SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The U.S. championship of the Little League Baseball World Series was so close late Saturday afternoon, North State manager Brian Fields and his team could almost taste it.
Up 5-0 after three innings and 5-4 with three outs to go, the Southeast Regional champions and a large contingent wearing yellow and black scattered among the estimated 26,593 fans at Howard J. Lamade Stadium sensed a date with international champion Japan on Sunday. But Mark Requena and Lufkin, Texas, spoiled the party.
The left-hand-hitting Requena, who Greenville’s dominant pitchers never retired in two games, cracked a two-run home run over the left field wall in the top of the sixth to give the Southwest champions a 6-5 victory. North State went down in order in the sixth, suffering its first loss in 16 games this summer.
As Texas celebrated and paraded around the field with its U.S. champion banner, Fields delivered a message to his 13 all-stars.
Carson Hardee pitched 4.2 strong inning for North State, allowing just four hits and striking out nine. (Courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)
“I just told them how proud I was of them,” he said. “… I told them to look out, to look at this venue, look at the crowd out there. Who gets to do that? Who gets to play in front of that many people in the United States championship
“I just told them to hold their heads high. They have nothing to be ashamed of. That’s a good Texas team. They lost to a great team.”
But North State also beat Texas, taking a thrilling 2-1 victory in seven innings on Wednesday, leaving each team with one loss. Texas advances because of a modified double-elimination format the ends with a made-for-TV, one-game final.
Fields said he would welcome a third game with Texas.
“I’d love to play another game with them,” he said. “You’ve got two very, very good baseball teams. You’ve got good pitching, you’ve got good hitting, you’ve got good defense. It really comes down to who makes the least amount of errors and mental mistakes a lot of times. Unfortunately, we were on the other end of that. But I’d love to have one more shot.”
Instead, North State will play in a 10 a.m. consolation game Sunday against Mexico, which gave up four first-inning runs to Japan and fell 5-0 earlier Saturday. North State and Mexico have been sharing the same area at The Grove, where players and coaches are housed during the LLWS.
“These guys have formed some friendships,” Fields said. “There’s bonds there, so it’s going to be awesome. I haven’t really thought about, but we’re going to come back ready to play. I’m curious to see how these boys come back with that being our first loss. It will show me a lot how they come back tomorrow.”
A win would give a Greenville team a third-place finish in the LLWS for the second time. Tar Heel’s all-stars fell to Toms River, N.J., in the U.S. championship in 1998 then beat Canada in a consolation game.
“We’ll try to push that some, having a chance to be third in the world,” Fields said. “Man, that still to me is mind-boggling.”
Fields almost was pondering playing for the LLWS title. North State pounced on Texas starter Collin Ross for seven of its eight hits and all five of its runs in the second and third innings. Bryce Jackson knocked in two runs in the second inning with a line drive to left, bringing in Cameron Greenway and JoJo Byrne. Byrne then delivered a two-run in third, went on the way to third on an outfield error and scored on Chase Anderson’s bouncer to second. But Ross allowed just one more baserunner before Chip Buchanan came on to record the final four outs. Ross struck out five and walked none.
Carson Hardee, who had pitched just 2.1 innings in the regionals and LLWS combined, provided yet another masterful performance for a North State pitching staff that had allowed just one hit in 18 innings coming into Saturday, including the first combined perfect game in the 71 years of the LLWS and the first-ever consecutive no-hitters by a U.S. team.
Requena accounted for the only three hits against North State pitching through 22.2 innings with his one hit in Wednesday’s game and singles in his first two at-bats Saturday. Clayton Wigley, a 5-0, 129-pound pinch-hitter, joined Requena in a noisy way, drilling a two-run homer in the fourth to get Texas within 5-2.
Cameron Greenway batted 1-for-2 on Saturday and is now 6-for-9 in the Little League World Series. (Courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)
Hardee reached the pitch count maximum (85) and exited with the three-run lead intact after striking out Chandler Spencer for the second out of the fifth inning, He struck out nine and walked none.
Anderson, who began the tournament with eight perfect innings before giving up double to Requena on Wednesday, entered Saturday’s game with a runner on third and gave up a single to center by Macolm Deason.
Two wild pitches allowed Deason to move to third, and he raced home when catcher Bryce Jackson’s throw on the second one skipped into left field.
Anderson plunked Collin Ross in the helmet with a 3-2 pitch to start the sixth. Requena then stepped in and golfed a 2-2 curveball over the wall.
“We were throwing him out and then trying to come in on him,” Fields said. “He did a great job of hitting the ball to left field. He’s probably one of the best hitters we’ve faced.”
Fields pointed to the throwing error that allowed a fourth run to score as big momentum shift.
“It’s a big difference in a one-run game and a two-run game,” he said. “We knew who they had coming up next inning. I think that was a huge play in that ballgame. If we keep that ball in front of us and don’t throw it and get the next guy out, it’s 5-3. I think that was probably one of the bigger plays of the game momentum-wise.”
Fields held out hope in the last inning with Matthew Matthijs due to bat fourth. The slugger has been in a home run drought since slamming two against Rocky Mount American in the third game of the District 4 tournament — a stretch of 12 games — but lined out hard to right-center in his previous at-bat.
A groundout to third, a strikeout and groundout to short ended the game with Matthijs waiting to hit.
“I felt really comfortable in that last inning,” Fields said. “I knew we had seven, eight, nine (coming up). I knew if one person could get on base and we could bring Matthew Matthijs up, he was due. If we could just get one man on base, I think we had a good chance to win that ballgame.”