SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — All summer long, the Red Land Little League team was untouchable.
Games were rarely close, at least until it got to Williamsport for the Little League World Series. But, even then, when teams hung with them and sometimes even took a rare lead, Red Land always found a way to prevail. It was 20-0 on the summer entering Sunday's LLWS championship game against Japan.
It exited the field 20-1.
After spotting Japan a 2-0 lead after the top of the first, Red Land's offense exploded, scoring 10 times in the bottom of the frame to take a commanding 10-2 lead. The 10 runs were the most scored in a single inning in the championship game. But Japan fought back, scoring 16 of the next 17 runs, winning 18-11 and becoming the 2015 Little League World Series champions.
"I thought we gave them a good game, which we did for most of the game," Red Land manager Tom Peifer said. "That's probably the best hitting team I've seen. They were hitting pitches that I've never seen, especially 12 year olds, hit."
The first five Red Land hitters reached base in the bottom of the first, erasing Japan's 2-0 lead. Then Dylan Rodenhaber launched a grand slam to put Red Land up 6-2. Four batters later, Jaden Henline followed suit, hitting a three-run homer of his own, and all of the sudden Red Land had a 10-2 lead. It looked like one final walk-in-the-park victory to cap a magical summer for the Mid-Atlantic Regional champions from York County.
Only this game was different.
Japan struck right back, scoring seven times in the second inning, making it a 10-9 game. The key sparks were back-to-back home runs by Yugo Aoki, Kengo Tomita and Shingo Tomita. Aoki's homer was a three-run shot.
"The fact that we let them right back into the game, gave them life," Peifer said. "I think it would've been a different story if we could've held it down."
Japan continued to touch up the Red Land pitching staff, finally reclaiming the lead for good in the top of the third, scoring four more times to take a 13-10 lead.
Red Land did score a run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the third to cut the Japanese lead to 13-11, but that was all it could muster the rest of the way. The offense went cold from that point on, and Japan finally put the game to rest with a five-run top of the sixth.
By the time Japan broke it open, Red Land was out of pitchers, with Chayton Krauss starting the game and Henline pitching the max pitches in the game. Adam Cramer and Cole Wagner were both ineligible. That left Kaden Peifer, the team's starting catcher, to take the mound, and Japan took advantage.
Reliever Nobuyuki Kawashima, who entered in the second, recorded the final three outs in order in the sixth to commence the celebration for Japan. His pitching performance was worth noting, as was the offensive display that the Japanese team displayed. Japan struck for 22 hits in the game, compared to only eight for Red Land. Typically this summer, Red Land was on the better side of those numbers.
"They just put the bat on the ball," Peifer said. "They hit a lot of balls that weren't hit super hard — they hit a lot of balls hard, don't get me wrong — but they hit a lot of balls that, I thought Jaden made a lot of good pitches that jammed the kids and they hit it out into the outfield."
To go with Japan's strong hitting was the fact that the Red Land pitching staff only recorded one strikeout in the game. That comes on the heels of back-to-back 10-plus strikeout performances in the games against Texas.
Henline and Rodenhaber each drove in four runs in the game for Red Land, but only Braden Kolmansberger came up with a multi-hit game, going 2-for-4.
This year's version of the tournament set a Little League World Series attendance record. In 32 games, a total of 449,964 fans took in games, and a large portion of that was at the five games in which Red Land played.
It's a bitter end to an amazing summer, one that Peifer knows the kids will come to appreciate when it has a couple days to sink in.
"It's been the best ever," Peifer said. "It's been the best and I wouldn't trade it for the world. ... Just the opportunities that these boys have had already because of what they've done and will continue to have is just incredible."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org