The place looked a bit different than Williamsport, the weather was far chillier than expected for late August, and someone is going to need to check the birth certificates on those boys with the beards. There's no way they're 12 years old, and this is the Little League World Series, right? It's got to be.
Don't be fooled by the cityscape climbing beyond the stadium walls. Or the October-like crispness in the air. Or the facial hair of the players swinging wooden bats, wearing metal spikes, and chewing tobacco. Just look at the field. It says "World Series" on the grass behind home plate -- and games are being decided on plays that make we adults hear the voices of the coaches who taught us in our own fundamental-formative, pre-teen practices.
Look the ball into the glove! we heard in the first inning Wednesday, when shortstop Pete Kozma failed to catch a routine flip from second baseman Matt Carpenter as he moved toward the second base bag, taking his eyes off the ball with the runner bearing down on him as he hurried to turn a David Ortiz' grounder into two outs and ignored another basic instruction: Make sure of one!
That situation eventually cost the Cardinals three runs, and an inning later a pop-up that landed between a pitcher and catcher left exasperatedly staring at each other -- Call it! Communicate! -- opened the door for a rally that scored two more. Trailing 5-0 after two frames the Cards could never cut into that gap, and so those fundamental flubs ultimately cost them Wednesday's Game 1 by a count of 8-1.
But then Thursday the Red Sox returned the gifts. After David Ortiz crushed a two-run homer over the wall in left -- the biggest kids always seem to go deep in the Little League World Series, don't they? -- the Sox took a lead into the seventh inning, with their best relievers lined up and Koji Uehara waiting at the end to protect what was a 2-1 advantage.
Those youth coaches wouldn't keep quiet, though, and started yelling again as soon as Matt Carpenter's bases loaded fly to left landed in the glove of Jonny Gomes, and Kozma came dashing toward the plate after tagging from third.
Hit the cutoff man!
With a one-run lead, an outfielder's first instinct when he catches a medium-depth flyball with one out and a man on third is obviously to fire home in an effort to keep the run from scoring. So nobody can begrudge Gomes for coming up gunning, and trying to throw out Kozma.
Except that here's how Gomes described the challenge he faced on that particular play: "Had to swing my body all the way around, had a strong throw, and it skipped away from Salty. That would've been a tough, tough, tough play to get him out at home."
On such a tough -- tough, tough -- play, then, the left fielder has to account for more than just the guy tagging at third. There were two other baserunners active on the play, when the play began the Red Sox were leading, and it was only the seventh inning. In the best-case scenario he throws the runner out, of course, but in attempting to do so he needs to also do whatever he can to make sure that the worst-case scenario is a tie game, with two outs and men on first and second.
The way to do that is hitting the cutoff man, letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia judge the runner's progress before telling Xander Bogaerts whether to cut the ball or let it go through, and manage the risk. Especially when the best-case scenario play was of such a high degree of difficulty, that's the proper execution. Instead, he aired it out. And the throw went a bit up the first base line.
Come off the base to catch the ball!
Part of managing risk is up to Saltalamacchia there, too. Once Gomes sails the cutoff man, his primary responsibility is to catch the ball. Not to block the plate, not to make a tag. His job is to catch the ball. And he didn't do it.
Instead of leaving the plate to catch the ball, or at least keep it in front of him, he tried to hold his ground and reach for the throw. When he extended, it made for a difficult catch, and he didn't make it. The ball clanged off his glove. It rolled behind him, where pitcher Craig Breslow picked it up, and saw Jon Jay breaking for third.
Don't throw the ball around!
Jay didn't do a good job reading the ball off the bat, so as Gomes was uncorking toward the plate, Jay was diving back into second base. He sprung up quickly when he saw where the ball was headed, crept a little farther when he noticed the cutoff man wasn't going to be in play, and broke into a full-out sprint when the ball got past Saltalamacchia.
If Breslow couldn't scooped and thrown quickly, he might've had a shot to get Jay heading for third. But he couldn't. Rather, the reliever retrieved the ball and had to take a sideways crow hop to clear the catcher from his throwing lane. Once he did this he had no shot at nabbing Jay, even with a perfect throw.
He should've put it in his back pocket and focused on what to do with Carlos Beltran. Instead he fired over the head of Stephen Drew, and into the seats on a bounce. Suddenly the Sox were down 3-2 with a runner at third, then Beltran needed only flair a single into right to give the Red Birds an insurance score.
That's where the game ended, 4-2, tying the series at a game apiece, and turning the United States' championship into a best-of-five.
No word yet on who will emerge from the international bracket.
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