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Motivated Auburn to Connecticut: 'Beating us was a fluke'
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – Foretelling, perhaps, in a show of confidence before their rematch against New England, seven of the 11 Auburn Little Leaguers who stepped out on the field to dance with Dugout, Little League's mascot, wore batting helmets.
“They think they're going to be hitting a long time,” observed a fan in the crowd at Howard J. Lamade Stadium where Auburn, the Northwest Regional champion, and Fairfield, Conn., the New England champion, are competing in the 64th Little League Baseball World Series.
They should have worn nine. No matter, the first inning concluded after the seven players kick-started the game with two runs on three hits, leaving two men left on base. By the end of the game, Auburn dominated 9-5.
“I think that's what drove us,” said pitcher Dillon O'Grady, “showing them (New England) that beating us was a fluke.”
The runs piled up to four after Casey Manning's two-RBI home run in the third inning and Auburn looked strong, perhaps unbeatable, until New England scored three runs on three hits. Connecticut was not giving up.
After the game, Manning said the distractions at the series weren't obstacles – but the fields were.
“I got used to (the festivities) probably the day we got here. I was scared actually, looking the fields – how big they were. How nice they look,” he said.
The crowd wondered, are these the same Auburn players who folded to New England on Friday, struggling to connect with pitcher Nick Nardone's wicked curveball?
On Tuesday night, however, Auburn's goal to “be prepared” was evident.
"We want to get back and beat Connecticut," Ikaika Nahaku said after the team's 5-2 win over Plymouth, Minn., on Saturday. "We felt like we didn't prepare very well for that game. We were on our heels too much."
Auburn Manager Kai Nahaku held the pitch count down by spreading out Manning (20 pitches), Hudson Byorick (30 pitches) and O'Grady. O'Grady flagged in the fifth, packing the bases and allowing two runs – one on a wild pitch. A pensive Nahaku pulled the youngster after 39 pitches and called up Isaiah Hatch, who deftly retired the next two batters and put an end to the New England threat. Hatch's two-RBI home run – a birthday present for his 10-year-old brother, Jaelin – in the sixth inning pushed the Northwest comfort zone by four runs.
“I was kind of nervous, but I knew our defense had my back so it they had hit it, it would still be out,” Hatch said. “It felt good.”
Feeling confident again with the four-run lead and one out left, Manager Nahaku pulled Hatch after 20 pitches and put Robbie Wilson on the mound.
“I absolutely considered leaving him in,” Nahaku said. “It's a tough part of the game but you know, sometimes you gotta make that tough call. I had a lot of faith in the defense in bringing in a different type of pitcher. They'd been seeing our fastballs all night – he's a slower pitcher. So, a four-run lead, I said, 'Let's go for it.'”
Auburn will need to defeat unbeaten Pearland, Texas, twice to advance to the American championship game on Sunday. The first Pool B final is 5 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN). A second game, if necessary, will be played Thursday (time TBA).
Nahaku said his team is ready for the challenge.
“They're a solid team, they hit up and down the order,” Nahaku said about the Texans. “Those are the teams we're used to playing. I don't think it's going to be a huge change for these guys. These guys have worked hard these last two nights, trying to slow their bats down a little bit.
“These guys are all real geared up for fastballs. I think the first time we met them, they struggled putting their front foot out. So we worked hard on that off-speed stuff, the slower fast balls,” he said, adding, “These guys made the adjustments and it showed in the game.”
Robin Van Auken, editor and lead reporter of NorthcentralPA.com, is covering the series for the Auburn Reporter.