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Little League: New life for US squads with no foreign teams

Aug. 21, 2021 Updated Mon., Aug. 23, 2021 at 7:45 p.m.

Sammamish, Wash., pitcher Eli Jones, right, celebrates with catcher Jackson Wheeler after the final out in a no-hit victory over Palm City, Fla., on Saturday.  (Associated Press)
Sammamish, Wash., pitcher Eli Jones, right, celebrates with catcher Jackson Wheeler after the final out in a no-hit victory over Palm City, Fla., on Saturday. (Associated Press)
By Adam Babetski Associated Press

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – Look out for the underdogs.

With no international bracket at the Little League World Series this year because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, runners-up in the U.S. regional tournaments have filled half the 16 available slots. They’re noted on the schedule as B teams, while the regional winners are the A’s.

So far, the B’s are having some fun. In the first round, they won five of the eight games played.

Each of those winners – Ohio, California, Oregon, South Dakota and Texas – had a different and entertaining path to victory. While California dominated New Hampshire 10-2, South Dakota starter Gavin Weir struck out 15 batters before hitting the pitch count limit in a 2-0 combined no-hitter over Louisiana.

Ella Bruning of Abilene, Texas, just the 20th girl to play in the LLWS, got the game’s first hit and run in a 6-0 win over Washington.

After the loss, Washington’s Sammamish-based East Lake team bounced back with a 1-0 win over Florida in an elimination game. Pitcher Eli Jones carried the load with a no-hitter – the first by a Washington player in the LLWS since 1980. Jones also drove in the winning run.

East Lake went on to play Nebraska Tuesday and lost 3-2, eliminating Washington from the LLWS. Nebraska’s Hunter Nepple opened the scoring with a two-RBI single in the third inning and pitched a complete game.

Elsewhere in the opening round, Noah Davidson of Hamilton, Ohio, knocked a hard ground ball just past the first baseman, sending the winning run home in a 1-0 victory in eight innings against Tennessee.

And the Lake Oswego, Oregon, team defeated Pennsylvania 8-2, behind a strong performance from starting pitcher Ben Robertson, who also launched a crucial three-run homer into the bushes in left field of Volunteer Stadium.

So why are all the runners-up playing so well? Simple, said Oregon manager Chris Kelly. When it comes down to it, these teams aren’t that different whether they are A’s or B’s.

“These guys are 12-year-olds, they’re not superheroes,” he said Friday after Oregon’s win over Oaks, Pennsylvania. “They make mistakes, whether they’re on the mound or at the plate. If we’re able to execute and take advantage of some of those mistakes, we can beat those guys.”

Kelly’s son, Chase, a first baseman and pitcher, said he wasn’t bothered by playing an A team.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said. “Obviously I wanted to win, but if we lost, I wouldn’t have cared that much. I was just trying to have fun out there.”

While Hawaii defeated California in the West region championship, both teams won their games in the first round of the Little League World Series.

Javier Chavez, the manager of the Torrence, California, team was excited by the possibility of a rematch with Hawaii – not something that usually happens between teams from the same region at the LLWS.

“We cheered them on when we played today, and we’re actually bunking right next to them,” Chavez said. “It’s good to be on this journey with them. I feel that both of our clubs are equally matched. The West produces pretty good powerhouses.”

In the second round, California defeated Ohio 9-0, South Dakota defeated Oregon 3-0, Hawaii defeated Nebraska 11-3 and Michigan defeated Texas 6-5. Those winners will play Wednesday.

Single-elimination games will be played daily through Thursday, with the semifinals on Saturday and championship on Sunday.

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