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Saturday’s matchup between Southeast and Southwest began as a three-inning pitchers’ duel at Lamade Stadium in the second round of play at the Little League Baseball® World Series.
Southeast’s Ben Pickman and Southwest’s Jesus Ortiz each recorded two 1-2-3 innings, and only one runner, Southwest’s Jacob Garza, advanced past first base before the fourth inning.
It took eight pitches, including four foul balls, but Pickman lit Southeast’s offensive spark in the fourth when he sent a laser by Southwest’s first baseman into right field for a single. Next up was Christopher McElvain, who smashed a line-drive double to center field.
With one out and runners on the corners, Trae McLemore stepped up and hit a long single to center, scoring both runners. After Knox Preston reached base on a bobbled ball and Robert Hassell knocked McLemore home with a line drive to left field, Southwest called in a pitching change. New pitcher Jared Cruz’s second pitch was knocked into a double play, retiring the side with the score 3-0.
What helped Pickman stay calm through three scoreless innings was his faith in his teammates from South Nashville Little League® in Nashville, Tenn. When asked how important the 3-0 lead was, he said, “It helps. I knew we would get the runs eventually. But once they’re there, you just kind of relax a little more.”
Southeast manager Chris Mercado said of the first three innings, “It was just 'when are we going to break it out,' and I was just trying to get them fired up.”
Southwest, represented by Universal Little League® of Corpus Christi, Texas, put the pressure on Pickman early in the bottom of the fourth. Juan Sosa hit a hard shot into the center field wall for a double. Christian Servantes advanced Sosa to third and arrived safely on first with a bunt. However, with two on and no outs, the next three batters were unable to score Sosa and Servantes.
“We had our opportunities but we didn’t capitalize on them,” said Southwest manager Randy Ramirez after the game.
The spark Southeast set off in the fourth, however, caught fire in the fifth. Blake Kirchenbauer hit an RBI double to right field, scoring Conner Smith.
With two outs, a seemingly innocent blooper to second initially got Zane Denton on first, but smart base running and an error scored Kirchenbauer and got Denton all the way to third.
Russell was called in as a special base runner for Denton at third, and the next batter, McLemore was intentionally walked. Knox Preston was walked unintentionally, loading the bases, and then Hassell was hit by a pitch, scoring Russell for a 6-0 Southeast lead.
With the bases still loaded, Southwest’s Cruz remained focused on the mound and struck out the next batter to get out of the inning.
The bottom of the fifth brought some more action from Southwest’s offense and got them on the board. Juan Jasso knocked a solid base hit to left field for a single and Lonnie Rocha came in to run for him. The next two batters advanced Rocha to third and he scored Southwest’s first run on a dropped third strike.
In the top of the sixth, Southeast’s Austin Kasick stretched a grounder to center into a risky double, reaching safely at second on a very close play. Pickman and Denton then got on, loading the bases for McLemore.
On the 1-1 pitch and with two outs, McLemore smashed a grand slam over the center field wall for his sixth RBI of the game, making the score 10-1.
Cruz struck out two batters and threw out Preston at first for the final out of the inning.
McLemore came in to pitch the last inning for Southeast. As fate would have it, he soon faced Cruz, who, on the 0-2 pitch, answered McLemore’s home run with a spectacular one of his own. While it didn’t quite put Southwest back in the game, it did signal that this team does not go down without a fight.
“It shows that these guys, they weren’t ready to give up,” said Ramirez.
Southeast will return to the field on Monday at 4 p.m. at Lamade Stadium. Southwest will play Australia in their consolation game on Monday at noon at Lamade Stadium.