Japan’s Hirooka delivers winning hit for World Series title
Rysuei Hirooka stood on second base, smiled, raised his arms and let out a loud yell.
His tie-breaking, two-run fifth-inning double did not officially win Tokyo, Japan, Sunday’s world championship, but it pointed the way.
An inning later, the big celebration erupted. Kensuke Tsuchida and Sho Miyao combined on a game-ending double play and once again Japan was Little League Baseball’s king.
Hirooka hit a clutch double, Shunpei Takagi homered twice and reliever Kyousuke Kobayashi pitched brilliantly in relief as Japan rallied past West Region champ Chula Vista and won Sunday’s Little League World Series championship, 6-4.
“Each game we played was important to me,” Hirooka said. “Becoming No. 1 in the world has always been a dream of mine and I’m happy to accomplish that.”
“Being world champions is something we’ve always talked about,” Takagi said. “I’m definitely relieved and happy we have become champions.”
The Musashi Fuchu Little League is the second consecutive Japanese team to reign supreme in South Williamsport and the third in four years. This is the second time the league has captured a world title, also doing so in 2003 with current manager Masumi Omae leading the way then, too.
“I always dreamed of coming to the World Series and winning it again,” Omae said. “For the kids to do what they did, I am really happy about that.”
Sunday was Japan’s most impressive win during that run. Japan, which finished 5-0 at the Series, overcame an early 2-0 deficit and erased a 4-3 fifth-inning deficit thanks to Takagi’s second leadoff home run and Hirooka’s two-run double.
Kobayashi worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth and a first and second, one-out jam in the sixth to preserve the win.
“I knew that if mentally I pitched the way I always pitched, nothing could lead to failure,” Kobayashi said. “I was putting a lot of heart and soul into every pitch.”
California, 4-1 at the Series, put two runners on with one out in the sixth after Giancarlo Cortez and Rennard Williams drew back-to-back walks. As quickly as that rally started, though, it ended. Tsuchida fielded a one-hop Kevin Bateman bouncer, touched first base and threw to Miyao to easily complete the championship-clinching double play.
Minutes later, Japan was taking the customary victory lap around the Lamade Stadium field before signing a bat that is headed for the Little League Museum, and being interviewed by a national sports television network.
As that all happened, California was left to wonder, what if? The West champion stranded 12 runners on base, including eight in scoring position. California stranded at least two runners in each of the first five innings and repeatedly left the door open for Japan to take control.
“We missed some opportunities we should have taken care of,” California manager Rick Tibbett said. “But they made some great plays. We knew they were a good team. They are very disciplined.”
This was the second team from Chula Vista to reach the world championship. The 2009 team won the world crown that year. The players return to school Tuesday for the first time since July 26 but not before they are welcomed home with a big parade, compliments of a gracious city.
California players took the loss in stride. Less than an hour after the game ended, many of them were sliding down the hill beyond the left-field fence, experiencing one last thrill.
And a week from now, they will be competing again, playing on assorted travel teams. A new journey soon begins.
“They love to play baseball and in Southern California it’s always a great atmosphere,” Tibbett said. “We’re U.S. champions. There’s nothing to hang our heads about.”
The fifth inning was the game’s biggest. California led 4-3, but missed a big chance to break open the game, not scoring after loading the bases with no outs and the top of the order up. Japan made it pay in the bottom half.
Micah Pietila-Wiggs (2 for 3) singled to load the bases, but left fielder Takuma Gomi threw out Patrick Archer trying to score a batter later on a Jake Espinoza flyout. Kobayashi ended the inning with a strikeout and Japan, despite trailing, had a lot of momentum entering the bottom of the fifth.
“I was concentrating at that moment, knowing what I had to do,” Gomi said. “I felt good about getting a good throw home.”
It took Japan three pitches to make California pay for not cashing in. Takagi drove the third pitch he saw over the center-field fence, hitting his second home run and tying the game. Gomi followed with a single and moved to third on Kobayashi’s single.
That set the stage for Hirooka. The team’s catcher worked a 2-2 count before slamming a two-run double down the left-field line, giving Japan a 6-4 lead. It was the game’s third lead change and also its last.
“At the time my mind was full with trying to get the bunt down,” Hirooka said. “After that (failed) my mind was blank, but I was able to get something good accomplished.”
California opened the game strong, scoring two runs in the top of the first. Starting pitcher Grant Holman highlighted the rally with an RBI single, but Japan answered in the bottom of the inning with two runs, Gomi hitting an RBI single.
Holman had allowed only two hits in 10 2/3 innings entering the final and had struck out 23, but struggled against Japan. He struck out five in three innings, but also walked five and was at 82 pitches at that point.
Takagi put Japan ahead for the first time, leading off the third with a home run, but California answered right back. Pietila-Wiggs doubled, Espinoza (2 for 4) singled and Giancarlo Cortez scored both with a two-run single.
California tried mounting one last comeback in the sixth inning, but Kobayashi and his defense would not allow it. A decade after making history, the Musashi Fuchu Little League again was the world’s best.
“I’m really happy,” Gomi said. “The last two years that’s all we were talking about, being World Series champions and now we are.”