Timely hitting and stellar pitching had been the defining elements, along with superb defensive play, of Eastlake Little League's 12-under all-star team in its inspiring run to the 2013 Little League World Series championship game.
But the team from Tokyo, Japan, that Eastlake faced in Sunday's climactic finale in South Williamsport, Pa., took a page from the playbook of the United States Division champions. With just six outs remaining in their own inspiring LLWS run, the International Division champions rallied from a 4-3 deficit to score three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to record a dramatic 6-4 come-from-behind victory.
The LLWS championship was the third in the last four years for a team from Japan, and it's difficult to say that the Japanese didn't deserve to win this year despite facing a potent Eastlake team that carried a near perfect 22-1 record into the game.
The International champions received timely hitting just when they needed it, got clutch pitching just when they needed it. But above all, it was the superb defensive play by the Japanese that allowed them to find a way to win.
For Japan, it was a story of composure and execution. For the American champions, it was a story of missed opportunities.
Eastlake's players ended the game misty-eyed. Alas, it wasn't from the thrill of victory.
The District 42 champions can hold their heads up high, however.
Approximately 7,500 teams in all 50 U.S. States and 81 countries around the world began their quest to reach the LLWS, but only one could be crowned the champion.
Second place in the world? Hey, that's not bad at all.
"Just a phenomenal series," Eastlake Little League President Ray Diaz said. "The kids are just incredible."
“We had a great year, we battled all the way to the end and we came up a little short,” Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett said. “The kids enjoyed the game and they’ve moved on from it. Three or four of them will be playing in a baseball tournament this weekend.”
Sunday's game was played in front of a crowd of 28,119 fans at hallowed Lamade Stadium and millions of television viewers around the world.
What they saw was another nerve-racking victory pulled off by the Japanese, who finished LLWS play 5-0 on the strength of five narrow victories.
Japan failed to run-rule any of its opponents. The Japanese captured their four International bracket games by scores of 7-3 (Czech Republic), 3-2 (Chinese Taipiei), 5-2 (Mexico) and 4-3 (Mexico).
Eastlake had a great start, building leads of 2-0 and 4-3 against the tenacious Japanese, but simply couldn't finish. That clutch hit, that clutch pitch, that clutch catch just seemed to evade them.
The U.S. champions simply proved mortal.
The game itself took an unexpected turn early on as the ace pitchers on both teams struggled through the opening three innings.
Kazuki Ishida started on the mound for Japan and experienced control problems. He hit Eastlake leadoff hitter Micah Pietila-Wiggs and then served up a double to the left field corner to Eastlake's No. 2 hitter Jake Espinoza.
Ishida came back to strike out Nick Mora to hold the runners at second and third bases. However, Pietila-Wiggs would later score on a passed ball and Grant Holman then drove in another run with a single to right center field.
Some might have figured game over at this point with Holman having thrown a no-hitter in the first game of the LLWS tournament and leading all LLWS pitchers with 23 strikeouts.
But Holman had control issues of his own. He walked two of the first three batters he faced in the bottom of the opening frame, uncorked a pair of wild pitches to place runners in scoring position. Takuma Gomi then delivered a solid base hit and an errant throw back to the infield allowed both Japanese base runners to score.
The International champions had a chance to take the lead but had a runner thrown out at the plate on a two-out base hit by Kyousuke Kobayashi.
Game tied 2-2.
TV cameras clearly showed the frustration on Holman's face, and it proved to be a very frustrating game for Eastlake.
Was it a case of too much adrenaline and excitement about playing in the biggest game of their careers or simply a question of fatigue and emotional drain after winning their respective bracket championship titles?
Despite the somewhat ragged performance by both teams, the game did not lack for drama.
Holman hit a Japanese batter and walked another in the second inning. Though he struck out two hitters to end the threat, his pitch count reached 50. With only 35 pitches left until he reached the mandatory 85-pitch limit, it was evident that he was not going to finish the game.
Ishida also looked to max out early.
Holman pitched through three innings, giving up four hits while striking out five batters and walking five. He served up two hits in his final inning of work, including a leadoff home run by Shunpei Takagi to stake Japan to a 3-2 lead.
Holman did not return after hurling 82 pitches at the game's midpoint.
Still, it looked like Eastlake might find a way.
Pietila-Wiggs led off the top of the fourth inning with a double to the left corner to record his LLWS leading 11th hit. Espinoza followed with a liner to left field to advance Pietila-Wiggs to third base. That brought Mora to the plate and he was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game to load the bases.
