By Rob Tota and Lucas Friedman
Hawaii defeated South Korea, 3-0, Sunday afternoon, securing the city of Honolulu’s first-ever Little League World Series title. Ka’olu Holt was the star of the day, throwing a dominant complete game shutout while surrendering just two hits and striking out eight.
First baseman Mana Lau Kong set the tone early, leading off the bottom of the first with a long home run off of Yeong Hyeon Kim’s first pitch. Holt would keep this momentum alive the following inning on the mound, striking out the side after hitting the first batter.
“It was great because we knew that they could hit really good too,” Holt said in the postgame press conference, “If they scored a couple runs I would let down my team, so I had to have their back and keep throwing strikes.”
Holt would get another big out in the top of the third, getting Ji Hyung Young Choi, one of the top hitters in the tournament, to pop out with a runner on third base to end the inning.
Hawaii put pressure on South Korea’s defense with their aggressive base running, scoring two runs on a wild pitch and an error in the bottom of the third. This would give them a 3-0 lead, which proved to be more than enough run support for Holt. Holt’s quick 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the fifth inning would put his pitch count at 72 pitches, allowing him to return to the mound for the top of the sixth.
“If I couldn’t do that I would have been sad,” Holt said. “I kept looking at my pitch count to see if I was good or not.”
He had no intentions of giving the game away, striking out the final batter in a seven-pitch inning and throwing his glove up in the air as Hawaii began to celebrate their world title.
Both clubs got into the championship game on the strength of stellar pitching and defense, with these teams entering the final game as the top two teams in fielding percentage. Hawaii gave up just three runs and two errors in their five World Series wins, making them one of the most fundamentally-sound teams in Little League Baseball World Series history.
South Korea’s run to the World Championship Game was carried by their stellar pitching and defense. However, Hawaii came into Sunday’s matchup with very similar strengths.
A low-scoring game was anticipated, which emphasized the importance of striking first. South Korea had an opportunity to take an early lead in the top of the first inning, but failed to produce. Jae Hyeok Lee led off the game with a bunt single, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. However, Hawaii’s Holt struck out back-to-back hitters, and got Gi Jeong Kim to lineout to end the threat.
South Korea had a great opportunity to score again in the third inning, down 1-0. Lee got into scoring position for the second time, but the bats did not answer the call.
The key moment in Sunday’s loss to Hawaii came in the bottom of the third. Pitcher Yeong Hyeon Kim had been lights out throughout the entire tournament, but he lost his rhythm in the third inning. He walked two batters and allowed one hit to load the bases. Then, with Holt at the plate, Yeong Hyeon threw a breaking ball in the dirt that got away from catcher Gi Jeong Kim. This allowed Taylin Oana to score from third. Gi Jeong then made an uncharacteristic throwing error and Zach Won scored the game’s third run.
“When the bases were loaded, we knew they had the bottom of their lineup coming up,” said Manager Ji Hee Su. “But, we couldn’t get two outs, and I think that’s one of the reasons we lost.”
South Korea failed to exhibit their strengths in the pivotal third inning, which ended up putting the game out of reach. Against a team as solid as Hawaii, the margin for error was very slim.
“It was the small mistakes that ended the game for us,” said Mr. Su. “We knew it was going to be a low scoring game, but we just got unlucky.”