It's all about pitching — as it was in the beginning, and now and forever shall be.
Everything flows from pitching. Good pitching shuts down good hitting. Therefore, good pitching keeps games close. Therefore, good pitching increases the importance of the smallest events on the field — a bad call by the umpire, a missed relay, a missed signal, a late jump on the base paths. Therefore, good pitching increases intensity of the games and the pain of the losses. Therefore, good pitching frays the nerves of parents and coaches and players and reveals the true characters of all involved.
After 33 games of pool play, the Little League World Series eliminated eight of its original 16 teams — and moved right into the single-elimination phase of the tournament on Wednesday. Wednesday's games eliminated two more teams. Today's games will eliminate two more.
Japan is the consensus best team in Williamsport. Japan last won a World Series back in 2003 when a team from Tokyo overwhelmed Boynton Beach, Florida, 10-1, in the championship game. This year, Japan's Kawaguchi Little League is the only team with the chance to go undefeated. Kawaguchi went 3-0 in pool play with convincing victories over Russia (11-1), Mexico (6-1), and Curacao (7-2).
Venezuela was the only other undefeated team in pool play, but lost to Mexico, 11-0, in Wednesday's single-elimination opener.
Japan should have an easy time dispatching the ex-pat team from Dhahrin, Saudi Arabia, and then face Mexico for the international championship.
The pitchers from Japan have been almost perfect. Ryoya Sato pitched a no-hitter and recorded 10 strikeouts in Japan's 11-0 five-inning win against Russia in the opener. Then Yada gave up one run and allowed four hits, fanning 12, in the 6-1 win over Mexico. Go Matsumoto allowed two runs and struck out 12 batters in the 7-2 victory over defending International champion Curacao.
Japan has the tournament's only top-to-bottom power lineup. Japan hit eight home runs in its first three games. Seigo Yada hit three, producing a constant stream of Seinfeld-like yada, yada, yada jokes around the complex.
Because of its overwhelming pitching, Lemont, Illinois, appears to be the class of the American bracket. After dropping a 1-0 heartbreaker to Arizona in the opening game, Illinois beat New York, 1-0, and Georgia, 2-0. Illinois yielded a grand total of one run in its first three games.
Josh Ferry is the undisputed star of the Illinois pitching staff. He lost the opener to Arizona, 1-0, yielding just two hits and one run and fanning 11 batters. Then he won the third game of pool play, 2-0, against Georgia, allowing only one hit and striking out 13. In between, David Hearne pitched a one-hit 1-0 shutrout against new York, striking out eight batters.
A heavily favored Illinois will play Oregon for the right to play in the U.S. championship game. Meanwhile, a heavily favored team from Columbus, Georgia, will fight Portsmouth, N.H., the other U.S. title slot.
Pitching is stronger than ever because the kids are stronger than ever. Little League changed its age cutoff date this year, allowing kids who are now three-plus months past their 13th birthday to play in the international tournament.
The number of 13-year-olds has increased dramatically. This year there are 64 of them — an average of four on every team for a league officially limited to 11- and 12-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds still make up the bulk of the players — 133 in all. But the 11-year-olds have all but disappeared from the tournament (a total of six this year).
The kids are bigger and throw harder than ever before, and they're playing in a ballpark with outfield fences set back 20 feet. The fence move alone eliminates a dozen or more home runs in most games and gives the advantage to teams that can but athletic gazelles in the outfield.