First Time for Everything
The Little League World Series is all about new experiences – just ask Ryan Griffin.
In a game where runs were manufactured, where sacrifices and smart base running had been the weapons of choice, all it took was one unlikely swing to put Worcester, Mass., in the U.S. Championship game.
“I couldn’t believe it was gone,” said a shell-shocked Griffin said after his blast. “I can’t believe that’s the way the game ended.”
The three-run shot in the bottom of the sixth was Griffin’s first home run. Ever.
Moments earlier, Harlem manager Morris McWilliams had intentionally walked New England slugger Frank Flynn “to keep that from happening.” The strategy looked good after Keith Landers flied to center, and golden as Griffin strode to the plate.
He fouled off pitch after pitch until stroking a ball high to right-center.
“I thought he was going to grab it and runner would be at second and third, but when it went out, it was great,” Griffin said after the game.
With the 5-2 walk-off win, Worcester heads to the U.S. Championship on Saturday where it will face Louisville, Ky., at 7:30 p.m. The Jesse Burkett Little League all-star squad becomes the first team from Massachusetts to play for the national title.
Griffin’s gong gave Landers a well-deserved win. The Worcester southpaw labored for 123 pitches, going the distance with 10 strikeouts and only three walks.
Landers, who seemed to get stronger by the inning, was superb in the sixth, striking out a pair to give Griffin the chance to end it.
“I just focused and went out to hit the corners,” Landers said. “My arm was getting tired at the end.”
He was matched most of the way by Harlem’s Jeremy Lopez, who took over in the third inning and fanned one-third of the batters he faced. Despite the loss, Lopez and his teammates are leaving Williamsport with their heads up.
“I called it a tissue day before the game,” McWilliams said. “I knew someone would have to break out the tissues when it was over.
“But it’s been an incredible ride for these children. What they did in terms of lifting the spirits in Harlem and in the city of New York, the enthusiasm around them was tremendous.”
While the game ended abruptly, it was defined by small steps and solid fundamentals.
In the third Harlem showed that it’s not how hard a ball is hit, but where it’s placed. Only one ball – Jeremy Lopez’s one-out single – made it safely though the infield, but the Mid-Atlantic champs pushed two runs across by playing little ball. With two outs and pinch runner David Butler on first, Harlem pieced together three consecutive infield hits, loading the bases three times against Landers. Hits by Jorge Lopez and Fernando Frias brought in the runners, as Harlem grabbed the momentum.
But New England stormed back, matching Harlem’s magic in the bottom of the inning. After a walk, a single and an error, Worcester had runners on second and third with one out and Flynn coming to bat. Flynn’s fly was far enough to bring in Ben Landers from third, and a passed ball on the next pitch plated Gordie Lockbaum to tie the score.
Both pitchers settled in the fourth, although Harlem threatened by loading the bases with two men away. A Jorge Lopez ground out ended the inning, but fast and ferocious pitching by Jeremy Lopez put Worcester right back in the field.
But it was Landers who kept Harlem’s hitters guessing when it mattered most, blending slow curves with high fastballs. Even when Mid-Atlantic slugger Andrew Diaz got hold of a pitch in the second inning, the towering pellet curved foul.
“Keith pitched the game of his life,” Worcester manager Fran Granger said. “When he had to come through, he did. Just a great, great game.”
Landers picked up his teammates in the fifth after an error put runners at the corners with two outs. On a 2-2 count he froze Harlem leadoff hitter Julian McWilliams to end the inning.