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.
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.
Compare some stats from 2005 and 2006. In 2005, in the 24 games of pool play, eight out of 48 teams were shut out after regulation play of six innings. In 2006, 13 teams scored no runs through the first six innings. The number of sides scoring one run in regulation play jumped from three in 2005 to 11 in 2006.
I was hoping that the bigger field dimensions might prompt the pitchers to let the hitters put the ball in play. When batters hit and fielders field, pitchers throw fewer balls — and save their arms from undue strain. But no. Twenty-two pitchers struck out 10 or more batters in pool play in 2005. That's almost one per game.
Pitchers are not only throwing much harder, consistently, but they are breaking off some of the nastiest curveballs imaginable. Despite all the concern about the damage that throwing breaking balls does to young arms, the curves are coming in much harder and much more frequently this year.
Pitchers' dominance has translated into a slew of close games. The number of one-run games doubled from five to 10 from 2005 to 2006.
The closeness of the games has, in turn, ratcheted up the levels of tension and anxiety. In my three days in Williamsport, I saw much grimmer faces on the kids than in 2005. Many of the coaches — especially from New York, Illinois, and Georgia — seem positively combustible.
ESPN has captured the intensity on its broadcasts. ESPN mikes all of the managers to capture their good-natured, wise words to the teams in mound conferences and dugout huddles.
In one intense moment, the manager from Missouri egged on his angry pitcher, barking that the umpire was "squeezing the s---" out of the strike zone. Without prompting, the pitcher said he was tired. The answer? Not, "Okay, kid, let's get someone fresh in here," but, "Can you go the rest of the inning?"
In another game, New York manager told his players that they needed just one run to tie the game against Illinois. "One f---ing run!" shouted back one of his players — at which point, according to reports, the manager hit the kid. The New Yorkers just turned a double play and were getting ready to get their last licks in the sixth inning when the incident occurred. "Little League International was extremely disappointed in the behavior of the player and coach involved in the incident," Oz said in a statement.
Losing hurts. It always hurts, but I saw more kids crying — bawling, really — than I did last year. And those ESPN cameras are always there to record the moment.
The worst meltdown came when Staten Island ran itself out of a sixth-inning rally in its 1-0 loss to Illinois. No-hit for five and a third innings by David Hearne, Illinois started the rally when Peter Sciarillo walked to open the inning. When Frank Smith laced a sharp single to center field, Sciarillo was thrown out going to third base. Smith, thinking the game was over, started walking off the field — and got thrown out for a game-ending DP.
With the cameras humming, he cried and cried in the dugout. He was, after the game, inconsolable.
Part of the intensity of a game dominated by manchild pitchers and close games.
Books mentioned in this post
Charles Euchner is the author of Little League, Big Dreams: The Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played