Bell, Pirates win on a day all about baseball

Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison throws to first base for an out against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday at Bowman Field during the 2017 MLB Little League Classic. (MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette)

It started with the crack of the bat. You know, that unmistakable sound of a baseball being launched to a destination among the stratosphere.

The ‘oohs’ started immediately, subtle but conspicuous. Josh Bell trotted down the first-base line. He already knew where the baseball was going to land.

A crescendo of disbelief grew among the modest Major League crowd of just 2,596 people. Then there was an explosion of noise as the ball disappeared into the abyss beyond the right-field wall.

Bell made quite the statement Sunday night in the first inning with his two-run home run. After an afternoon of the Little League World Series’ best players putting on a show for he and his Pirates teammates and the St. Louis Cardinals, they were going to reciprocate.

The Pirates defeated the Cardinals last night, 6-3, in the first MLB Little League Classic, ending a joyous day celebrating baseball in Lycoming County. In front of the eight teams participating in the Little League World Series, their families, and fans, Bell tied a career high with four RBIs, and Ivan Nova pitched 5 2/3 quality innings at Bowman Field.

Like a high school senior on prom night, the 92-year-old ballpark which has undergone more than $4 million in renovations this year, glistened on the brightest stage. It hosted a regular-season Major League Baseball game for the first time in its history, and showcased the best of Williamsport.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who managed the Williamsport Bills in 1991. “The handshakes I got today from little people, boys and girls, the smiles, the thank yous … The thank yous were heartfelt and real. You could hear them ‘Can you believe Andrew McCutchen watched us play?’ That’s interaction you can’t get anywhere else. I don’t know another sport that can do something like this.

“I was humbled to be part of it. I’m very grateful.”

Sunday was all about baseball — both the winners’ bracket games played at Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums in South Williamsport, and the pennant-race contest between Pittsburgh and St. Louis which closed out a four-game series. But it was a day which was as much about the spirit of baseball as anything else.

As Hurdle walked off the field, he tipped his cap and smiled a smile which stretched from Williamsport to Pittsburgh, thanking the Little League World Series participants sitting behind the Pirates’ first-base dugout. Josh Harrison saluted the fans as he walked off the field, gratitude emanating from every inch of his body.

At the conclusion of the game, the Pirates and Cardinals met at home plate and shook hands, just as their Little League counterparts had done four times previously that afternoon.

Somewhere, Carl Stotz smiled.

“Today was a great day and a great event,” Nova said. “Hopefully those kids can take something out of this. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to pitch on a day like today.”

“It was cool, from beginning to end,” said Bell, whose first-inning home run was his 21st this season. “From the moment we stepped off the plane, sharing that van ride up to the complex, hanging out with the kids, taking a lot of pictures, we were just having fun. Coupled with this game, this was the complete package.”

Bell put on a show those Little Leaguers from around the world will never forget. His first-inning three-run homer was a no-doubt missile off Cardinals starter Mike Leake. And just for good measure, he added a two-run, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the third inning to kick off another three-run outburst by the Bucs.

His four RBIs tied a career high, which he had done twice previously this season, including in a July 14 game against St. Louis where he also homered. From there, Nova and four relievers shut the door on the Cardinals.

Wearing the name “Nightmare” on the back of his Players Weekend jersey, Felipe Rivero gave the crowd one last bit of excitement, touching 100 mph on the radar fun with his fastball. It might as well have been a radio ball, heard but not seen.

“For me, and I’m sure the other guys feel the same way, you have to do what you have to do on a day like this and you have to find a way to stay focused,” said Nova, who allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings. “We’re still fighting here.”

“He kept things in check,” Hurdle said of Nova. “After he gave up the home run (to Jedd Gyorko in the second), we needed a shutdown inning and he got it. I thought he had a great performance.”

But all of that talk will be an afterthought in the coming weeks, months and years.

Baseball games live on in box scores for eternity. What happened Sunday was an invaluable treasure chest of memories, the once-in-a-lifetime kind, for both the kids and the adults. It’s why the big leaguers saluted and expressed their appreciation to their pre-teen counterparts as they walked off the field.

It started with the crack of the bat. It ended with a heart-felt thank you.