Going into the Little League World Series, it was no secret that the Lafayette team could swing the bats with anyone in the 16-team field.
In their five straight wins in the Southwest Regional, which qualified them for their first trip to Williamsport since 2005, Lafayette hit .375 as a team, slugged at a .674 clip and had 10 homers and 47 RBIs. All were the top marks in the eight-team regional.
What was uncertain was the team’s pitching. Giving up six earned runs per game and walking 34 batters in 32 innings wasn’t the idea, but it was still good enough to win in regional play. At the World Series, though, when the locals faced an even higher level of pitching, their own performances on the mound would have to be better.
Coach Leland Padgett knew that. So, apparently, did Ethan Hines and Haden Erbe. The two combined for the World Series’ first shutout Thursday night, leading Lafayette to a 2-0 win over Series regular Warner Robins, Ga., in the locals’ opening game.
Hines held the Southeast Regional champs to seven singles while fanning six through five strong innings. And when the Georgians loaded the bases with nobody out in the sixth and final inning, Erbe came in to force a popup, painted the outside corner on a called third strike and coaxed an easy grounder back to the box which he flipped to catcher Cain Castille for the final out.
“We’ve been in that situation before and won games,” said Padgett, whose team blanked a Warner Robins club that was making its third LLWS appearance in five years. “They [Georgia] are a very strong team. But we preach to our guys to take it one inning, one pitch one moment at a time, and they’re riding on that wagon. Sometimes they have to get out and push it.”
Hines did the heavy pushing, working out of several jams and negating the power part of the Georgia lineup. The two-through-five spots in the Warner Robins batting order – who had each hit over .400 in their regional victory – combined for a lone single and had four strikeouts. The two Lafayette pitchers stranded nine runners, five of them in scoring position.
“We played really good defense,” Hines said. “They hit some good balls and we just caught them. I was just hitting all my spots. I think being left-handed helped.”
“Hitting his spots was the key,” Padgett said. “He did a great job keeping them at bay.”
So did Erbe, who only had to throw eight pitches to get the final three outs. Pitch counts are crucial in Little League play since they determine if a pitcher is available for the next game, and since Erbe’s count was so low he’s eligible for as much as an 85-pitch outing – the one-game maximum in LL play – on Sunday when Lafayette faces Billings, Mont., in a 1 p.m. game that will air nationally on ABC.
“I was already thinking about what we’d do with our pitching if they tied it up,” Padgett said when he went to the mound in the sixth inning to make the change. “Haden’s been in that situation, so I didn’t have to say much. It was just a little wink and let’s go get it.”
Erbe had provided Lafayette’s second run two innings earlier when he bounced a single up the middle off Georgia relief pitcher Trey Odom and stole second. Odom proceeded to plate him with two wild pitches for a 2-0 lead.
Lafayette broke the shutout in the bottom of the third when leadoff hitter Tyler Miller laced a line drive over Georgia center fielder Austin Burnette’s head and off the bottom of the center-field wall. When the carom got by Burnette, Miller broke out of a home-run trot and raced to third base ahead of the throw.
“I thought it was going to be out because I’m used to 200-foot fields,” Miller said, referring to the 225-foot fences used at the World Series. “I even started jogging to first, but when I saw it hit the wall I just started running as fast as I could.”
His advance to third became key one batter later when Nick Fruge’s swinging bunt spun down the first-base line and stayed just inside the foul line. Fruge was thrown out, but got the game’s only RBI when Miller scampered home.
Erbe’s insurance run one inning later made it 2-0, but even that lead was tenuous when Georgia’s Jacob Giles reached on an error to open the sixth and Josh Goodman and Burnette each singled to load the bases before Erbe’s close-out pitching effort.
“When you get to this level, you’ve got to play error-free baseball,” said Warner Robins coach Phil Johnson. “We didn’t. They did. Their pitching staff pitched a great game."