Late spark carries Japan to WS title

Members of Japan’s team lift up their coach to celebrate after Japan defeated Lufkin, Texas in the Little League World Series Championship on Sunday afternoon at Lamade Stadium. (MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette)

Keitaro Miyahara took a mighty fourth-inning swing and his power toppled him over. Miyahara stayed down for a few minutes, brushed himself off and hit the next pitch way over the left-field fence.

The Kitasuna Little Leaguers might be knocked down at times, but rarely are knocked out. And once again it is the Kitasuna Little League from Tokyo, Japan that has become the world’s best Little League Baseball team.

Miyahara, Daisuke Hashimoto and Natsuki Yajima hit fourth-inning home runs, Tsubasa Tomii threw a brilliant 3-hit complete game and Japan defeated Lufkin, Texas, 12-2, in five innings to capture the world championship Sunday at Lamade Stadium. Japan overcame a 2-0 second-inning deficit and capped a dominant run at the Series, finishing the summer undefeated while outscoring five Series opponents, 39-3.

“I was thrilled when we won the Japanese Region,” Miyahara said. “Getting to this level and being Little League World Series champions, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

The Kitasuna Little League has established itself as a dynasty and captured its fourth world championship since 2001, including its third in six seasons. This is Kitasuna’s second world title in the years after it turned an eight-run second-inning deficit into an 18-11 win over Lewisberry, Pennsylvania in 2015.

Japan scored nine runs and pounded out nine hits over the last two innings, blowing open what had been a close game. Japan scored three times in the fifth inning and Yajima ripped a walk-off single that scored Seiya Arai. A split second after sliding into home, Arai jumped high into the air before being embraced by jubilant teammates who celebrated becoming the world’s best Little League team.

“The younger kids that look up to the older kids will be celebrating when we get back to Tokyo,” Miyahara said.

They will in Lufkin as well.

Texas finished as U.S. Champions, overcame a five-run deficit to win that title and finished its summer with just two losses while beating three past Series qualifiers five times just to get here.

That’s not too shabby for a league started just six years ago.

“It was fantastic. We came here and competed and won the U.S. Championship and were one win short of winning the World Series title,” Texas manager Bud Maddux said. “We got beat by a great baseball team, but we’re a great baseball team, too. For a small town like Lufkin, there were not a lot of people that thought we could get here and we proved them wrong.”

Texas put Japan on the ropes early and seemingly picked up where it left off a day after scoring six runs in its final three at-bats to beat North Carolina, 6-5. Chandler Spencer launched a towering home run to center field on the game’s first pitch and Hunter Ditsworth slammed another home run down the right-field line two batters later. Just like that, Texas led, 2-0.

Tomii, though, allowed just one hit the rest of the way and retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced. Japan scored three two-out runs in the second inning, grabbing a 3-2 lead it never relinquished as Japan scaled the world’s summit a year after being eliminated after just two games at the Series.

Miyahara went 3 for 4 with five RBIs and finished a single shy of hitting for the cycle. He tied the game when he belted a two-run triple to center field and scored the go-ahead run moments later when Ryusei Fujiwara fought back from an 0-2 count and blooped an RBI single into right field.

This is a complete team in addition to the world’s best and it was the bottom of the order that ignited the go-ahead rally. It was then the bench that sparked the game-breaking rally.

Daisuke Hashimoto thought he was hit by a pitch to start the fourth inning and ran to first base before the call was reversed. Hashimoto turned that new opportunity into the hit of his life, slamming a home run to right-center field that gave Japan a 4-2 lead.

That set the tone and Japan started putting the game away by showcasing its power. Miyahara bounced back from his brief injury scare and homered to make it 5-2. Texas nearly escaped more damage, but Yajima kept the power supply surging when he hit a two-out, two-run home run and made it 7-2.

“I was in pain from when the foul ball hit near my knee,” Miyahara said. “But from all those tough practices in Tokyo, I learned to focus. I just focused on hitting the ball.”

The way Tomii was pitching, that five-run Japan lead looked more like a 50-run cushion. The top ace on a team full of them, settled into a groove following Ditsworth’s home run and showed he is every bit as tough as he is talented and nasty.

Tomii shut down a powerful offense from there, allowing just one more hit, retiring nine straight batters at one point and striking out nine.

“I was concerned a little bit, but I just had to maintain my composure,” Tomii said. “I kept my composure and started hitting the corners and felt fine afterward.”

Japan finished with 14 hits and seven different players collected at least one. The top four hitters in the lineup went a combined 10 for 16 with nine RBIs and six runs.

Texas third baseman Collin Ross made two sensational players and starting pitcher Chip Buchanan started strong against the powerful Japan offense a day after earning the win in relief against North Carolina. Buchanan left a runner on third with one out in the first inning, striking out Ryota Ono to end the threat. As it has done three times in its four championship wins, Japan fought back and soon took control.

Japan leaves South Williamsport Monday with another world championship. Texas ends it with memories it will never forget.

“These players are great. They really competed out there,” Maddux said. “They never give up. They were still looking to come back today.

“I have gotten real close to these boys and I hate to see it end.”