SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Before Sunday night's thrilling, come-from-behind, walk-off victory over South Carolina, the Red Land Little League team hadn't had a ton of time to enjoy the Little League World Series experience as spectators.
So, Manager Tom Peifer dangled a carrot in front of his players — win on Sunday night and they could use the next couple days to go down to the stadiums and watch the games as fans. They could walk around the grounds like normal 12 and 13 year olds.
"These guys love being down here, around the people," Peifer said after Sunday night's 9-8 triumph. "I promised them that if they won (Sunday) — because they were bugging me Saturday to go down — so I promised them that they'll have a couple days to do that if they won."
With Sunday's win, the northern York County team improved to 2-0 in the tournament and earned Monday and Tuesday off. The victory also put it in prime position to make it to the United States Championship Game on Saturday, only needing a win on Wednesday to get there. Had Red Land lost on Sunday, it would've had to navigate through the losers' bracket, needing wins on on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday just to make it to championship weekend.
Enjoying the experience: So, Red Land took the last two days to revel in the moment and reflect on a momentous summer. The team arrived in Williamsport last Monday, Aug. 17, but until these last couple days, it's been caught up in all the craziness that comes with being at the level's grandest stage. There were scheduled television appointments with ESPN and other pre-tournament requirements to fulfill. By the time the team got through all of that, it was time to start preparing for its first game last Friday against Missouri and then, after that 18-0 victory, for Sunday's game.
Red Land still had practice on Monday and Tuesday, so it wasn't completely free time. The team still has a job to do, needing at least three more wins to be crowned the world's best Little League team. Peifer still had the boys practice in the two days leading up to Wednesday's showdown with Texas, which is also 2-0, but it was more about staying sharp than trying to get better.
"I'm at the point where we're probably not getting better. We're just trying to maintain," Peifer said on Sunday. "There's not a lot of time that we need to be on the field, that's just my personal philosophy. Too much is way too much for these guys. It's been a long summer. I try to keep them more fresh than anything. They've been playing baseball since the end of March and this is certainly a long summer. Yes, we'll practice, we'll hit. We have field time, but we'll take it easy. We're out for 45 minutes and then pretty much done and let them enjoy it. They've earned it."
Facing a tough foe: While South Carolina gave Red Land its first true test in 18 games this summer, the team from Pearland, Texas, very well might be the toughest team Red Land will face up to this point.
Red Land quickly became the stars of the Little League World Series, with its lights-out pitching, explosive offense and passionate fans who made the two-hour trek north to watch their newly-crowned heroes perform. But, if there's been any other team grabbing headlines through the first five days of the tournament, it's been the Southwest Regional champions.
After scratching out a 1-0 victory in its first game over the Northwest Regional champion from Oregon, Texas pulled off the first real upset of the tournament when it shocked the power-hitting California squad, 8-4, on Sunday. Along with Red Land, the California team was the hot pick to make it to the U.S. Championship Game and possibly the World Series Championship. But, Texas quickly changed that narrative, primarily through strong pitching, and will most likely throw Jarrett Tadlock against Red Land on Wednesday. Tadlock held Oregon to only one hit in his only start of the Little League World Series last Friday.
Peifer understands just how dominant the Texas pitching staff can be, especially after seeing it limit the potent California offense as it did on Sunday.
"Well, their starter on Friday was really good. I know that and I would imagine he'd be the one throwing on Wednesday because he would be available," Peifer said. "To beat the West team, who everyone was talking about coming in how good they were, to beat them, (Texas is) obviously very good. I haven't done much research yet. We did watch them a little bit on TV and we'll watch the replays as well, like we did with South Carolina, but obviously to beat (California), they have to be very good."
Wagner's free passes: One tactic that Peifer is starting to prepare for from opponents is pitching around Red Land slugger Cole Wagner. South Carolina limited his offensive impact in Sunday's game by walking him in three of his four at-bats. He struck out in his only official at-bat.
Peifer realizes that Texas could also follow in those footsteps and work around Wagner's power. With that said, Peifer also knows that the reason it took until this late in Red Land's run for teams to start pitching around Wagner is because the rest of the lineup is just as lethal.
For example, Kaden Peifer had two home runs in two games, Ethan Phillips had a three-RBI effort against South Carolina and Jaden Henline had two-run, walk-off double immediately following South Carolina's decision to walk Wagner to load the bases.
"If Jaden has days like (Sunday), it'll make it tougher," Peifer said about teams pitching around Wagner. "Obviously, teams will, but that's what we take pride in. But, all summer, I don't know what it is, but teams haven't done that because I think they see what's behind him. We have some pretty good bats behind that he makes it tough to put an extra guy on base. But, they may and I wouldn't fault them if they did."
Wednesday's double-elimination game is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Lamade Stadium. It will also be broadcast on ESPN.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker