palau put us in the third seed, but we had an awesome game today. Josh pitched a gem. Of course, Guam was up 4-0, but in baseball, it’s not over ‘til it’s over. When we tied it up in the fourth inning and the momentum started swinging our way… Josh said I want the ball… That’s the reason why we brought him in from Arizona… He came ready. He came prepared. Our boys came ready.”
“To the organizing committee, our honorable governor, it was an awesome turnout, an awesome tournament. Solomon Islands, Fiji, Palau, Guam, thank you for making this baseball [game] after four years, it was a long time coming. Our boys have been hungry… and finally we got this field done. And lastly, we’d like to thank all our wives, my wife, for again, continuing to let us grind every day. This is for you guys; this is for our island. This is for everybody, this gold medal belongs to you guys,” he
Team NMI players also consisted of Lamarc Iguel, Juan Iguel, John Peter Camacho Sablan, Shane Yamada, Anthony Tenorio, Keoni Lizama, Darion David Jones, Joshua John Jones, Benjamin Jones Jr, Lorenzo Lee Sebaklim, Tyrone Omar, Patrick John Alepuyo, Aldebert Delos Santos Lizama, Nokki Saralu, Diego Joaquin Camacho, Franko Nakamura, Jerald Jerome Cabrera, Dennis Cabrera, Joaquin Jacob Babauta Jr., and Byron Kaipat. Manuel Cepeda Sablan Jr. served as Team NMI manager.