Ishida left the game at this point, replaced by Keita Seito.
Holman slapped a grounder to the third baseman to force out the runner at home plate. Just when it looked like the rally might fizzle, however, Giancarlo Cortez followed with a base hit to score two runs.
Saito minimized the damage, however, by fanning the next two batters.
But Eastlake held a 4-3 lead, and it looked like it might be lights out on the Japanese after Ricky Tibbett (taking over for Holman on the mound) set Japan down in order in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Just six outs separated Eastlake from winning the 2013 LLWS championship.
The Japanese had other designs, however.
Japan essentially won the game in the top of the fifth inning by virtue of its defense after Eastlake loaded the bases with none out but failed to push across any insurance runs.
Patrick Archer opened the frame with a walk and Dominic Haley shot a liner just inside the first base line.
Japan switched pitchers, sending Kobayashi to the hill. Pietila-Wiggs stroked a hard liner to left field but the ball was hit so hard (and picked up fast by the outfielder) that neither runner could score. That jammed the base paths with Eastlake runners.
Espinoza followed with a hard drive to left field but the outfielder got a running start on the ball and his quick throw to the plate cut down the Eastlake runner who had tagged while attempting to score on the sacrifice fly.
The double play proved to be the game's turning point, especially after Kobayashi induced Mora to swing and miss on a poorly placed ball.
Still, Eastlake had a one-run lead with victory still in sight.
But that quickly evaporated as Takagi, leading off the bottom of the fifth inning, rocked a pitch by Tibbett over the fence for his second home run of the game and tied the score 4-all.
Tibbett bore down to get a strikeout after yielding another base hit, but an infield hit by Kobayashi and an ensuing wild pitch byt Tibbett placed two runners in scoring position for Japan with one down.
The Japanese did not waste their golden opportunity as catcher Ryusei Hirooka stroked a line shot down the third base line to plate two runs.
Rennard Williams came on to close out the threat but Japan had what it wanted: a 6-4 lead.
Ironically, Tibbett had been the only pitcher to that point in the game to have set down the opposing order in any inning (that being the previous frame).
Despite defeat staring them in the face, Eastlake's hitters still almost found a way.
Holman grounded out to open the top of the sixth inning. But Cortez and Williams each drew walks to place the potential game-winning run at the plate in the guise of Kevin Bateman.
Bateman slapped a hard shot to the infield but the Japanese were in position to execute a somewhat unorthodox double play to end the game.
The Japanese had snatched victory from the apparent jaws of defeat.
Eastlake's championship run had finally ended.
“We left a lot of runners on base, something like 15 or 16 on base,” the Eastlake manager said. “We didn’t get the timely hits we wanted or we could have opened up the game.”
While viewers in Chula Vista had to be disappointed by the outcome, the citizens of South County will have the chance to welcome home their LLWS heroes during a special meet-and-greet Thursday evening at Sleep Train Amphitheatre.
Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox, wearing a yellow West region T-shirt in support of Eastlake Little League's sluggers, announced from a public viewing party at Eastlake Tavern & Bowl that the amphitheater's parking lot would open at 5 p.m., gates would open at 6 p.m., and the team would take the stage at 7 p.m.
Japan finished its LLWS title-clinching victory with eight hits while Eastlake had seven hits. Both teams were charged with one error.
The LLWS championship was the ninth overall for a team from Japan; U.S. teams have won 33 titles.
Pietila-Wiggs finished the game with two hits – a feat he recorded in every single LLWS game played in Pennsylvania. He finished with an LLWS-leading 12 hits.
Holman struck out five batters in his three innings on the mound to finish with an LLWS-leading 28 strikeouts.
Mexico champion Tijuana out-lasted New England region champion Westport (Conn.) by a score of 15-14 in Sunday's preceding third-place game. Each team racked up 16 hits in the scoringfest.
Chad Knight led the U.S. Division runner-up team with seven RBI in the game while stroking three hits. He finished with an LLWS-leading 11 RBI.
Standouts for Tijuana included Miguel Artalejo and Luis Manzo, each with three hits, and Saul Favela (four RBI). Artalejo also drove in three runs.
Final 2013 LLWS Standings
1`. Japan 5-0
2. West (Eastlake) 4-1
3. Mexico (Tijuana) 4-2
4. New England (Westport, Conn.) 3-3