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On the world stage: Day of thrills, nerves for Auburn All-Stars
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – Frank Manning recalls being nervous at the 23rd Little League Baseball World Series, but Friday's Little League game may top that experience.
Today, he's not a player on the 1969 Briarwood Little League team from Santa Clara, Calif., facing the Taichung Little League of Taichung City, Taiwan – he's in the stands cheering on his son, Casey, a pitcher for the Auburn All-Stars who is making his own appearance at the 64th World Series.
"They look extremely nervous," Manning said, nodding toward the field where Auburn players are trying to hit the curveballs Nick Nardone of Fairfield (Conn.) American Little League is hurling.
“But they're ready to play ball,” he continued. “It's not a matter of knowing how to do it, it's a mater of settling down and doing it.”
Manning, just like most of the other parents with the Northwest team, is sitting on the edge of the bench and groans as another Auburn player swings – and misses – a curveball.
When his own son, Casey, steps up to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning, he begins his mantra: “See that connection now, see the connection. You're on it ….” He pauses and when Casey connects with a single to center field, Manning stands up and yells, “Now Bud!”
Anxious moments for fans
Manning isn't the only nervous family member at Auburn's opener of the series. Rebecca Nahaku, wife of Auburn manager Kai Nahaku, also sat on the edge of the bench and called encouragement to the team, while she fielded questions from the media and answered text and cell phone messages from family and friends.
Despite the ordeal of leaving home Wednesday night, jumping from plane to plane to plane and missing flights, Nahaku considers herself lucky – at least she got a hotel room close by and only missed one flight.
“We're all scattered about,” she said, referring to the lack of vacant hotels locally. “Every player has some family member here, but we're not staying in the same towns. We regroup when we get here.
“It has been difficult,” she admitted. “Coming off of spending all that money at the regional championship in San Bernadino, not everyone was able to afford coming here. It was easier in San Bernadinio, also, because there are so many more hotels.”
One family, Tyler Tan's parents, made it to the series despite a major obstacle: the Tans welcomed a brand new daughter during the regional playoffs and the week-old infant was oblivious to the noise and bedlam around her, cuddled in her mother's arms.
Despite the encouragement from an extremely vocal parents' section, a two-run double in the top of the sixth broke the 1-1 tie to give Fairfield a 3-1 victory over Auburn.
Auburn simply outplayed
Kai Nahaku summed up the loss, saying, “They batted better than us, they played defense better than us and they pitched better than us.”
Nahaku said his strategy will change for the next game, scheduled at 5 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) against Midwest champion Plymouth, Minn.
After the loss, he spoke about the Northeast team's strengths, Auburn's weaknesses and the distractions of being in the World Series and all the trappings that go with the honor.
Nahaku said he thought the fifth inning, when Auburn had two runners on base, was going to be a “big inning for us. I had the meat of our order coming up. Sometimes you have deadweight with that slow pitching. But they had seen it three times and I thought they were going to make the adjustments and get some hits,” he said.
Fairfield's pitcher, he said, stuck in there.
“He was always on the plate. The kid had a good approach. If it works, keep it up,” Nahaku said. “We hit up and down the order. I still thought we were in it until the last out. Our bottom of the order hits well, so flip the order over and get back to the guys who can hit it over the wall easily and see what happens is what I'm thinking.
"It is what it is,” he added philosophically.
Auburn's strategy is to push, he said.
“We always push and stay aggressive. We have smart base running and the kids have always done well,” he said.
The team scored easily in regionals because they hadn't faced anyone with a good curveball, he said.
“If you're throwing a good curveball it's hard to hit. We just struggled on it," Nahaku said. "It's not like we didn't put runners on and weren't in good positions. There were several innings where we were just maybe two hits away. We had runners and second and third with no outs. If we could have strung a couple more hits together, we'd pretty much chase the pitcher out of the game and we go to their number two and number three (pitchers) and it's a different ball game maybe”
Regardless, Fairfield made great plays, Nahaku said.
Plenty going on; routine disrupted
Distractions abound, Nahaku said, but his team isn't the only one facing them.
He spoke about their participation in the Grand Slam Parade, which wound its way through downtown Williamsport on Thursday. The Little League players were impressed, he said, with the attention and the quaintness of the town and its welcoming.
“They're still talking about it. They can't believe this community. They're just taken aback by us. That parade was pretty neat stuff. That's another thing that kids remember,” he said.
But when picnics and parades and opening ceremonies heap one on top of the other, it's difficult for a team to schedule a practice and focus on the basics.
“It definitely makes a difference the way you lead up,” Nahaku said. “You know, we have certain ways we warm up, pregame routines we go through every time. I believe that's one of the strengths of keeping them normal, especially in this kind of atmosphere.
"We've never had to do our warmups then go to opening ceremonies, and break our routine up," he said. "I don't know if that affected us, but from a coaching standpoint that's a difficult thing to manage. Just the timing of it all.
"I always try to make sure there's blocks of time, make sure there's so much time in between warmups and first pitch," he added. "It was just an awkward situation. The logistics of the ground was tough, too. But every team has to deal with the same thing, so I don't think that has a bearing on the game. It's just difficult for the coach preparing the team.”
Robin Van Auken, editor and lead reporter of NorthcentralPA.com, is covering the series for the Auburn Reporter.