SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – After Monday’s Little League World Series win, the Eastlake manager labeled his team fighters.
Tuesday, his players proved him right.
After opening the game by striking out six straight times and falling behind by two runs, the all-stars from Sammamish erupted for six third-inning runs and never trailed again while edging Nashville, Tenn., 6-5 in an elimination game.
Sammamish guaranteed itself no worse than a top three U.S. finish with the win. It next plays Thursday against the loser of Wednesday’s California-Connecticut game. A win Thursday would send Sammamish to Saturday’s U.S. championship game.
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“It doesn’t get old,” said Jack Matheson, who pitched 31
3 innings of outstanding relief to earn the win. “It’s one of those sports that you love to play all the time.”
Nothing went right for Sammamish early. Tennessee took a 2-0 first-inning lead and pitcher Trae McLemore struck out six straight hitters on just 25 pitches.
In the third inning, nothing went wrong for Sammamish.
Third baseman Nathan Fitzgibbons started changing the game’s complexion when he fought back from a 1-2 count, fouled off three pitches and drew a leadoff walk. It was an opening and Sammamish stormed through it as the next five batters also reached base.
Jack Carper, Dalton Chandler and Will Armbruester hit consecutive RBI singles and suddenly, Sammamish led 3-2. Two other runs scored on errors and Austin Oh delivered a clutch two-out, pinch-hit RBI single that made it 6-2.
Sammamish sent 10 batters to the plate in that pivotal third inning and made McLemore throw 37 pitches. Credit an adjustment as Sammamish decided to attack first pitches instead of taking them the way they had planned.
“We took the takes off and started swinging at balls down the middle,” coach Matt Fitzgibbons said. “That was the fundamental difference between the second and third innings. We stopped holding the bats and started swinging them well.”
Tennessee answered in the bottom of the third by scoring two runs, but catcher Cameron Bowers stifled the rally with one of the game’s biggest plays. Tennessee had the tying runs on first and second with two outs when Bowers threw out Knox Preston trying to steal third on a ball that bounced in the dirt.
Tennessee made it a one-run game when Ben Pickman homered in the fourth inning, but reliever Matheson would not let it get any closer.
Matheson stranded four runners over the last three innings. He recorded an inning-ending strikeout in the fifth with the tying run on third. An inning later, Bricen Russell’s two-out single sent Pickman, one of the Series’ best hitters, to the plate.
Despite allowing a home run to Pickman the first time they faced each other, Matheson remained calm, threw a first-pitch strike and then induced him into hitting a game-ending fielder’s choice toward second baseman Dylan Matsuoka.
“It’s fun because I feel like it’s on my shoulders,” Matheson said. “It’s all in my hands now.”
After the game, manager Rob Chandler mirrored Matheson with both wearing ice bags, Matheson on his shoulder, Chandler on his elbow. Chandler said it was the result of 90 days of batting practice.
It’s a price Chandler is willing to pay. A national championship is getting closer and closer.
“They rise to the occasion,” Chandler said. “They get the job done.”