With every victory, the next contest becomes the newest most-important game of their lives.
Who are they?
Well, mostly 12-year-old boys whose dream of reaching the Little League World Series has come true.
Now that it's down to the final two US teams, let's preview the USA championship, the winner of which will advance to the championship game against Japan.
The little leaguers from Billings, Montana have had quite a journey to the Little League World Series, and their climb to the top of the USA bracket has been anything but easy.
With victories over South Dakota, Louisiana and California by finals of 6-4, 3-1 and 1-0, the Montanans know intimately the definition of "grit."
The victory that thrust them into the US final, a 1-0 win over the club from Huntington Beach, California, was the grittiest performance of them all.
In an epic pitching duel between Montana's Cole McKenzie and California's Nick Pratto, in which the two starters combined for 13 strikeouts in six innings, Montana left fielder Ben Askelson stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh (extra innings for little league) and drove an 0-1 pitch over the left field wall for a game-winning homer that sent his team to the US final.
Huntington Beach, California
Ironically, the team that lost to Montana in heartbreaking fashion is the same team that Montana will face in the US final of the Little League World Series.
On Thursday night, California defeated the hometown favorite of the World Series, Clinton County, Pennsylvania (just 30 miles from Williamsport, sight of the LLWS), 2-0 in front of 40,000 people to clinch a berth in the US Final.
The star was starting pitcher Hagen Danner, who tossed five shutout innings while striking out 12 Pennsylvania hitters. Danner also homered, and his solo shot was enough to ensure his own victory on the mound.
Players to Watch
Who will be the impact players in this US final of the Little League World Series?
Clearly the stars in the semifinals mentioned above, including Ben Askelson of Montana and Hagen Danner of California, will play important roles.
Look for California starting pitcher Nick Pratto to dazzle. In 11.1 innings pitched so far in the LLWS, Pratto hasn't allowed a single earned run and has struck out 20 hitters over that span. Amazingly, Pratto has only yielded one hit. Pratto is a great hitter as well, and so far is batting .355 for the tournament.
Ryo Takada, pitcher and outfielder for California, is also having a fantastic WS so far. He's hitting .400 with three doubles and five RBI, and could be a big factor in the US final.
For Montana, look for Sean Jones to make an impact with his arm. Jones is 1-0 with an 0.00 ERA so far in the LLWS. He's given up just one hit in 5.2 innings pitched.
The aforementioned Ben Askelson is Montana's offensive star, hitting .296 with two home runs and 10 RBI in nine LLWS games so far. He will clearly be the man to pitch carefully to in the US final.
California vs. Montana: An Exciting US Final to Be Sure
One thing's for certain: the US final, a rematch between two truly talented and gritty LLWS teams, will be one to remember.
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