Comparing champs a difficult task
Junnji Hidaka should have known the question was coming.
It’s common over here for fans and media alike to rank teams. Winning teams, losing teams, playoff teams, dynasty teams. Entire TV networks, like the one broadcasting games here, spend entire days compiling these rankings and then debating them. It’s just what we do.
So when the manager of the Tokyo Kitasuna’s 2017 Little League World Series championship team was asked how it compared to any of the three others won by the league, Hidaka could only shrug his shoulders and smile after a 12-2 win in five innings over Lufkin, Texas.
“Being the Little League World series champion is good enough for me,” said Hidaka through an interpreter.
Hidaka is as good as anyone to figure this out, as he managed the 2015 Kitasuna team that rallied past Red Land to win the final, 18-11, managed the 2014 team that dropped the International final, and also coached on the 2012 championship team that beat Goodlettsville, Tenn. Kitasuna founding father Yoichi Kubo managed the 2001 champions, the first of the 16-team era, and the 2007 runners-up.
The best estimate?
“Compared to the previous team, in 2015, this team is a little more tight-knit and a lot happier,” said Hidaka.
They looked tight-knit and happy on the field, whether it was snapping mock selfies after home runs or their postgame “Lucky Boy” chants, in which the players formed a circle of clapping in front of the dugout, picking one random (or lucky) player at a time to dance in the center while yelling, in English, “Lucky Boy.”
On Sunday Keitaro Miyahara was one “Lucky Boy,” having homered twice and doubling once, scoring three times. So was Takuma Kashiwagura, who was 0 for 1.
Hidaka said earlier in the week that the Kitasuna team was picked to be the “best in the world.”
To prove it on the field, these players went 5-0, outscoring the opposition, 39-3. They were only seriously challenged deep in two games, including a 4-1 win over Seoul, South Korea last Sunday when they gave up a first-inning run on an infield groundout and then responded with two runs in the bottom half and two more in the third.
Then there was Sunday’s final, where Chandler Spencer and Hunter Ditsworth homered in two of the game’s first three at-bats off starter Tsubasa Tomii, who hadn’t allowed a run to that point.
But what looked like a serious challenge didn’t end that way, as Kitasuna scored three runs in the second inning, four more in the fourth, and five in the fifth to make Sunday’s final the first to end via the 10-run rule since Kitasuna won 12-2 in 2012. Those are the only 10-run finals since the last of the Taiwan champions in 1996.
“You can’t hang your head because they beat you, they’re a great baseball team but we are too,” said Lufkin manager Bud Maddux.
There was a sense among some of the Japanese baseball observers that Kitasuna benefited from some luck, as Lufkin eliminated Greenville, N.C., on Saturday in the United States final. Greenville, with two no-hitters to open the LLWS last weekend, might have provided a pitching matchup to shut down the line-drive hitting Japanese bats, bats that did not hit home runs for the first two games but hit three in the final.
But don’t forget that Kitasuna needed plenty of talent to get here, not just luck. It had the pitching to survive a 16-team, 4-game, Japanese regional contested over two days one July weekend.
“We were thrilled after we won the Japan region, just getting here,” said Miyahara through an interpreter. “And now, it can’t get any better than this.”
For a 12-year old, that’s not up for debate.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.