Kentucky was in the middle of a big inning, scoring five times and taking a 5-1 lead against New Castle, Ind., last Friday. Had it not been for Indiana third baseman Bryce Huntley, that lead might have been even bigger.
Huntley made two sensational stops, diving fully extended one time to prevent a run from scoring. Those plays were likely forgotten when Indiana rallied late for a 6-5 Great Lakes championship win, but they are the kind that made that comeback possible.
They also are the great plays that have become common at the Little League World Series. The players from all 16 teams around the world have a way of making the difficult look easy. They are players who are doing their best Major League impersonations and captivating communities, countries and states along the way.
Expect nothing to change the next 10 days in South Williamsport. Players will deliver big hits, clutch pitching performances and make outstanding plays as they do every year here. And here are 10 U.S. players to keep an eye on as the pursuit for a world championship opens Thursday.
Logan Douglas, California: Almost immediately after Hawaii opened a 2-0 lead in the West championship, Douglas responded by slamming a two-run home run that ignited California toward a 7-5 win. That is who Douglas is because whether in the outfield, at the plate or on the mound, he always seems to make a big impact. The speedy outfielder hit .471 at regionals while slamming two home runs, driving in seven runs and scoring six more. He helped California rally for three comeback wins and reached base 13 times. Douglas also earned a win on the mound and struck out two in 1 1/3 innings while making no errors in center field and right field.
Brock Myers, Tennessee: Pitching against defending Southeast champion Warner Robins, Ga., on its home field brought out the best in Myers who, under the circumstances, threw the game of his life last Friday. The hard-throwing right-hander threw five innings of no-hit baseball and struck out nine while leading Tennessee to a 1-0 win against a team that had reached the Series in three of the previous five years. Myers was untouchable throughout regionals, winning two games and allowing only four hits in 13 1/3 innings while striking out 19. Myers is dangerous offensively too. He hit .429 in five regional games and slammed two home runs, in addition to driving in five and scoring six runs.
Brett Falkner, Oregon: Falkner's dad Rick played for the Gresham Little League all-stars in regionals 34 years ago and now his son is doing a good job following in his footsteps. Falkner is making quite a name for himself, hitting .429 at regionals while driving in four runs, scoring four runs and reaching base 10 times. A good second baseman and shorstop, Falkner also is a valuable pitcher. The right-hander did not allow a run in 8 2/3 innings at regionals. Falkner earned the save in the final against Idaho, pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings and had nine strikeouts in San Bernardino.
Biagio Paoletta, Connecticut: No player in the U.S. field had a better regional offensive performance than this speedy catcher who can do it all. Paoletta hit .556 with two home runs and drove in a remarkable 18 runs in just six games. He also scored nine runs and compiled a .680 on-base percentage. A terrific defender behind the plate and fast on the bases, Paoletta hit safely in five of six regional games and had at least two hits in four while belting a grand slam against New Hampshire in the New England championship.
Thad Huber, Nebraska: A defensive rock at third base, Huber made no errors in six Midwest regional games while helping Kearney become the first Nebraska team to reach the Series. Huber also was an offensive force, hitting .588 while driving in a regional high 12 runs and scoring eight more. One of the team's fastest runners, Huber legged out three triples in Indianapolis and also adds pitching depth. Huber went 1-0 and earned a three-inning save in a 10-4 Midwest championship win over South Dakota. He allowed just one hit and had six regional strikeouts in six innings.
Daniel Ruggiero, New Jersey: An outstanding second baseman with nice hands and good range, Ruggiero was more well-known at the Mid-Atlantic Regional for the hot bat he carried. Ruggiero hit .643 and compiled a .737 on-base percentage, both tops in his field. A smart batter who waits for his pitch and drives it, Ruggiero drew five walks and also scored four runs. He can be tough on the mound too. Ruggiero had a 2.57 ERA at Bristol and struck out two in 2 1/3 innings as New Jersey blanked both opponents in the elimination round. Emil Matti, New Jersey: The right-hander speaks softly but makes plenty of noise with his play. Matti was brilliant in the Mid-Atlantic championship, throwing a two-hit, one-out shutout while blanking top-seeded Delaware, 1-0. Nobody could figure out Matti in Bristol as the crafty right-hander pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings while going 2-0 and striking out nine. Matti also sparked a solid offense from his lead-off position. A good shortstop when he's not pitching, Matti hit .500, clubbed a team-high three home runs, added two doubles and scored nine runs.
Cayden Smekens, Indiana: Anyone who watched the intensity and focus Smekens played with throughout the Great Lakes semifinals and championship knows this player is as driven as he is talented. The tall and strong pitcher threw 5 1/3 one-hit innings in a 2-1 semifinal win over top-seeded Wisconsin that also included nine strikeouts. He went 2-0 with a 0.67 ERA at regionals, surrendered only three hits and struck out 18 in nine innings. Smekens, who also plays first base and shortstop, might be even better at the plate. Smekens hit .588 in Indianapolis, homering while driving in eight runs, reaching base 14 times and never striking out.
Ryan Meury, Connecticut: One of the field's best center fielders, Meury sparks a strong offense from his lead-off position while also providing outstanding pitching. Meury ignited an offense that scored 60 runs in six New England Regional games, hitting .429 while reaching base 11 times and scoring a regional-high 13 times. The left-hander was dominant on the mound as well, going 1-0 and not allowing a run in 10 1/3 innings. Meury threw a two-hit complete-game in a 1-0 win against Rhode Island and struck out 21. He also allowed just two hits and hit safely in five of six regional games while also running the bases well and playing stellar defense.
Tyler Vitt, Texas: A nationwide audience watched Vitt stifle hard-hitting Lufkin, Texas in the Southwest championship. That night, the lanky right-hander with the nasty sinker threw a complete-game two-hit shutout as Texas won, 9-0. Vitt was untouchable at regionals, going 3-0 while not allowing a run in 11 1/3 innings. He also struck out 12 and allowed just four hits, striking out 10 in the final. Vitt never allowed a Lufkin runner past first base two days after it had pounded perennial power Lake Charles, La., 6-0. He is dangerous at the plate as well, hitting .375 at regionals with two RBIs.