Righter was at best when game meant the most

Jackson, New Jersey captured three straight state championships, reached this year’s Little League World Series and finished as America’s fourth-best team.

Obviously, New Jersey has played a lot of baseball the past three years. The Mid-Atlantic champions constantly faced elite pitchers and have seen just about every pitching style out there. At the Series, though, New Jersey saw something more unique.

It witnessed the best. Fairfield, Connecticut pitcher Ethan Righter had the answer that so many other teams did not. Righter twice beat New Jersey at the Series and capped his dominant summer-long pitching performance Wednesday by allowing just three hits in 4 2/3 innings of a 12-2 win.

“He’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen,” New Jersey manager Rob Grano said. “He’s unbelievable.”

Righter finished his summer undefeated since he cannot pitch again at the Series after throwing 85 pitches Wednesday. No team ever touched the hard-throwing right-hander. When the games meant the most, Righter was at his best and he mowed through one of the field’s most powerful teams again Wednesday, striking out seven.

Righter was one of only two pitchers who defeated New Jersey this season and he did so twice in a six-day span. In those two performances, against a team that scored 27 runs and pounded out 30 hits in two Series wins, Righter struck out 14.

“Coach calls the pitches and I just had to execute,” Righter said after Wednesday’s win. “I had to hit my spots and that’s how we got outs.”

Righter is an expert at recording outs. At each stage along Fairfield’s journey, he has grown stronger and more dominant. He went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA at regionals, striking out 18 in 9 1/3 innings. Righter struck out nine in both regional wins and finishes his summer 10-0.

New Jersey rarely struck out in its two Series wins, hit seven home runs and scored 43 runs in four Mid-Atlantic regional games. Righter, though, had New Jersey off-balance both games. A team that could seemingly hit anybody could not generate any momentum against Righter. Any time New Jersey looked poised to start a big rally, Righter toughened up and stranded baserunners.

The first time out, Righter struck out seven in 3 2/3 innings and consistently ended New Jersey threats. His performance there set the tone for Fairfield at the Series and a team that had been here twice before this decade embarked on its best run yet.

“I go out to the bullpen before the game and the first thing he says is I haven’t thrown a strike with my fastball yet,” Connecticut manager Mike Randazzo said following that performance. “Clearly it switched. He hit his spots and you see the result.”

That is what makes Righter so good. Lots of players can throw hard and some throw harder than Righter. But when a pitcher can spot that fastball anywhere, he becomes especially potent. That goes double when Righter also is mixing in nasty off-speed pitches.

Sometimes teams figure out pitchers the second and third time through the order. Righter, though, is like a chameleon. Opponents think they have figured out, but nearly every time they come up again, he has something different for them.

“He’s so good,” Grano said. “If you’re going to go out there and throw fastballs and curveballs like that and they’re at the knees you’re unhittable.”

Righter struck out three of the first four batters he faced Wednesday. New Jersey scored two runs in the second inning, but Righter settled in again and allowed just one more hit. Only one New Jersey hitter reached second base again as Righter put an exclamation point on his tremendous summer.

The best could be coming, too. Righter has made major strides the past three years. He has the work ethic to match his talent. He has the poise and toughness that separates the good pitchers from the great ones. Instead of Righter’s Series performance being and end it might just be the beginning of something big.

“To see the growth from when he was nine until now is amazing. I will put him on the hill against anybody at any time,” Randazzo said. “He’s an absolute bulldog. I’ve been doing this a long time and have never seen anyone hit spots the way he does. It looks like he’s throwing it 10 miles per hour harder than he is and it’s tremendous. He just keeps teams off-balance. It has to be hard to hit against him.”

All Righter’s opponents concur.