By Will Desautelle
The excitement was almost palpable as the Northwest Region Champions Sprague Little League team from Salem, Oregon, took batting practice in the Volunteer Stadium Hit Lab in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The young players rotated in and out of the cage, testing their brand-new bats provided by Easton, the official bat of the Little League Baseball® World Series.
As the players observed the Hit Lab’s virtual reality screen that thoroughly broke down each swing they took, Manager Travis Price, couldn’t help but marvel about how fortunate his team was to represent the Northwest Region in Williamsport.
“Just walking on the field is amazing,” Price said. “I mean we shouldn’t even be here. We weren’t supposed to win the state. If you take the odds of us winning state…we should have probably finished fourth. And then going into regionals, I told them that we’re not going to play to lose, but let’s also enjoy the moment.”
Sprague Little League is just the seventh team from Oregon to ever qualify for the Little League World Series and it is the first team from Salem to ever achieve the feat.
In its previous two seasons, the team finished third place in the Oregon state tournament before finally breaking through this year.
“I feel like we put in a lot more work than we did last year, just playing a lot more games and getting more experience,” Mr. Price’s son, Gavin, said.
Sprague Little League had to knock off the defending state champion twice, winning the first game, 3-2, with all three runs coming in the bottom of the fifth inning. The eventual Northwest Region champs then won the second game, 9-8, scoring two runs in the top of the sixth inning to become Oregon’s state champions.
“You can only control your attitude, intensity, and effort,” Price said. “We have a lot of 4.0 students who understand baseball is a game of failure. I think we’ve done a better job of that managing how we respond in those situations.”
Sometimes, great postseason runs also require a little luck. For Sprague Little League, there has been another driving force behind its breakout season, a Batman action figure that Gavin found at a playground during a tournament in Portland earlier this summer.
Ever since that moment, the team has hung up Batman on the fence for every game.
“It gives us our bats,” Gavin said. “We then won a game against a tough team that we haven’t beat before, and then I just kept doing it and we haven’t really lost since.”
Sprague Little League then clinched a berth to the regional final after two closely contested wins against Montana and Idaho state champs. Idaho matched up with Sprague again in the championship game looking for revenge.
In the top of the fifth inning, Idaho appeared poised to do just that after a hard-hit foul ball ricocheted off the Sprague dugout and knocked Batman out of the fence.
“We weren’t looking too good…I got up and went, ‘Maybe that’s the end of the run,’” Price said. “Nobody has ever knocked Batman off the fence before.”
Price then placed Batman back on the fence, and he proved to have more heroics in him. With a 4-3 deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning, arguably the most bizarre play of all the regional tournaments saved Sprague’s season.
Henry Mhoon advanced to third base on a groundout and with the play still live he scored the tying run when he saw the catcher abandon home plate for a split second. Gavin subsequently doubled and later scored the winning run.
The Batman good luck charm extended Sprague Little League’s season when it looked like all luck had run out.
“Mark Mhoon (third base coach) is a strategy surgeon,” Price said. “I’ve seen him do that about six or seven times this year. We have a few runners who just have the freedom to create…they’re fast and they’re smart.”
As Price’s team finished practice at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on Monday afternoon, several of Gavin’s teammates made sure to ask him if he remembered to bring Batman to Williamsport. With all the good luck Batman has given the Sprague Little Leaguers this summer, of course he remembered to bring him along in this ride.