Japan is waiting to see who it will face in the Little League World Series championship game on Sunday in Williamsport, Penn., but it is going to have its hands full in the title game.
With California up next, Japan will have to play much better than it did on Saturday. It defeated Mexico 3-2 in the semifinals, with game recap courtesy of GameChanger.io via the official website of the Little League World Series.
History certainly favors Japan. It has won eight titles, which ranks second all-time. It has also won two of the past three tournaments, including last year's event.
Those are great numbers, but this is a different team.
Japan hasn't lost in Williamsport since 2009, but it has had a couple of close calls this year.
A 3-2 victory over Asia-Pacific last Sunday was its toughest test before the semifinals. The team took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning before holding on for a one-run victory.
On Saturday, a clutch home run to lead off the sixth inning sent the team to the title game. Takuma Gomi hit the homer to push his team past Mexico after it had blown a 2-0 lead earlier in the game.
Japan has been able to get out to an early lead in almost every game. However, it has had to hold on rather than put the game out of reach.
But a promising sign for the squad from Tokyo is that it has gotten key runs late in games.
Japan got two runs in the sixth against Asia-Pacific, three in the bottom of the fifth against Mexico on Wednesday (a 5-2 victory) and one in the sixth on Saturday to keep its season alive.
The kids never give up and seem to have what it takes to get clutch hits when they need to.
However, California looks like the most balanced team in the tournament. It defeated Connecticut 12-1 (via GameChanger.io) in the semifinals on Saturday.
The kids from Chula Vista, Calif., are putting up impressive numbers. They have allowed only 1.75 runs per game in four games while scoring nine runs per game. Pitcher Grant Holman threw a no-hitter in their first game.
Japan, on the other hand, is only averaging 4.5 runs per game. It hasn't been able to put away its tougher opponents late in games and has had to rely on strong pitching.
California is a team that can win with a strong offense or dominant pitching. Japan is going to have to find a way to shut down the offense and continue to get clutch hitting. Although it went 4-0 in the International pool, Japan didn't look like a dominant team. It was able to win close games, which can help a team's confidence.
If it were to get an early lead, Japan would need to add insurance runs throughout the game. California's offense will score runs in bunches.
Japan will face its biggest challenge. California can beat teams in different ways, and Japan has only shown the ability to win low-scoring games.
Japan will have to keep California under four runs if it has any chance of winning.
It has the pitching and experience to win close games, but the offense hasn't put up big numbers. Timely hitting has been the key for Japan.
Everything will be on the line on Sunday. Japan has yet to lose in Williamsport this year, but it will have a tough time beating the talented squad from California.
*All information is courtesy of the official website of the Little League World Series