Pitching trio pacing NC’s start

Greenville, North Carolina, pitcher/shortstop Matthew Matthjis still thinks he is dreaming.

Comprehending that the Little League World Series does not just exist on television has proven challenging.

“I still can’t believe I’m actually here,” Matthjis said. “It hasn’t hit me at all.”

Neither have North Carolina opponents. The same goes for Chase Anderson. Same goes for Carson Hardee. Two games into the Series not one player has a hit against North Carolina’s pitchers. The Southeast champions became the first team in U.S history to throw consecutive no-hitters at the Series, blanking South Dakota, 6-0 and California, 16-0, while reaching Wednesday’s winner’s bracket final against Texas.

Wrapping one’s head around being among the select few playing at the Series is hard enough. Throwing two straight no-hitters seems beyond belief. But these three have made it happen. They have made it look pretty easy, too, despite facing some of the country’s best teams.

“Knock on wood, but you can’t beat it. I can’t believe it,” Anderson said. “I just know we’re throwing well right now and we’re winning and that’s what we need to do.”

Anderson, Matthjis and Hardee combined on a perfect game in their Series debut against South Dakota. Anderson and Matthjis ran the perfect stretch to 9 1/3 innings against California before Bobby Gray drew a fourth-inning walk. Matthjis walked two batters, showing the staff might have a human side, but North Carolina’s pitchers have retired 33 of 35 batters faced thus far and rarely have balls been hit hard against them.

North Carolina knew it had pitching entering the Series. The pitching has been its biggest strength. But not even the Southeast champions saw something like this coming. The entire staff is locked in the proverbial zone and no-hit a California team that had scored 20 runs in its two previous games.

So many younger fans are watching North Carolina play. They are receiving a free lesson in Pitching 101, too.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m at a loss for words,” North Carolina manager Brian Fields, a former college pitcher, said. “They’ve done it all summer. They throw strikes, they work the strike zone, they change speeds, they get ahead of hitters. That’s what you need to do in Little League. That’s what they’ve been doing. At that stage they did an absolute wonderful job.”

Anderson, Matthjis and Hardee have struck out 17 and Anderson has thrown six perfect innings. Anderson has seven strikeouts and has rarely thrown a first-pitch ball. He threw first-pitch strikes to all nine batters he faced against South Dakota and pounded the zone again against California.

North Carolina has started Anderson in most games this summer, effectively using he, Matthjis and Hardee while keeping pitch counts low and pitchers eligible for the next game. Anderson, though, struggled in the Southeast final against Georgia, allowing three quick runs and lasting less than an inning.

Instead of losing his confidence, Anderson has responded by pitching better than ever before on the biggest stage he has ever encountered. He did not want to endure the Georiga experience, but it has made Anderson a better pitcher.

“After the start in Georgia the confidence was down a little bit,” Anderson said. “To come back out and throw a perfect game out here and then do the same thing is unbelievable.”

“He came out (against Georgia) and I tell Chase all the time I think that’s the best thing that could have happened to him” Fields said. “He is so focused out there. He is so zoned in. That was a learning experience and that was huge for him.”

Anderson is not a flamethrower, but mixes his pitches well, keeps opponents off-balance. He is a pitcher’s pitcher. That makes him ideal to start games when Fields has hard-throwing Matthjis and Hardee waiting in the wings.

Matthjis might be the team’s most talented pitchers, throwing in the lower to mid-70 mile per hour-range and also featuring good breaking pitches. He shut Georgia down over the final 5 1/3 innings as North Carolina rallied for an 8-6 win and has been untouchable at the Series, striking out eight in 4 2/3 innings.

Hardee also has a big arm and entered with two outs in the sixth inning against South Dakota. Given the task of preserving a perfect game, Hardee stayed poised and recorded a game-ending strikeout as North Carolina’s pitching strategy worked again. All three pitchers stayed eligible for the California game and all three are eligible to pitch against Texas Wednesday.

“They’re really good,” California managaer C.J. Ankrum said. “They work it the right way.”

“We are a good hitting team but they just pounded the zone and threw a lot of strikes,” South Dakota manager Jeff Riley said. “They threw so many strikes.”

That is exactly what North Carolina’s coaches ask. Strikeouts are nice, but the Southeast champions also feature excellent defense. Pitchers do not have to focus on striking everyone out. They can stay on the attack, knowing they are backed well.

The rare times balls have been hit hard, the defense has sucked them up like a vacuum. Hardee made the best play, extending himself completely while making a diving catch of a line drive in the fifth inning against South Dakota.

“We have a great defensive team so when I’m pitching I feel confident that if they hit the ball there is definitely going to be a play,” Hardee said. “Playing shortstop and seeing it on the field, when someone hits a groundball I know they’re going to field the ball. If it’s in their range I’m not worried they’re going to make an error.”

Keeping this no-hit streak going against undefeated Texas seems unlikely. Baseball logic dictates that at some point, these excellent Series teams will start getting some hits against North Carolina pitchers.

Just do not expect those pitchers to give up too many if they keep elevating their performance.

“You can’t write it any better than that,” Field said. “I told them after the (California) game that you talk about peaking at the right time. We had everything working today.”

Believe that.