California to face its toughest test yet

Before watching them play a Little League World Series game, many labeled the Eastlake Little League all-stars from Chula Vista, Calif., the U.S. championship favorite.

Representing a state that has played in the last two and three of the last four national championships can do that for a team. So to can hailing from a city that produced the 2009 world champion.

But once the games started, California showed that it is not its state or city that makes it the favorite. It is the way it plays.

“I would have to say they probably win the U.S. side,” said Michigan manager Tom Mazzola, whose team lost a 3-0, 7-inning game to California in its Series opener. “They have that leadership, that chemistry.”

But now California faces its toughest Series opponent again. The West champions play Westport, Conn., today for the U.S. championship. The winner heads to Sunday’s world final.

Connecticut was an out from defeating California in Wednesday’s winners’ bracket final, but the West champions rallied for a dramatic 6-3, 9-inning win. Connecticut fought back in thrilling fashion Friday, overcoming a seven-run fifth-inning deficit and edging Washington, 14-13 in seven innings.

Now Connecticut has its ace Chad Knight, on the mound for today’s game. California might be the favorite but this could be a toss-up.

“We’re really excited. From (Friday) we gained a lot of momentum going in,” said Knight, who hit a game-tying home run and a walk-off single against Washington. “We’re going to be really fired up.”

That is a good thing because California is undefeated at the Series and has lost just once this summer.

The West champions won three straight Series games to reach Saturday’s U.S. final against Connecticut. They won two extra-inning thrillers and walloped Delaware, 15-3 in four innings. Whatever it takes to win this team has done it.

Now it wants its biggest win yet.

“We’ll be ready on Saturday for sure,” California manager Rick Tibbett said following Wednesday’s winner’s bracket final win over Connecticut.

California features one of the tournament’s most powerful offenses and also one of its deepest pitching staffs while possessing an outstanding defense which has yet to make a Series error.

Grant Holman threw the first Series extra-inning no-hitter since 1979 in an opening-round win over Michigan, but can not pitch today after throwing 66 pitches Wednesday. The rest of the pitching staff has been terrific, though, and three relievers combined to throw 5 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball in Wednesday’s 6-3, 9-inning win.

“Their pitchers are rock solid and that second baseman (lead-off hitter Micah Pietila-Wiggs) is a stud. They made a statement against Delaware.”

Pietila-Wiggs is one of five California players who has homered at this Series. He also has been one of the Series best hitters and has made a series of sensational plays. Nick Mora hit two home runs against Connecticut, reserve Michael Gaines hit a long home run against Delaware and Holman has produced seven runs on his two home runs.

They can all hit,” Connecticut manager Tim Rogers said. “We know their good.”

“The California kids are very impressive. I was very impressed with their team,” Delaware manager John Ludman said. “They hit the ball very hard.”

So does Connecticut.

The New England champions emphatically drove that point home yesterday. Connecticut (20-1) hit four home runs, delivered 14 hits and scored nine runs over the final four innings. After being five outs from defeat, Connecticut hit three home runs and fought back.

Alex Reiner, Max Popken and Knight all homered in a game-tying, seven-run fifth inning, highlighting the team’s depth.

“Our lineup is deep. Everyone can hit,” Rogers said. “Our offense is second to none. It can come from anywhere.”

Connecticut has proven it with two reserves hitting home runs, including Matt Brown who hit a three-run shot against California. The pitching has been deep to with Reiner shining in relief and Popken stifling Washington after it had erupted for 10 fourth-inning runs.

Knight gets the call today and has been brilliant. He struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings against California while allowing only one run. Going back to the start of the regionals, Knight has struck out 47.

Combine that with the way Connecticut won yesterday and it is feeling good. It is the first New England team to reach the U.S. final since Saugus, Mass., in 2003. Now it has a chance to become the region’s first national champion of the 21st century.

“That’s why we’re a team,” Knight said. “We’ve been down before so we figured let’s just battle back.”

Both teams have done that throughout the summer. Both have won extra-inning games at the Series, California doing so twice. Connecticut has won two, one-run thrillers.

“We’ll play anybody,” Tibbett said when asked what International team he would like to play if California reached the final. “We don’t care, if we get to that point.”

These teams have played since the final week of June and have taken their communities on unforgettable journeys.

Now they want to put an exclamation point on this summer-long run. Today they receive that opportunity.

“We’ve just taken it this whole way step by step,” Reiner said. “To be here in this position we want to be is amazing. It’s unbelievable.”