Playoffs see hot Little League games in the heat
By Gabriel M. Zucker
The first two 90-degree days of the year are rarely ideal times to don pants and long, heavy socks. But as the air heated up around New York this weekend, so did the excitement around J.J. Walker Park, as the Majors A and Majors B divisions went through the first weekend of their double-elimination playoff tournaments.
After a couple of games went as expected on Friday, the drama began in the A games early on Saturday morning. The thermometer rose with the action as the second-place Nationals (10-6 in the regular season) took on the third-place Dodgers (10-6). The game shaped up to be a classic pitchers’ duel between Levi Stern, who had held the Nats to two hits over two starts in the regular season, and Joe Pucci, who no-hit the Dodgers over several innings earlier in the year. This time, however, the Nats jumped on Stern, with strong offensive performances from Matt Sprague, Jules Achard and Luke Santone, plus a solo home run from Pucci.
The Nats went into the top of the fifth with a 3-0 lead, when things began to unravel. After a few walks and errors, some big hits put the Dodgers up 4-3 with only six outs to go. A few bloop hits and a ground ball tacked on another for the Dodgers in the sixth.
The Nats knocked at the door in the fifth with a double by Sprague, but they stranded him at second. A couple of fine defensive plays at shortstop ended the Nats’ hopes for a rally in the bottom of the sixth, sending the Dodgers on in the winners’ bracket of the tournament.
In the heavy, humid air of Sunday afternoon, the Dodgers met with the first-place Orioles (11-4), who had dispatched the last-place Pirates with a 7-5 victory on Saturday. After five-and-a-half tense innings yielded a 4-4 tie, a lightning bolt necessitated a timeout. When the threat of a thunderstorm seemed to have passed, the Orioles stepped up to the plate and got a runner to third base. But then, with a Bird only 60 feet from a victory, the clouds opened up and put the tight game on hold until Tuesday.
The Nats, meanwhile, went on to play the White Sox (4-11), who lost their first game to the last-place Pirates on the mercy rule (greater than 10-run lead after four innings) on Friday. Unfazed by their Friday loss, the Sox jumped on undefeated Nationals hurler Addison Barish with four consecutive singles in the first. Barish hung tight through four, and right-fielder Nick Mehmel gunned down two White Sox at the plate to keep the game close. But the runs that scored were enough for Sox pitcher William Lehrer, who held the Nationals to just one run over the first three innings. Strong offensive performances from Archard and Santone eventually netted four runs for the Nats, but they were ultimately in vain as the Sox claimed a 6-4 upset victory.
The winner of the suspended Dodgers-Orioles game will get a bye to the championships next weekend. The loser will take on the winner of the Sox-Pirates rematch on Wednesday, to determine the other team in the championship.
Majors B play was just as riveting, as the dominating, first-place Rays (14-2 in the regular season) were faced with a couple of unexpected obstacles.
The weekend started off tamely enough. The last-place Astros and Cardinals started off the playoffs with a Friday-night heat that put the Astros ahead 5-3 in the last inning. The Cards threatened with the bases loaded in the sixth, but failed to come up with the big hit needed to tie the game.
Then, coming off their victory, the Astros gave the Rays a serious run for their money on Saturday. In the sweltering midday heat, the Astros grabbed a 5-2 lead with only six outs remaining. But the Rays, with the help of a two-run lined shot off the bat of Lucas Baez, tied the game in the bottom of the fifth. Rays pitcher Jack Miller shut down the Astros to keep the game tied into the seventh, when the Rays put a couple of runners on and won on a momentous, if not all that hard-hit infield single by Finnegan Leicester-Smith.
The Rays were not out of the woods yet, though, for on Sunday they had to deal with the third-place Royals (7-9). The Royals started out their weekend by defeating the second-place Diamondbacks, 10-7, on Saturday. On Sunday, they took on the Rays, who had been beaten only twice all year — once by the Royals. Tired out by their extra-inning affair the day before, the Rays fell 5-2 to the Royals, who earned a bye to the championship game next week.
The stakes were high for the Diamondbacks and the Cardinals when they met early on Sunday: After the first elimination game of the playoffs, one of the teams would be heading home for good. The Cards netted a quick run off D-backs starter Eli Kimbell in the top of the first, but the home team struck back in the bottom half with a three-run, two-out rally, sparked by Julian Gerson’s double through the left side.
In typical seesaw fashion, the Cardinals pulled back to within a run in the second, when Sam Whalen walked and stole his way around the bases. But Whalen’s run was to be the last for a while, as Nico Kaplan’s strong pitching kept the Cards off the board through the fifth. Where Kaplan’s arm was not enough, his teammates helped him out with their gloves, led by Ian Kenyon at third base, Gerson behind the plate and Josh Lane, who fired a bullet from left field to cut off a Cardinal trying to steal home in the fifth. The offense, meanwhile, managed to assemble a six-run lead. Max Schneider smacked an RBI single and Kaplan walked and stole home in the third. Gerson added a second RBI with a long shot in the gap that sparked a three-run fifth. As one scientifically astute D-Back remarked in the dugout, “Diamondbacks eat cardinals.”
The D-Backs were sitting pretty with an 8-2 lead when the Cards built a last-inning threat. A few walks and RBI singles by Xavier Markey-Smith and Lucas Prater cut the deficit in half with only one out. Then, with the tying run at the plate, the D-Backs brought on Michael Weiss to do some fireman work. With the help of catcher Zachary Zamsky — who held on to a tough two-strike foul tip —Weiss fanned the only two batters he faced, and saved the D-Backs. They will play the Rays on Tuesday, and the winner of that game will take on the Astros on Friday to determine who will get the other slot in the championship game next weekend.
The players — not to mention their iced-coffee-laden parents — would surely appreciate a bit less humidity, but the action is only bound to heat up as the stakes rise next week. Be there early for a spot in the shade!