Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Regionals: A Cautionary Tale


“Do you believe? Do you believe?”

John Engelman, the coach of the Kankakee Little League all stars, is hollering himself hoarse. The goateed Engelman hops around the coaching box by third base, shouting endless encouragement and reminders and criticisms to his players as they bat in the bottom of the sixth inning. His soft belly jiggles under his gray golf shirt as he paces around the box.

Kankakee has sent three teams to the Little League World Series in Williamsport. Now, in the championship game of the 2005 Great Lakes tournament in Indianapolis, the team from Illinois is trying to stage a historic rally to defeat Owensboro, Kentucky. Owensboro, meanwhile, is trying to make it to Williamsport foir the second straight year.

Most people don't pay much attention to Little League World Series until the 16 teams from around the world arrive in Williamsport for the World Series. But for most players, coaches, and parents, it's getting to the World Series that matters. Once you're there, you're in elite company and pampered like a pro -- and you are suddenly TV celebrities. So sometimes the most intense action takes place in the regional tournaments.

Like that Great Lakes tournament final between Kentucky and Illinois.

In the early going, Kankakee was flat when it had the opportunity to score runs. In the fourth inning, Jeff Brewer and Spike Engelman chased pitches off the plate with two runners on base, killing their own rally. Owensboro’s starter, Luke Daugherty, held Kankakee hitless for the first three innings but struggled with his control, walking five batters and allowing two runs. So Owensboro’s manager, Rick Hale, brought in Nolan Miller to finish the game. He gave up a run in both the fourth and fifth innings. But Kankakee also stranded six runners in five innings.

Fans watched the game from pickup trucks and SUV’s parked on the grass behind the outfield fence at Stokely Field.

The Bluegrass Boys have had their way scoring runs. They collected thirteen hits, including three home runs, to take an 11-4 lead going into the bottom of the sixth, the last inning of regulation play.

But John Engelman could not give up. He was still telling his players that they still had a chance to advance to Williamsport.

Leading off, roly-poly Max Hanna gives Kankakee’s fans—wearing rally caps, face paint smearing in the mugginess, and holding signs that beseech all to “believe”—something to cheer about when he hits a home run over the center field fence.

Then the hits come in rapid succession. Jeff Bruer hits a line drive single to center field. Spike Engelman grounds a hit under the glove of the second baseman. After a wild pitch advances the runners, Tyler Evans works a walk to load the bases.

Miller, a thin boy with his pale face reddened and glazed by exertion in a muggy Midwestern night, falls off the mound. He starts to overthrow the ball. He throws the ball more and more with his arm, less and less with his lower body. As he delivers the ball, he resembles a dart thrower as he keeps his hand still, for a moment, after the release.

Manager Rick Hale comes out to the mound after the walk to encourage his players. He beseeches them to just “Give me an out”—and not to worry about the baserunners with a six-run lead.

“Just relax, take a deep breath. You OK? OK?” he tells Miller, but doesn’t get much of a response. “I believe in you, baby.”

Justin Ruckman, a lanky shortstop with sinewy power, lines a 2-0 pitch over the middle of the plate to third base. Luke Daugherty catches the smash and then dives to the bag for a double play, but Bruer beats him by a split second.

Engelman, coaching third base, is unhappy that he almost got doubled off. “Where we going? I told you, we are not in a hurry! Come on! Think!

Twin Jordan Ruckman then lines an 0-1 pitch into left field for two more runs, making the score 11-7. Matthew Webber singles to left field for another run. It’s now 11-8.

With every hit, the Illinois team gets looser. They wiggle their fingers, stretch their mounts, flex their legs, roll their hands as they make imaginary swings with their bats.

After Artie Kirkpatrick grounds out, scoring another run, Wes Sproul slices a liner just inside the right field line and he hustles to second. Now, with two outs and a runner on second base, Max Hanna steps to the plate for the second time in the inning. Owensboro’s lead is now 11-10.

Rick Hale, the Kentucky manager, starts to come to the mound but stops when he sees the players gather on the mound.

“I was getting ready to call a second time out. But they’re smart kids. The infielders are already gathering. I trust ’em. I try to put in the pitcher’s head that when you see me coming across the foul line, you tell me, ‘Coach, I’ve got this game under control.’ Everyone has told me, ‘Yeah, I’m tired, coach, but I can get more outs.’”

The other coaches begged Hale to make a pitching change, but he thought Miller could survive whatever pounding Illinois administered.

“I did not think I had one single pitcher who could have withstand the punishment. Nolan Miller was going to give the game away. When they started their move, I said, how is it going to be easier to love yourself if you lose this thing? My assistant coach was begging me to make a move. That’s only game I’ve watched on tape and its painful for me. It was a calculated move, it’s not like I was in a coma. Nolan’s the only kid I got. Nolan pitched every last inning for us like that.”

Hanna then swings through 2-2 pitch, a fastball high in the strike zone—reaching and swinging up on the pitch with late action–for to end the game.

Postscript: As Kentucky's Ricky Hale told me later, the desperate rush to win the regional tournament caused him -- and virtually every coach -- to overuse his pitchers. By the time the summer of baseball was over, three Kentucky pitchers were down with injuries.


Blogger Section1Guy said...

Hey Charlie...are you gonna respond to any comments that people leave in the blog or anything??

Not asking necessarily...just wondering.


5:35 PM  
Blogger Charlie Euchner said...

Consider this the first response: Yes.

I have been trying to get in a groove on posting my blogs, but would be happy to respond. I have an upcoming entry entitled 'The Answer man" in which I respond to emails I've gotten.

When I get a chance, I'll go back to previous responses and put in a word or two.

By the way, in the interest of expanding the conversation, please note a series of radio broiadcasts coming up on these issues. I list them inj my personal web site at Tuine in when you get a chance.

8:24 PM  

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