And then there were four.
In what started out a week ago as the 16 best little league teams in the world — eight international and eight American — taking part in the Little League World Series, has since been whittled down to the final four. Among that select group is the Red Land Little League team, representatives of the Mid-Atlantic Region in Williamsport, and the only undefeated American squad remaining in the tournament. The Japanese team is the only remaining undefeated international team.
Along the way for Red Land, it's won its three games in almost every possible fashion. There was the 18-0 blowout of Missouri in last Friday's opener; the 9-8, come-from-behind, walk-off thriller over South Carolina on Sunday; and then Wednesday's overpowering pitching display by Adam Cramer in the team's 3-0 defeat of Texas. All three victories set up Red Land to be in the driver's seat to make it to the championship game on Sunday afternoon, avoiding the loser's bracket and having to play on back-to-back days. In a tournament that significantly rewards the winning teams, Red Land had Thursday off, while Texas needed extra innings to defeat California to become Red Land's opponent in Saturday's United States championship game, and then will also have off on Friday.
That time off gives manager Tom Peifer a chance to give his players down time to once again enjoy the experience of being at the Little League World Series, while also getting his pitching rotation in order for the team's final two games of the summer over the weekend.
Going with his ace: Despite not knowing who his team would face on Saturday until late Thursday night, Peifer already had an idea of who he was going to start in the U.S. championship game. He's taken some risks with his starting rotation already in the tournament, electing to throw his team's No. 2 starter, Jaden Henline, in the first game of the tournament over its ace, Cole Wagner. Then, with Henline available to pitch on Wednesday, he passed him over and went with Cramer. But, Peifer isn't taking any chances in the U.S. championship game, already announcing his starter after Wednesday's game before even knowing who his opponent was.
"I think we'll probably go with Cole on Saturday," Peifer said following Wednesday's win. "And then see how it goes for Sunday and see who's available and go from there. But, with Cole being available, we'll go with him Saturday."
The other advantage that winning on Wednesday gave Red Land was the chance to scout Texas a little more in one more game on Thursday night, while it had to earn the right to face Red Land on Saturday. That meant, at least for the kids, a chance to go down to Lamade Stadium and watch some of the game in-person, while the coaching staff preferred staying in their rooms and watching on television.
"(The coaches) found it more useful to watch it on the TV's in our room," Peifer said. "Then, we'll have it taped and get it back on and watch it a couple times. But, that's helped us more in preparing for our opponents than being at the stadium."
There will be familiarity come Saturday when Texas and Red Land face off. The two sides played on Wednesday night, with Red Land prevailing 3-0. Texas came into the tournament under the radar, but after it knocked off the hot-hitting California team twice and had the tying runs on base in the top of the sixth against Red Land on Wednesday, Texas has proven that it belongs in the U.S. championship game and should, once again, give Red Land a tough game.
Keeping players fresh: With two off days between games for Red Land, there wasn't a whole lot of thought put into how the team would use those days. At this point in the summer, with how much baseball the players have played, the coaching staff is just trying to keep the players fresh for the final stretch. Going all the way back to the start of the Red Land Little League season, these players have been playing baseball since the end of March.
Much like on Monday and Tuesday of this week, when Red Land also had two days off between games, the coaching staff was keen on giving the boys one day completely off and then using the other day to prepare for Saturday's game. So, Peifer gave the team Thursday off completely, even posting a photo on his own Twitter account of the team riding in a limousine to Buffalo Wild Wings for a team dinner. Red Land will then use Friday — its final off day of the season — to get set for the U.S. championship game.
"I said all along that playing almost through September, which I never thought would happen, (the goal) is to keep them fresh. To keep them sharp," Peifer said. "When we had two days off earlier in the week, we gave them Monday off and then started practicing Tuesday and that's what we'll do again. They like that. They like to relax."
Saturday's U.S. championship game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Lamade Stadium.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker