Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Threepeat for Owensboro?

When I met Rick Hale last summer at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, I knew I found a real baseball man.

We sat at a picnic table talking about every conceivable issue in baseball. Training kids to win. The best ways to teach fundamentals. The superiority of competition in the Sun Belt. The rise of travel teams. The problem of pitching injuries. Dealing with parents over a long summer of tournament play. Keeping the bench loose during the game.

And we kept talking -- about major-league legends like Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver, current stars like Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez, the burgeoning steroids scandal, and the internationalization of the game.

Hale was managing the Owensboro Southern team in Williamsport for the second straight year. In 2004, his team went 0-3 in pool play. He was determined to win a game, to answer the critics back home and give the locals something to smile about. But Owensboro Southern went 0-3 again in 2005.

When the games were over for the champions of the Great Lakes region, Hale said he had no regrets. His team played well but ran into much more mature players from California and Louisiana. After losing to Maine in the final game, Hale said he would retire from coaching. Enough is enough, he said. Time to spend more time with the family, which includes a girl named for one of his past Little League stars.

But Rick Hale could not stay "retired," and now his all stars from Owensboro have the chance to make history with a third consecutive appearance in Williamsport. No other American team from the 2005 LLWS has a chance to return to Williamsport in 2006.

Owensboro begins play in the Great Lakes regional tournament in Indianapolis Saturday night against the all stars from Lemont, Illinois.

(Last year, Owensboro advanced to Williamsport by surviving a late rally by another team from Illinois. Owensboro led Kankakee 11-4 going into the sixth inning, the last inning in Little League. Kankakee rallied to come within a run. Nolan Miller took the beating -- and the win -- but he and the other Kentucky pitchers were wasted by the time the Little League World Series started. In my new book Little League, Big Dreams, Hale is an outspoken critic of the abuse of pitchers in amateur baseball, acknowledging his own role in overusing the best two or three pitchers for the sake of advancing to the next level of play.)

This year, Owensboro Southern won the Kentucky state tournament with a victory over Louisville. It was a rematch of last year's state finalists, and Owensboro Southern won easily. Dalton West, one of last year's stars, struck out 13 batters en route to a 6-0 win.

The run to the state title was easy, for the most part. The team hit 40 home runs in 14 games. Three pitchers from last year's team -- West, Nolan Miller, and Matthew Johnson -- have played big roles. A fourth pitcher from last year's team, Luke Daugherty, was eligible to play for the third straight year but opted to move up to full-field baseball.

Owensboro was never more dominant than in the first game of the state tournament. After getting shut down for three innings, Owensboro's bats came alive. In the second cycle through the batting order, five straight homers gave Owensboro a 6-0 lead. Meanwhile, Nolan Miller pitched a perfect game, striking out 14 of 15 batters in the 10-0, five-inning game.

Hale is "cautiously optimistic" about his team's chances to return to Williamsport.

His one concern? He said he is "looking for the next Pimentel" -- a reference to the manchild Kalen Pimentel, the California pitcher who overwhelmed Owensboro in the first game of the Little League World Series, getting strikeouts for all 18 outs.

You can practice all day long. You can have a roster full of strong arms, a lineup full of good bats, and a tight defense. You can take advantage of years of experience in the Early Show in Williamsport.

But when a kid like Pimentel comes along, most kid athletes get overwhelmed. That's what Hale's looking for. It's what everyone else in the tournament should watch too.


Blogger Section1Guy said...

I'm going to assume that Owensboro will make it back. They are having a run right now much like Brownsburg Indiana did a few years ago before their league grew too big and was forced to split into two all-star teams.

With the new age change, certain teams are benefitting greatly from the "Super 12's" Owensboro is obviously one of them.

The teams from the East and West are too battle tested usually for these Midwest and Great Lakes squads. That has been Owensboro's problem the last couple of years.

There aren't too many central area teams with Aaron Alvey's AND Zach(?) Osbourne's.

2:25 PM  

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