By: Brian Mangan
If you are like me, you are currently suffering from a case of Major League Baseball fatigue. Not only is my team, the Mets, currently without their only decent player (David Wright), but baseball news on the national stage has been fixated for weeks on the newest infuriating and depressing steroid scandal. No matter where I turn for news, I cannot seem to avoid some jaded sportswriter pontificating about Alex Rodriguez. It is tiring.
It was with that in mind that I tuned into the Little League World Series on Sunday afternoon (I had DVR’ed it the night before) and, boy, am I glad I did. The Saturday night match-up was the New England regional final, and featured the Little League all-star teams from Westport, Connecticut and Lincoln, Rhode Island. Westport emerged victorious in a 1-0 game that turned out to be an instant classic, and will advance to the Little League World Series.
For the uninitiated, the Little League World Series (“LLWS”) is an actual world series — unlike Major League Baseball’s World Series, which features only teams in the MLB — where the best little league teams from around the globe compete against one another in month long tournaments for the right to represent their region in the final tournament. That tournament, held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, features eight American teams (representing regions like Mid-Atlantic, Southwest, New England) and eight International teams (representing countries or regions such as Japan, Mexico, Trans-Atlantic).
Amazingly, more than 7,000 teams participate in the tournament — of those, approximately 6,500 of them are eliminated in the first three weeks of regional tournament play.
One of the most wonderful things about the Little League World Series, whose participants must be between 11 and 13 years of age, is that the teams participating are actual teams, not simply all-star teams of athletic mercenaries from certain states or countries. The teams that will represent each region in the Little League World Series are simply local all-star teams of kids made up from their local LIttle Leagues, and do not modify their rosters after the tournament begins.
This means that, for instance, the Westport, Connecticut team that will be playing to win it all is an actual team — kids who hail from the same region, played in the same Little League, and who may have played together for many years. Although undoubtedly many more talented players were left behind, this policy simply reinforces the fact that baseball is a team game, not an individual one.
I have a close colleague from Westport who had been telling me how great their team was this year, so when the final qualifying game was televised on ESPN on Saturday night, I made sure to catch it.
Connecticut has represented the New England region several times in the past few years (Fairfield, 2012, 2010 and Shelton, 2008) but from what I have read, none of those teams had as much of a chance to make noise in the big tournament as the 2013 Westport squad does (famously, NHL star Chris Drury led the Trumbull, CT little league to a LLWS championship in 1989).
Westport entered play on Saturday with a remarkable 17-0 record, and had only given up a total of eight runs in their prior five games (2, 0, 2, 4, 0). In Westport’s last game, they pitched a combined no hitter — and it wasn’t even the first one of the year. For sake of comparison, the two next best teams in the regional tournament, Lincoln, RI and South Burlington, VT, had both given up more than twice as many runs as the Westport squad in the five game qualifier (RI gave up a total of 21, VT a total of 19).
Suffice to say, given Westport’s pitching mastery, it would take a truly excellent pitching performance to surprise anybody. Luckily for Westport, Saturday night’s starting pitcher Chad Knight was more than up to the task.
As I mentioned above, the Westport v. Lincoln New England Regional Final was an instant classic. Chad Knight pitched a complete game one-hitter, recording 14 of his 18 outs by strikeout. The only hit? An an infield bunt single in the fifth.
Knight was dazzling – with a blistering fastball that sat around 67-73 miles per hour, with ESPN announcers saying that it touched as high at 74. Even better was his breaking ball, which looked like a vintage El Duque frisbee. So good was Knight that when the announcers made a comparison between Knight and Pedro Martinez, it seemed apt, not crazy.
However despite Knight’s efforts the game was still tied at 0-0 entering the sixth inning (LLWS games are only 7 innings). Knight’s efforts had been matched by that of Dominic Kunha, the starter for Rhode Island. Although not as dominant as Knight, Kunha threw hard and managed to stay out of trouble for the first five frames.
It was in the sixth that the drama truly began to play out on the small stage, when Westport led off the inning with a ringing double off the fence in left center field. Kunha was not only dealing with a runner in scoring position with nobody out, but also staring down at the LLWS mandated maximum of 85 pitches. Once Kunha reached 85 pitches, Lincoln would have to go to the bullpen. You could almost see Kunha doing the math on the mound as his manager came out to speak to him (and delivered a heck of a speech).
Kunha bore down and drew a ground ball from the next batter, but the shortstop had to make a diving stop to keep the ball in the infield and could not make a play at first. Suddenly, after five innings of almost no action, Westport was in business. With Knight pitching the game of his life, it was clear that if Westport could scratch across even one run, that they would likely be on their way to the World Series.
Kunha stared in at the catcher, knowing that his LLWS career was going to be over unless he, and the pitcher who relieved him, would be able to escape this jam. In what was a pretty cool moment, Kunha reared back and struck out the next batter on his 85th and final pitch.
Lincoln, Rhode Island had no choice at that point but to bring in a reliever who, of course, walked the first batter he faced. With the bases loaded, Westport pitcher Chad Knight came to the plate (who else?) with the opportunity to break the scoreless tie. He did, in a very Little League manner, grounding a ball to the third baseman who mishandled it and was unable to throw home in time to prevent a run from scoring.
The Lincoln pitcher struck out the next batter, but it was of little import, as Knight went back to the mound to finish what he started.
Look at that moment of utter joy and jubilation! Knight struck out the last batter to face him, as he had struck out almost every other batter before him.
His teammates dogpiled him immediately after, and the announcers chimed in with a very adult-like concern, “they had better be sure not to hurt him under there!” The kids didn’t care.
The LLWS is always an amazing event. Little players, on little fields, with little bats and little shin guards. It’s no substitute for baseball (the proportions are wrong for kids their size, etc.) but it’s still a great display of youthful exuberance. As the picture above indicates, although they spend seven innings tugging on their caps and doing their best to look serious, they’re still just kids, playing a kids game.
The Little League World Series begins tomorrow, Thursday, August 16th. Westport will be taking on the representative of the Southeast, the South Nashville, Tennessee Little League, at 7pm on ESPN2.
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