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Japan, Curacao both looking to get to World Series final

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Japan players celebrate their win over South Korea at Lamade Stadium on Wednesday to secure a spot in today’s International championship game. Chofu City, Japan, had a disappointing run in 2016 and is hoping this year they can redeem themselves. Willemstad, Curacao, went through the losers’ bracket and has won three elimination games and is one win away from the World Series championship. Curacao is hoping to bring Willemstad its first championship since 2004.

Consider this year a redemption year for Chofu City, Japan. The team hasn’t forgotten what happened when its league got here in 2016.

This is the chance Chofu Little League wanted to win a championship. The league qualified for 2016 as the Japan champions, but had an early exit from the Series by losing an opener to Canada that year followed by an elimination game loss to Curacao by a run.

But this 2019 is different than that team from three years ago. This team is more prepared and it’s shown.

“In 2016, the coaching staff, we didn’t know much about Williamsport and the World Series so we came here and everybody’s attention and the media’s attention, it was a big surprise of how big the event was,” Japan manager Kaji Yamashita said. “We didn’t prepare well for 2016 but this time, the coaches know what the Little League World Series is about and also, we know how to prepare. We understand it now. Now, just every day, play our best and we’re not already better and we’re performing better than last time, so we’re just trying to keep it that way.”

Maybe that’s why Japan hasn’t lost a game since the regional tournament began. Japan cruised through the regional tournament with a 4-0 record. Once at the Series, Japan has continued to play well and win, first blanking Europe and Africa region champion Italy in a 20-0 rout.

Since then it was a win over Mexico, 5-0, and then Japan sent South Korea to the elimination bracket with a 7-2 win Thursday.

By staying in the winners’ bracket, it’s given Japan a nice schedule with plenty of days off. After defeating South Korea on Wednesday, the team was off for two days. Perhaps even more importantly, get some of its pitchers rested.

“We have some plans to go sight-seeing the next few days,” Yamashita said. “Also, we need to think about as a team and how to stay healthy and get recovered. We don’t want anybody getting injured. We’re trying to do everything we can to prepare the next few days.”

Both Willemstad, Cuaracao, and South Chungcheongo, South Korea, had to play an elimination game Thursday and use some pitching up.

For Japan, the team is solid throughout the lineup offensively and can do damage at the plate with a few batters.

That includes Yuto Kakeba, who is 7 for 9 this Series with a home run, eight RBIs and four runs scored. Taishi Kawaguchi is 5 for 10 with a double, home run and two Rbis and Yuto Misaki is 4 for 10 with a double, grand slam and five RBIs. Daiku Kobari has hit a double this year and both Ryohei Ushikubo and Jo Nishizawa have two hits each and two runs scored.

That’s two-thirds of Japan’s lineup with multiple hits.

But don’t think because Curacao got knocked into the elimination bracket early in the tournament that it isn’t a good team. The Caribbean champions also have an extremely talented group of players, both offensively and defensively.

Curacao opened this year’s Series with an 11-0 rout of Sydney, Australia, before falling in its second game to the same South Korea team it eliminated Thursday. South Korea won that first game, 4-0, before Curacao responded Thursday with a 5-3 win behind tremendous pitching.

That win was also the third consecutive elimination game the team won, having beat Canada (8-1) and Venezuela (9-2) before knocking out the Asia-Pacific champions.

Jurdrick Profar and Curley Martha combined to strike out 13 batters to advance to the International championship game today and allowed just four combined hits, only one of which was for an extra-base.

Profar has two older brothers who have played in the Little League World Series, and his oldest brother, Major League player Jurickson Profar, gave him some advice when he qualified for the Series.

“Just keep having fun and never back down,” Jurdrick Profar said.

And that’s the type of baseball Curacao has played. The team hasn’t backed down once since falling into the elimination bracket and while some teams start to use up pitchers and don’t know who to throw, Curacao doesn’t have that problem and has a solid pitching staff.

In its five games played, Curacao has thrown a total of six pitchers and each one has had success. Of those six, combined the team has allowed just five earned runs, and three were against South Korea on Thursday.

Profar threw 85 pitches against South Korea, meaning he isn’t eligible to throw the remainder of the World Series. Martha threw just 25 pitches and is eligible to throw in the International championship if Curacao manager Michelangelo Celestina wants him on the mound.

“We are very confident because my pitchers are very good,” Celestina said. “They have good fast ball, good curveball. If you have a good curveball, you can dominate the batters.”

Curacao has Shendrion Martinus eligible to throw today. He threw a no-hitter against Australia in the team’s first game, which was the first international no-hitter since 2012.

Celestina admitted he and his team have not seen Japan play yet in person, but that he and the team will watch film Friday in preparation for today’s game.

“We have to go to see the games (on film) and how they approach the ball and pitch against teams,” Celestina said. “I haven’t seen any games of theirs, but I’ll see how they approach in films of the games, so that we can pitch against them. Our many pitchers we have to throw against them.”

Defensively, Curacao is a solid team. Martha has made great highlight-reel type of plays at short stop to rob batters of base hits. Against South Korea on Thursday, Martha did just that, leaping up and grabbing a high hit that would have dropped in for an easy single.

It’s the type of defensive work you’d expect to see from the Caribbean champions.

Curacao can do a lot of damage at the plate. It has eight players in its lineup that have at least two hits, seven of which have at least three hits.

And the team features four players with over four hits, led by Martha, who is an impressive 8 for 10 with a double, two home runs, six RBIs and seven runs scored.

Profar is 5 for 9 with a double and Shendrion Martinus is 4 for 8 with a double and three RBIs. Most impressive is Clay Winklaar, who is just 3 for 9, but has a double, grand slam and a team-high eight RBIs through five games played.

Japan will need to play solid defense and have to really limit Curacao’s hitting if it wants to get to the championship game.

“It means a lot for us (to get to the final),” Celestina said.

Willemstad, Curacao, is no stranger to deep Little League World Series runs. From 2001-03, Willemstad finished third each year. In 2004, the city broke through and won its only Series championship to date, going 6-0 at the Series, and followed it up with a runner-up finish in 2005.

Willemstad made it to the international semifinals twice in 2008 and 2009.

This run in 2019 is the farthest Willemstad has gotten since then as it made appearances in 2012 and 2016, losing in the third and second round, respectively, those years.

Getting back to the championship game is something Celestina and his players want for their city and the only thing standing between them and that dream? Chofu City, Japan.

But after its disappointing finish in 2016, don’t think Japan doesn’t want to get to the championship game just as bad as Curacao.

One of those leagues will be one step closer after today.

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