Spain didn’t feel pressure playing powerhouse Japan

Oscar Roman didn’t mince words with his players when they spoke about playing Japan on Friday at the Little League World Series. He couldn’t afford to.

Spain doesn’t have anything remotely close to the tradition of success Japan has had in South Williamsport over the last 25 to 30 years. So when Roman saw his Europe-Africa Region champions drew the defending World Series champions in the first round of the tournament, he flat out told his players they were the underdogs.

But it also allowed him to explain to his players they were playing with house money. There was no pressure on them when they stepped on the field at Volunteer Stadium on Friday afternoon. And they sure as heck played like it.

Catalunya Little League from Barcelona, Spain, controlled the first 3 1/2 innings of Friday’s game. It took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning which sent audible gasps through a capacity crowd which surely wasn’t anticipating it to happen. Starting pitcher Juan Salazar was at worst effective, and at his best unhittable against a potent Kawaguchi Little League lineup until a weather delay for lightning pilfered the momentum gained by the first team of native Spaniards to reach South Williamsport.

“We told the kids we were the underdog,” Roman said. “I don’t know that anybody believed in us. So we told the kids the pressure was on (Japan) and not on us. We told them the only thing they had to do was come out and have fun, and the kids did it for the first four innings and I couldn’t be happier.”

Roman himself was surprised when his team took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. The most wins obtained by a team from Spain in the Little League World Series came the last time someone played the 1990 Nintendo game Little League Baseball: Championship Series. Prior to this week, the last time a team from Spain played at the Little League World Series was 1986, long before any of this year’s players were even born.

That’s why Roman was realistic about his team’s chance entering Friday’s game. Japan has produced 11 World Series champions, including last year’s from the Kitasuna Little League in Tokyo. Spain’s opponent yesterday, Kawaguchi Little League from Kawaguchi, Japan, made one other appearance at the Series in 2006. Little League wasn’t even an option for the players from Spain until five years ago.

But in that time, Spain has sent a team to the Senior League World Series, and now Catalunya Little League is on center stage for the world to see. And what Roman learned from Friday’s game is that his boys are more than capable of competing with the best teams in the tournament.

He said following his press conference Friday night he planned to talk with his team about how it took a 1-0 lead and trailed only 3-1 after four innings (because of a pair of errors) and show them how strong a force they can be no matter who they play.

“I keep reminding them every single inning that we’re in our best moment and we’re here to do big things,” Roman said. “They were here and they fought and they actually did it. It’s a lesson to learn for (Saturday) when we play our next game that we’re good, and we’re willing to believe that. We’re going to come out here (Saturday) and we’ll be ready. I can guarantee that.”

It was no mistake when Lucas Iriarte tripled to right-center field in the top of the first inning to set up Spain’s first run. It was no mistake when he glided across the outfield grass like a gazelle traversing the open plains to prevent an extra-base hit in the bottom of the inning. It was no mistake Juan Salazar struck out four in 3 1/3 innings.

Those things were accomplished against each year’s presumed International bracket favorite because this is a Europe-Africa champion with capable players who were done in by their own mistakes.

Roman can point to a strong start to the game as evidence his kids can compete. Now it’s up to them to believe it and show it today in an elimination game.

“I tell all my kids, if all 13 of them play together, they’re unstoppable,” Roman said. “And they believe that. They were cheering for each other. They were happy for each other. And that was the most important part. As a coach, it’s the most important part to teach these kids those values of how teamwork is really important.”