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Martha’s grand slam, Profrar’s pitching leads Curacao to International title game

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Curley Martha of curaçao celebrates a solo home run in the game against Korea.

South Korea’s Jeongheon Cha took a deep swing, hoping to make contact and keep South Korea’s title hopes alive. With two outs in the top of the sixth inning and South Korea facing a two-run deficit, it was now or never.

But as soon as Curacao catcher Shendrion Martinus caught the ball, both he and pitcher Curley Martha threw one hand up in the air pointing to the sky.

Willemstad, Curacao, isn’t done quite yet.

Martha threw 1 2/3 inning of brilliant relief to prevent the Asia-Pacific champions from South Chungcheong, South Korea, from rallying. And it give Curacao a 5-3 win in a game which was delayed 1 hour, 45 minutes because of rain. Curacao plays in Saturday’s International championship game against Chofu City, Japan.

Curacao is playing in its first Little League World Series International championship since 2007 when it finished fourth in the tournament. Curacao hasn’t reached at world final since 2005, and hasn’t won the world championship since 2004.

“It means a lot for us,” Curacao manager Michelangelo Celestina said.

It’s the third consecutive elimination game Curacao won since South Korea sent it to the elimination bracket with a 4-0 win during the team’s second game at the Series. And having won elimination games, the pressure was put on South Korea to win.

“We had an advantage because we played three games (in elimination bracket),” Celestina said. “So pressure was on them and we focused and had a good string of (hits) and won the game.”

After South Korea took an early 1-0 lead, it was Curacao which responded right away.

Clay Winklaar’s bat made contact with the ball, and all the fans down the third-base line of Lamade Stadium’s bleachers stood up and started cheering, the excitement growing louder and louder with every foot the ball traveled.

It culminated with an eruption of screams when it hit the top of the shrubs surrounding the second wall behind the outfield fence.

Winklaar’s hit was a crushing grand slam to left field which shifted the momentum away from South Korea in the first inning. Perhaps more impressive was the fact it came with two outs.

“The first inning we scored one run and it was good, but at the time we gave up home run, a grand slam. … Talked to players and said we’re still in the game, but it didn’t go well,” South Korea manager Minho Lee said.

“My coach told me that if you let that curve in the dirt go and you take good swings at the curve, they’re not going to show it to you again,” Winklaar said. “You’re going to have to show the fastball and you’ll have to attack that pitch.”

A fielder’s choice by Deshandro Tromp followed by consecutive singles to opposite sides of the outfield by Martha and Nathan Castillo loaded the bases. Martinus flew out to shallow right for the second out before Winklaar’s huge shot to take the lead.

South Korea had to play back-to-back days, which affected the team’s pitching.

“We planned to have Jinwon Na as the starting pitcher today, but Jinwon pitched too many fastballs and not breaking ball, and breaking ball didn’t work today,” Lee said. “Caribbean played against us well.”

South Korea put runners on base — the Asia-Pacific champions stranded eight runners, including leaving the bases loaded in the third inning — but the timely hits weren’t there when it needed them. That’s a credit to Curacao’s pitching.

The Caribbean champions threw Jurdrick Profar for 4 1/3 innings before relieving him with Martha. The duo combined to strike out 13 batters and allowed only four hits. Martha didn’t yield a hit, walk or run in his 1 2/3 innings.

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

And that’s what Curacao did.

Of South Korea’s four hits, only one was an extra-base hit. It came in the top of the first inning when Suho Yang drilled a triple to deep right field. It drove in Minwood Park, who had walked.

Profar felt no pressure on the mound, even when having two or three runners on base. In the first inning, South Korea had runners at second and third when Profar struck out the final batter. In the third with bases loaded, Profar again came through with a huge strikeout.

“Just throw the ball, don’t think,” Profar said of his philosophy pitching.

“The plan was that he had to pitch the entire game. We have to win,” Celestina said of throwing Profar, noting how Curacao has a deep pitching staff. “We have pitchers that can open a game against Japan.”

The Caribbean champions were led by both Profar and Martha, who both had two hits.

South Korea used the third inning to chip away at Curacao’s three-run lead. After a strikeout to open the inning, Park reached when he was hit by a pitch, and Yang reached on a single. Gibeom Jung was then hit and a walk two batters later scored Park. Yang scored on a passed ball, as South Korea took advantage of the miscues to cut the deficit to 4-3.

Curacao responded in the bottom of the third with one out when Martha hit a home run to centerfield just a few feet to the right of the bust of Howard J. Lamade to make it a two-run lead and give Curacao a little breathing room.

After that third inning in which South Korea scored twice, the Asia-Pacific champions only had two batters reach the remainder of the game and saw all three batters who came to the plate in the sixth strikeout.

Yang was South Korea’s only batter to have multiple hits, as he went 2 for 3 with his triple, run scored and an RBI. Siyeong Lee had a single in the second and Park had the team’s only other single, a fourth-inning bloop to shallow right.

Entering Thursday’s game against South Korea, Curacao was averaging roughly 10 strikeouts at the plate. Thursday, the team had only four strikeouts — three of which came at the bottom of the order. That’s something Celestina wanted to work on.

“Before the games, we talked a lot with the kids about approaching the ball in the cages,” Celestina said. “We talked a lot and we practiced in the cages before the game, and it worked.”

The Caribbean champions also wanted to cut down on errors in the rematch with South Korea.

“We had three games and we made like nine errors in three games and I talked a lot with them to play a perfect game to win against Korea,” Celestina said. “If you made a mistake, they can take advantage against you.”

Mistake free baseball is what Curacao played Thursday, and the team robbed South Korea of hits defensively. That was most evident by Martha’s highlight-reel leaping snag of a hard-hit line drive in the top of the fourth inning, robbing Na of a hit.

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