Sammamish, Wash., marches on
A long summer playing 22 baseball games across the country takes its toll. Even the coaches are taking a beating.
Northwest Region champ Sammamish, Wash., manager Rob Chandler entered the media room Tuesday night wearing an ice pack around his right elbow. He said it was the result of 90 days of batting practice.
Call it a badge of honor. A little pain and a little ice is nothing. Chandler and his team enjoy paying the price. They might be tired and sore but they still are standing at the Little League World Series. They are one of the country’s three best teams.
“It doesn’t get old,” pitcher Jack Matheson said after pitching great in relief during Tuesday’s 6-5 elimination win over Southeast champ Nash-ville, Tenn. “It’s one of those sports I love to play all the time.”
So do all of Matheson’s teammates. The passion shows up whenever Washington plays and is a big reason it will play for a spot in the U.S. final today against New England champion Westport, Conn.
Washington has won two straight thrilling one-run elimination games and now has a shot at becoming the first team from its state to reach a U.S. final in the 21st century.
“They’re fighters. They rise to the occasion,” Chandler said. “They get the job done.”
Washington has done that 20 times this season, losing only one game in states and to Connecticut last Sunday.
Even in that loss, Washington displayed its mettle nearly coming all the way back from an eight-run third-inning deficit before dropping a 9-7 heartbreaker. Since then, Washington has held off Iowa, 6-5, and rallied past Tennessee, 6-5.
The Tennessee win seemed to symbolize everything the team represents. Washington fell behind 2-0 in the first inning and struck out six straight times to start the game on just 25 pitches.
The Northwest champion seemed overmatched and a loss appeared near certain. Instead, Washing-ton simply adjusted its approach, started pounding the ball, scored six third-inning runs and then excelled under pressure late, winning a thriller against an outstanding team.
“They’re a good team. They’re a scrappy bunch,” Tennessee manager Chris Mercado said. “They made adjustments in a good way and put the ball in play. If you put the ball in play good things are going to happen.”
Washington entered the game hoping to wait out Tennessee pitcher Trae McLemore. Often in those first two innings they watched strikes go by, striking out five straight times looking.
The team changed its approach in the third inning and started attacking first-pitch strikes. The result was six straight batters reaching base. Washington scored six runs on six hits and had four different players deliver RBI hits while taking a lead it never relinquished.
“We took the takes off and started swinging at balls down the middle,” Washington assistant coach Matt Fitzgibbons said. “I was worried we were going to get no-hit the way things started. But a guy gets on and then the next guy thinks, ‘maybe I can do this,’ and that’s when it starts to cascade.”
Washington has done that throughout the Series, scoring 21 runs and receiving clutch hits up and down the lineup. There really are no weak spots, proven when the reserves combined for five hits and four RBIs against Connecticut.
The pitching and defense have been strong, too. Matheson stranded the tying runners in the fifth and sixth innings against Tennessee, allowing just one run in 3 1/3 innings against a team that had scored 20 runs in its two previous games.
Tennessee threatened after Washington took that four-run lead, but the Northwest champ never buckled. They never do.
“We never give up. We can’t afford to,” Fitzgibbons said. “You have to stay positive and we rolled a few good opportunities.”
Washington has one of its best opportunities today. The summer has been long, school has started, the bruises have piled up and the team has not been home for nearly a month.
But this is exactly where Washington wants to be. There is nowhere else it would rather be. There is nothing it would rather be doing.
“We’re relishing this opportunity and having as much fun as possible,” Chandler said. “I don’t even have the words to describe how much fun this is for the coaches, let alone the kids.”