SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Offense is taking a step back at the Little League World Series this year.
Pitchers are zipping through opposing lineups, helped by a new rule meant to boost participation that calls for everyone on the roster to be in the batting order.
But that’s not the only reason. Some of these guys just throw hard.
After the LLWS hit its 20-game mark on Sunday, the tournament’s combined run total stood at 140, significantly fewer than the 187 runs scored through that point last year – the only other time the tournament field has been 20 teams.
Until Thursday, a perfect game hadn’t been thrown in the LLWS since 2017. Taiwan’s Fan Chen-Jun – that game’s starter – took the mound again on Monday and dominated, striking out six in three no-hit innings. Some of his pitches were clocked by ESPN at more than 80 mph, which – given the shorter distance from the mound to home than in the major leagues – looks like something over 100 mph to the batter.
Taiwan beat Japan 10-0, ending the game in four innings under the 10-run rule.
“(Chen-Jun) has athletic talent, more than anybody we have seen,” manager Lee Cheng-Ta said through a translator. “He has the coordination. He has the speed. He has the jumping ability. He has a lot of future to come in baseball.”
Teams have noticed a few major differences contributing to a lack of offensive production compared to previous years, none likely as obvious as a rule announced earlier this season that says batting orders must include every player on roster.
“I guess (the drop in runs) might be because the best hitters get fewer at-bats a game,” Venezuela manager Jannio Gutierrez said through a translator.
In previous years, offensive stars have stolen the spotlight. But this year, those potential household names have been typically limited to just two at-bats per game.
Managers such as Tennessee’s Randy Huth have adjusted their rosters, knowing that pitchers would be more dominant when facing batters lower in the order.
“We knew it was going to be different this year based on the continuous batting,” Huth said. “In previous years, you might pick somebody to be on this team based on their defense. Well, you don’t do that anymore.”
Teams with strong pitching staffs have owned the rule change. Others have struggled to keep up.
After a second place finish in last year’s LLWS, Curacao is one win away from the final on the international side of the bracket. Despite winning each of its two games by 2-1, Curacao’s pitching has made championship hopes a serious possibility.
“Our main focus of the team is defense – that defense wins games. They concentrate on getting runs, but they focus (more) on defense and winning that way,” said manager Ildion Martina.
While Huth and other managers have built their teams with a focus on hitting, Martina built Curacao with his eyes set on sturdy pitching.
If pitching can keep Curacao in play for all six innings, Martina’s strategy is that the runs will come eventually, and his Caribbean club will likely only need a few.
That strategy was on full display Monday as Nasir El-Ossaïs hit a two-run, go-ahead homer in the sixth to help lead Curacao to a 2-1 victory over Venezuela.
“I just tell them every time, ‘We can’t win a game 0-0,’” Martina said. “You have to put at least one run on the board to win the game.”
For teams playing against Taiwan or Japan, it’s been nearly impossible to even touch the scoreboard. While Taiwan routed Japan on Monday, prior to that the Japanese had been nearly just as tough.
Taiwan hasn’t allowed a run through two games, and Japan gave up just one through its first two contests before falling on Monday.
Teams that have never faced Asian pitching mechanics – typically known for slower windups and a quirky, stop-start leg hitch – have made it a point of emphasis in practice. But few have found success in games.
“In practices, we change the times and the rhythms for a pitcher because we know they pitch that way,” Mexico manager Francisco Fimbres said through a translator. “But, we know that if you can play a perfect game against Japan, it’s still gonna be hard to beat them.”
As championship weekend nears and teams like Venezuela face elimination games, there’s no more room for questioning why offenses have been stagnant. All that matters now is winning.
“These are the best teams in the world,” Gutierrez said. “There should be low-scoring games.”
Seth Engle is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
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