Before the crowning of the 2013 Little League World Series champion can take place, two games on Saturday offered the four remaining teams in contention one final chance to punch their Sunday ticket.
The United States championship between Chula Vista, Calif., and Westport, Conn., and the International Championship featuring Tijuana, Mexico, and Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday promised to give fans in attendance and others watching at home vindication for keeping up with the tournament.
ESPN's Karl Ravech, calling the two games for ABC on Saturday, agreed:
#llws finals today Mexico dominant offense. Japan depth. California power. Connecticut karma. All starts at 1230 et on ABC.— karl ravech (@karlravechespn) August 24, 2013
Both matchups between the U.S. and international teams had already been played once before in Williamsport this year. The West region representatives took down New England, and Japan bested Mexico in previous meetings, but each loser rebounded to earn a rematch in the semifinals.
Which two teams will be playing in the 2013 LLWS final?
*For a complete look at the schedule and results from the 2013 Little League World Series, visit LittleLeague.org.
Japan 3, Mexico 2
Japan put on a defensive clinic and used a sixth-inning home run from Takuma Gomi to reach the Little League World Series final for the fourth straight year.
The Little League's official Twitter account had the post as the 3-2 score became official:
Tokyo is BACK in the Little League Baseball World Series Championship! 3-2. Amazing game by both teams! #LLWS— Little League (@LittleLeague) August 24, 2013
With the game tied at two in the bottom of the fifth inning, Mexico had a chance to take the lead. Brandon Montes missed an opportunity to tag up on a potential sacrifice fly, giving Japan the opening it needed to take the lead in the next frame off Gomi's home run.
As noted by ESPN's Stats & Info, Japan has now won 11 straight games against international opponents at the LLWS:
LLWS Int'l Title Game on ABC: Japan & Mexico tied at 2 thru 5 inn... Japan has won 10 straight at LLWS vs int'l opp (last L: 2009 vs Mexico)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 24, 2013
Keita Saito got the win for Japan, and teammate Kazuki Ishida picked up the save. Jorge Romero, who gave up the home run to Gomi, took the loss.
Ramon Mendoza drove in the only two runs of the game for Mexico on a two-run, line-drive home run in the bottom of the third inning. It was his third of the tournament.
Shunpei Takagi had two hits to lead Japan.
Stats & Info also noted that Japan is approaching Chinese Taipei's record for most consecutive LLWS championship game appearances:
Japan advances to LLWS Title Game for 4th straight season. Most consecutive app by int'l team since Chinese Taipei (6) from 1986-91.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 24, 2013
Japan got off to a great start, scoring a run off Mexico starter Luis Manzo in the top half of the first inning. The kids from Tokyo added another in the top half of the third frame, before Mendoza tied the score with a missile to center field.
Heading into fifth inning, the score remained tied at two.
Power-hitting phenom Montes laced a double down the left field line to lead off the inning. After an infield hit put runners at the corners, catcher Saul Favela sent a deep fly ball to center. Montes hesitated after the catch, and wound up freezing at third base.
Saito then got Japan out of the inning.
Gomi provided the game-winning hit just minutes later, recording just his second hit (both home runs) of the 2013 Little League World Series so far.
Ishida shut the door on Mexico with a scoreless final frame.
A classic battle between two teams that both deserved to be participating in the International Championship, Japan and Mexico put on an epic display of fortitude and heart in reaching Saturday's platform.
Japan will face the winner of the second game at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on the afternoon, while Mexico will await the loser of that contest in the third-place match.
California 12, Connecticut 1
The team from Chula Vista, Calif., ended the sentimental run of the Westport, Conn., team. Thanks to six early runs and a notable performance at the plate and on the mound from Nick Mora, the team from California is set to represent the United States in the finals.
Mora drove in four runs and struck out 10 batters in 5.2 innings to lead his team to victory.
Errors in the opening frame gave the Chula Vista team an edge as it used Westport's mishaps to take the early advantage.
After Westport came back from a seven-run deficit against New England to get to this point, there was hope late in the game. Per the Little League Twitter account:
They've done it once, can New England come back? Top 6, West leads 6-1. #LLWS— Little League (@LittleLeague) August 24, 2013
Chula Vista was having none of it, though. In fact, to further exert their dominance, the kids from Cali tacked on a six spot in the top of the sixth inning to make it a no-contest. The runs came largely in part because of a passed ball, a wild pitch and an error.
The team may not get those types of breaks in the finals. Japan has been one of the best fielding teams in the Little League World Series. Chula Vista will have to make its own luck to win it all.
Despite the lopsided loss, the Westport players have nothing to be ashamed of. They may have simply zapped themselves emotionally in the previous game.
Coming back from such a huge deficit is taxing, and from the beginning, the team just didn't look very sharp. Westport will now take on Mexico in the third-place game.
The battle between Chula Vista and Japan could be epic. The Japanese have mowed down the competition, but the Mexican team was able to slow them down offensively. Chula Vista will need another strong performance at the plate to have a chance to pull the upset.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.