Hawaii played a perfect final game
The boys dressed in baby blue and yellow fired their gloves toward the heavens, one by one, as if intermittent fireworks were being launched into the air. They had no more need for them, and frankly, had gotten every bit of use out of them as they could for the last five games.
On an afternoon where Honolulu Little League of Honolulu, Hawaii, was crowned the champion of the 72nd Little League World Series, it played the perfect game defensively against the most dangerous offense on the International side of the bracket. In a tournament all too often decided by mistakes made by pre-teen adolescents, the West Region champs made so few that talking about any of them would merely be nitpicking.
So here Hawaii stood, on the summit of the youth sports Mount Everest, looking down at the trail it blazed to get there. In its wake it saw a defensive performance which committed just two errors in five games. It saw opportunistic baserunning, like scoring a pair of runs on a wild pitch/error combo in the bottom of the third inning Sunday at Howard J. Lamade Stadium.
When it needed a big hit, someone always delivered. In the Series opener it was Aukai Kea’s walk-off two-run home run. Sunday it was Mana Lau Kong’s laser of a solo homer on the first pitch of the bottom of the first inning.
It would be easy and lazy to say luck played a big part in Honolulu winning the state’s third Little League World Series championship. But luck, as Roman philosopher Seneca so eloquently said, is where preparation meets opportunity. Consider Hawaii both prepared and opportunistic.
They were prepared for anything opposing offenses could throw at them. Sunday it meant the two hardest hit balls by South Korean batters landed forcibly, but comfortably, in the gloves of Kea at third base and Kong at first base. It meant second baseman Sean Yamaguchi was prepared to charge a Baltimore chop from Gi Jeong Kim, field it behind the pitcher’s mound and throw a strike to first while off-balance.
When pitcher Ka’olu Holt had the opportunity to close out the game, he didn’t let it slip away. He stayed keenly aware of his pitch count in the sixth inning as he approached his limit, making sure he could throw his first complete game of the year.
There were opportunities throughout the 11 days of the tournament for Hawaii to make mistakes. It just never did. It’s why they lined up in front of the pitcher’s mound at Lamade Stadium, as 59 teams had done before them, and posed for a photo along with the white banner with a yellow border proclaiming them World Series champions.
“I think the overall strength of this team is being a team,” Hawaii manager Gerald Oda said. “Whether it’s (Holt’s) pitching, Aukai pitching, Bruce (Boucher) catching or Mana hitting a home run, it’s everybody doing the best they can do.”
The best they could do meant playing error-free baseball in four of its five games at the Series. Only in a win over Michigan in the winners’ bracket semifinal did the West champs stumble defensively, making a pair of errors. Meanwhile, its opponents made 10 errors in five games, including at least one in every game and three in a pair of games.
Hawaii was sitting on a 1-0 lead Sunday when a breaking ball got away from Kim with the bases loaded and rolled to the backstop. Boucher pounced on the opportunity, scoring easily from third base. And when Kim’s throw to the plate got past pitcher Yeong Hyeon Kim, Hunter Nishina dashed to the plate like Usain Bolt covering the final strides of an Olympic 100-meter dash to push Hawaii’s lead to 3-0.
That was the moment Sunday’s game ended. The proverbial bubble burst in that moment for a South Korea team which established itself as the best International bracket team with a 10-0 win over Japan in the winners’ bracket final last week. But with Holt throwing sliders which would have made Chris Sale shake his head in disbelief, climbing out of a three-run hole just didn’t seem plausible for the Asia-Pacific Region champs.
“We thought it was going to be maybe two or three runs, a low-scoring game, so we were worried about making mistakes,” South Korea manager Ji Hee Su said. “But it happens. It’s a children’s game. We’re trying very hard. We had a little bit of bad luck batting, too. So what can you do?”
All you can do is tip your hat to a Hawaiian team which found the formula to win and followed it perfectly. Like Gordon Ramsay putting together a menu of fine dining, Oda followed a recipe which included Cy Young-caliber pitching, Gold Glove-caliber defense and timely hitting to become the third Hawaiian team to carry the world champion’s banner on a victory lap around Lamade Stadium.
He fostered and manifested a culture which helped a team of children understand the purpose of playing Little League Baseball, even at the World Series, was to have fun. And if they did that, winning would take care of itself.
So his players had fun when they weren’t at the field. They used Google Translate to talk with players whose language they didn’t understand. They roamed the complex like rock stars during their down time. But in those moments in the batting cage, or on the practice field, and especially between the white lines of Lamade Stadium, they were dialed in to the job at hand.
They played loose. Their actions were free and easy which led to web gem after web gem and the type of performance it takes to be a world champion.
After a few trips down the hill behind Lamade Stadium on some abandoned cardboard in the Sunday evening twilight, the Hawaiian team will embark on a trip back to the paradise which is their home. A few days at the beach await Holt and his teammates. And what’s awaiting Oda, the man who helped produce this efficient championship team?
“I have a group of 10-year-olds in Hawaii waiting for me to come back,” Oda said with a smile, knowing he’s starting back at square one to try and foster the same kind of culture which carried this team to a championship. “I guess we’ll see what happens in three years.”
Mitch Rupert can be reached at 570-326-1551 (ext. 3129) or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.