Southeast Region champ Goodlettsville, Tenn., has been buzzing almost all summer. Now that buzz has pretty much become a roar.
Good luck finding a seat at a restaurant that has a television in that small town near Nashville today too. Forget the Tennessee Titans and the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Right now, Goodlettsville is the talk of the state. Right now, Goodlettsville is carrying its state's banner and taking it as far as any Little League team from its state has ever gone.
Tennessee pitcher Jake Rucker (18) is pumped up by his teammates, including Justin Smith, left, Brock Myers and Seth Marlin, right, during a game at the Little League World Series earlier this week in South Williamsport.
Today, Goodlettsville tries to make history and a whole state will be watching. Today, Goodlettsville tries becoming the first Tennessee team to reach a Little League Baseball World Series championship.
Goodlettsville faces West champ Petaluma, Calif., at 3:30 p.m. with the country's biggest Little League prize at stake. Ironically, California has reached the world title game more than any state in Series history, doing so the last two times it has sent a team. Both those squads, Chula Vista in 2009 and Huntington Beach last year, won the world championship.
"We'll just see. It's going to be a hard game and whoever wins is going to represent the U.S. very well," Tennessee manager Joey Hale said. "If it's us, that's great, and if it's not, then we'll be rooting those guys on as hard as we can."
Therein lies a major key to Tennessee's success. As much as the team enjoys winning, it enjoys playing the game even more. The coaches understand this is a kids' game played by 12-year-olds. They are all competitive, but they all have the proper perspective.
Making history would be great. But just being here, just achieving what it has is pretty remarkable and the team knows it.
"If we win it, we win it," said third baseman/pitcher Luke Brown, who closed out Wednesday's 4-3 win over Southwest champ Texas. "But if we don't, let's keep our heads high because we got here and that's the best we could do."
Tennessee's best has carried it close to the U.S. summit. The Southeast champions enter todays' game 13-1 and have won two thrillers over California and Texas to reach the national final.
Tennessee scored four sixth-inning runs to break open a tie game last Sunday and defeat California, 9-6. Three nights later, it again shined under pressure, scoring two sixth-inning runs and rallying past Texas.
The names of the players making the wins possible has changed throughout the summer, but the results have not. Everyone Hale has used has made an impact and a league that is only in its second year of existence already has become one of the country's best.
"That's a really good team," Texas manager Jack Wideman said following Wednesday's game.
Tennessee has scored 25 runs in three Series wins while belting seven home runs. Brock Myers has hit a U.S.-best tying three, while center fielder Jayson Brown has two. Twice, that duo has gone back-to-back, including in Wednesday's win over Texas.
Tennessee pounded Nebraska, 12-1, in its Series debut as Myers homered and allowed only one hit. Myers also threw five innings of no-hit baseball against perennial powerhouse Warner Robins, Ga., in Warner Robins in the Southeast final as Tennessee edged the defending Southeast champion, 1-0.
Myers likely will start today, giving Tennessee its best pitcher in its biggest game. Jake Rucker also has pitched outstanding throughout the summer, but cannot throw again at the Series after throwing 4 1-3 strong innings and 85 pitches against Texas. If Myers reaches his limit, Brown and Ryan Lyle are available after throwing well in relief against Texas.
"Their pitchers are going to strike out a guy an inning right now," Nebraska manager Brad Wegner said. "That's how they pitch. That's what they've done in the past."
So, too, have many California pitchers. Danny Marzo was the latest to do so, throwing five brilliant innings of two-hit baseball while striking out 11 in Thursday's 11-1 impressive win over Southwest champ Texas. This came after Quinton Gago threw 5 1-3 innings of two-hit, shutout baseball in a 5-0 win over New England champ Fairfield, Conn.
And like Tennessee, California has its ace Bradley Smith ready to throw today. The 6-foot-3 right-hander is the tallest player at this year's tournament and threw well in wins over Connecticut and New Jersey, earning a victory in the first one.
Smith, though, has gained more recognition for his offense. The slugger went 6 for 7 in his first two games, homering in each one. He also has terrific speed and beat out a bunt against New Jersey that helped swing momentum his team's way in a 5-4, eight-inning win.
"He killed us offensively and he mashed a couple of curveballs," Connecti-cut coach T.J. Paoletta said after Smith went 4 for 4 with a homer in that opening 6-4 Series win. "We tip our cap to him. Ryan (Meury) has a fabulous curveball and give the kid credit. He hit two curveballs right on the button."
But Smith is far from a one-man show. Cali- fornia's strength is its balance and power. A rally can start from anywhere since the West champions can hit strong throughout the lineup and also receive a lift from reserves like Kempton Brandis. He hit a home run off Myers in the first Tennessee game.
California has hit a U.S.-high 10 home runs thus far, with seven players delivering them. Hance Smith and Quinton Gago went back-to-back in the first inning Thursday, sparking California to its impressive win over Texas. Hance Smith has been swinging a hot bat throughout the Series and has homered in consecutive games, tying Myers for the U.S. lead with three home runs.
Smith crushed two home runs, including a grand slam, against Texas and has 10 RBIs in his last three games. California has scored five runs or more in all five Series games, including three straight wins through the losers' bracket. It also has shown an impressive killer instinct, with Hance Smith hitting his three-run home run against Connecticut following two errors and doing so Thursday following three walks.
"You always want to take advantage of the mistakes when you have them," California manager Eric Smith said. "If you can take advantage of mistakes and get those runs when they're there, that's big, that's helpful."
California has proven as resilient as Tennessee throughout the summer, winning its district championship a night after losing and overcoming a five-run, fifth-inning deficit to edge San Ramon, 12-11 in seven innings, while becoming the first Petaluma team to ever reach the West Regional tournament.
At regionals, California went 6-0, won twice on walk-offs and rallied from a two-run deficit to defeat Hawaii, 7-5, in the final. It also overcame a two-run, fourth-inning deficit last Monday against New Jersey, winning 5-4 in eight innings on Danny Marzo's walk-off home run.
"They are a well-coached team and have great discipline at the plate," Hale said. "They knew how to think their way through the count, how to anticipate certain pitches. If we threw a breaking ball (last Sunday) it seemed like they knew what we were calling, which obviously they didn't, but it's just a credit to their coaching staff in getting them prepared to hit."
California has played 26 games this summer, but is playing better than at any point during its historic run.
"We were kind of nervous the first couple (Series) games, but we have started to pull together as a team," second baseman Porter Slate said. "We're hitting the ball and playing defense as a team better than at any point this season."
The stage is set. California has been one of the most decorated states at the Series over the past 66 years. Tennessee has played here just four times. History is there for the taking, but do not expect Tennessee to be nervous.
It understands games do not get more fun than this. It understands having fun is the most important thing and whatever happens, it knows it has staked a claim as the state's best-ever Little League team.
"Whatever happens, happens," Hale said. "Even if we don't win another game it's been a great ride."