By Luke Ramirez and Curtis Driscoll
The field of 16 at the Little League® Baseball World Series is down to its final four teams, with the one-game playoffs for the United States and International Championships set to decide the two teams that will meet for the 2017 LLBWS World Championship.
On Saturday, Aug. 26, at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa., ABC television will showcase the two best teams from the International bracket with the Japan Region Champions, Tokyo Kitasuna Little League, playing Mexico Regional Champions, Guadalupe Trevino Kelly Little League, beginning around 12:30 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time.
Later in the afternoon, the top two Little League teams from the United States bracket - Southeast Region Champions, Greenville, North Carolina’s North State Little League and Southwest Regional Champions, Lufkin Little League of Texas - will meet, with the first pitch scheduled for approximately 3:30 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time.
The winners of each game will advance to the World Championship game on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time, with a chance to achieve Little League immortality.
Tokyo Kitasuna Little League from Tokyo, Japan, is no stranger to the LLBWS and the International Championship Game. Since 2001, the league has qualified for Williamsport six times and have three world championships, including 2015 under this year’s manager Junnji Hidaka.
A systematic pitching formula has resulted in a 3-0 record on their way to clinching a spot in the International Championship Game after a 10-0 victory (5 innings) against Canada. The one-two combination of Riku Goto and Tsubasa Tomii on the mound has only allowed six hits and one earned run over 12 innings. Goto is the probable starter after earning a victory against Asia-Pacific on Aug. 20. The 5-foot-10 right hander features a mid-70s fastball along with pinpoint control on both sides of the plate.
Japan, like Mexico, features and error free defense and is known for the pride they take in fielding drills during their practices. Tokyo Kitasuna Little League also employs a potent offense that has outhit its opponents, 27-8. In the heart of the lineup is Natsuki Yajima who is slugging .923 with one home run and four RBIs.
After losing the first game of the 2017 LLBWS, the Mexico Region Champions have won four straight win-or-go-home contests. Guadalupe Trevino Kelly Little League from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, beat Canada, 6-2, on Thursday to catapult into the International Championship game.
Mexico has outscored their opponents 29-7 in the five games they have played in Williamsport and have relied on strong pitching and timely offense. The rotation is keyed by Jorge Garcia who is 1-1 with a 3.38 earned run average (ERA) and has been announced as the starting pitcher for Saturday’s International Championship game against Japan. Behind Garcia will be a defense that has yet to commit a fielding error in the LLBWS.
Andre Garza has been the power source of the Mexico offense with three home runs and six runs batted in. He has also done his part on the mound after earning the win against Canada, throwing four innings, allowing three runs, and striking out seven.
Mexico will be looking to avenge the 2009 team from Guadalupe Trevino Kelly who lost to Chinese Taipei, 9-4, in the International Championship game. Many of the players recall watching the 2009 team during their run for the championship and have been inspired since.
North Carolina is set to take on Texas in a rematch of Wednesday's Game 24 for the U.S. Championship. The Southeast Region representatives from Greenville, N.C., have rolled through the Midwest, West, and Southwest Champions and are undefeated after three games.
North State Little league (NSLL) has dominated each game it has played on the strength of the stellar pitching of Matthew Matthijs, Chase Anderson, and Carson Hardee. The NSLL team did not allow a hit through its first two games, and have only allowed one run and one hit in three games.
The team has also gotten it done on offense, outscoring opponents 24-1 in three tournament games. First baseman and pitcher Thomas Barrett leads the team with six hits. Outfielder Carson Hardee leads the team with six RBI and is second on the team in hits, with five.
The 1998 Greenville (N.C.) Tar Heel team was the last team from Greenville to reach the Little League Baseball World Series. Many of the players on the ’98 team have traveled to Williamsport to support the effort of this year’s Greenville squad.
The Southwest Region Champions comfortably got through the Great Lakes and New England representatives before dropping a 2-1, seven-inning nail-biter to Southeast Region Champions, North State Little League on Wednesday. After Thursday night's elimination game win, Lufkin Little League get a chance to avenge their only loss of the tournament.
Star pitcher Hunter Ditsworth threw 88 pitches in five innings in Wednesday's game, making him ineligible to pitch until Monday, one day after the World Series Championship game. Ditsworth has pitched 11 innings this tournament, striking out 16, and allowing only two earned runs.
Lufkin Little League will instead rely on the pitching of Collin Ross, who according to Manager Bud Maddux, will pitch on Saturday. Ross has also been the team's best hitter in the tournament. His six hits and six RBI through four games leads the team.
Maddux is confident in his team and their ability to rebound from their loss to Wednesday.
The 71st Little League Baseball World Series Championship game is scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m. on ABC television. The tournament’s consolation game is set for a 10 a.m. start on ESPN.