Yamaguchi’s slam highlights offensive explosion for West champs

Sean Yamaguchi raised his arms high into the night sky as he rounded first base. It provided an appropriate symbol because he and his teammates keep rising toward the top of the Little League World.

And they are now one of the U.S.’s top two Little League Baseball teams.

Yamaguchi’s grand slam highlighted a five-run second inning as Honolulu quickly broke things open and romped to a 10-0, 5-inning winners’ bracket win against Staten Island, New York on Wednesday at Lamade Stadium.

Hawaii advanced to Saturday’s U.S. Championship and will play the winner of today’s Georgia-New York game.

“All I know is that it feels good to make it to the U.S. Championship to guarantee we’re one of the last two teams in the tournament,” Hawaii manager Gerald Oda said. “All we tell the kids is try your best. That’s all we ask.”

Hawaii’s best has been quite impressive.

Hawaii won its Series opener, 1-0 in 11 innings against Georgia. It has taken a much easier route the last two games, battering Michigan and New York by an 18-3 margin. The West champions built a 9-0 third-inning lead Wednesday and Aukai Kea and Ka’olu Holt combined on the 1-hit shutout.

New York lost for the first time this summer. It was this group’s first loss in 28 games over the last two seasons.

Still, though, the Mid-Atlantic champions have a shot at the world’s ultimate prize. They just have to take a more difficult path now.

” We have another day,” New York manager Joe Calabrese said. “We come back (Thursday) and if we win that and if we beat them Saturday it will look pretty good getting run-ruled and coming back and beating them in the (national) championship game.”

New York starting pitcher Chris Bedford looked like he would escape a first-inning jam unscathed, but two two-out errors opened the door and Hawaii scored twice. Hawaii earned its five second-inning runs all on its own. Yamaguchi powered the Hawaii offense, going 3 for 4 with five RBIs.

Holt led off the inning with a single before Mana Lau Kong and Kea were hit by a pitch and walked, respectively. That set the stage for Yamaguchi, the team’s top power hitter. Yamaguchi took some swings and just missed a big hit, fouling off two rocket-like liners. He then put everything together and slammed his grand slam high into the night and over the left-center field wall. Just like that, Hawaii led 7-0 and, with Kea throwing so well, that advantage fell more like 17.

“I felt really confident. He kept throwing fastballs and I knew he was going to try and throw me the curve so I just went with the ball,” Yamaguchi said. “I didn’t really think it was going to go over, so I was just really happy that it would be an RBI. When I saw it go over I was really excited.”

Hawaii kept pouring it on in the second inning and Yamaguchi again was in the middle of things. Kea hit a sacrifice fly and Yamaguchi’s RBI single made it, 9-0. Kea (2 for 2) singled to open the fifth inning and ended the game an inning early when he scored following three wild pitches.

The big lead allowed Hawaii to keep every pitcher eligible for Saturday’s U.S. Final. Kea was pulled after reaching 50 pitches in the fifth inning and can still throw Saturday. He has thrown 11 scoreless Series innings thus far and allowed just the one hit in 4 1/3 innings last night, striking out six.

New York threatened in the fourth inning when Derek Mendez singled and reached third on two wild piches, but Kea ended the rally with his sixth strikeout.

“After the first inning I felt really good because I knew my teammates were supporting me,” Kea said. “I just fought through the battle.”

Kea received a lift from his defense which played another error-less game. Souza helped set the tone in the second inning when the center fielder covered a lot of ground and made a sensational, face-first diving catch.

This is the fourth straight time that a Hawaii has reached the U.S. Final at the Series. The 2005 and 2008 teams captured world championships and the 2010 squad won the national title.

New York is trying to become the second team from its state in three years to win the world title. Ace Gregory Bruno and Bedford cannot pitch Thursday, but Calabrese kept his four other pitchers last night to 20 pitches or fewer which keeps them all eligible for the Georgia game.

“I’ve been around these kids for three years,” Calabrese said. “They were shaken up some, but they’re going to come and they’re going to fight. They’re not going to quit.”