Aug 28: Huntington Beach, Calif.'s Nick Pratto, left, celebrates with teammate Braydon Salzman after driving in the winning run with a walk-off single off Hamamatsu City, Japan, pitcher Kazuto Takakura to win the Little League World Series Championship baseball game in South Williamsport, Pa. California won 2-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)AP
California returned the World Series title to the United States with the type of victory even the big leaguers dream about.
The boys from Huntington Beach were all smiles after Nick Pratto's solid liner to center with the bases loaded and two outs scored pinch-runner Eric Anderson for the winning run in a 2-1 victory Sunday over Hamamatsu City, Japan, to take the tournament title.
The way Pratto threw his helmet in the air and skipped around first base after his game-winning single, it was hard to tell the 12-year-old first baseman had done anything wrong Sunday in the first place.
A U.S. team has won six of the past seven World Series, with Japan's win last year the exception.
"It has a nice ring to it," Pratto said when asked what it was like to be called a champ.
It was a fitting end to a tense game marked by excellent pitching and timely defense.
Braydon Salzman pitched a complete-game three-hitter for the win and struck out nine. Japan starter Shoto Totsuka struck out five over 4 1-3 innings, giving up a homer to right to California slugger Hagen Danner.
The teams exchanged handshakes at the plate before California's giddy players posed at the mound with their new championship banner.
"My team is physically smaller than most of the teams. We didn't think we would get to this stage," Japan manager Akihiro Suzuki, who fought back tears after the game, said through interpreter Kotaro Omori. "All of the players did such a wonderful job to get to this stage."
Nick's father, manager Jeff Pratto, said after winning the U.S. title on Saturday that the World Series championship would be a no-pressure contest.
That changed in the third, when Japan flashed trademark hustle to scratch out the game's first run after Seiya Fujita singled to left.
Pinch-runner Kaito Suzuki moved to second on a bunt and raced toward third with no one covering. The throw from Pratto at first bounced into foul territory, allowing Suzuki to score easily.
"Probably when my son threw that ball away," Jeff Pratto said when asked when he started feeling pressure. "It was half-and half. Our shortstop didn't get to third and cover.
"When he got to the plate," the skipper added, "in my head, I'm thinking this is a chance to redeem himself."
Did he ever.
With runners on first and second, an error by Japan shortstop Gaishi Iguchi on what could have been an inning-ending double play loaded the bases for California. After a force play at the plate, Pratto smacked the single to center off reliever Kazuto Takakura that scored the winning run.
Pratto said it was great to have his father as his coach, "but he kind of gets on my nerves sometimes."
First pitch was delayed more than three hours after the outer bands of Hurricane Irene brought more rain than expected to the Williamsport area.
"The result was bad, but they really tried their best," Akihiro Suzuki said. "Today's weather was difficult for us to get used too. If the weather was like this in Japan, we wouldn't have played."
The clouds finally started parting midway through the game, and sunshine draped the complex by the time the California players left the stadium to cheers by friends and family.
Neither team could convert on several chances to break open the pitcher's duel earlier in the game.
With runners on first and second in the top of the sixth, third baseman Dylan Palmer blocked the bag from sliding Japan runner Ken Igeta on a bunt play to help get California get out the inning.
California put runners on first and second with two outs in the fifth, but Takakura got a flyout to end the inning.
Playing right field in the second, Takakura also made a running catch on a fly down the line to save an extra-base hit with a runner on second.
In a gracious gesture, Japan's players and coaches lined up and exchanged high-fives with the California kids after Huntington Beach did the traditional victory lap around the stadium warning track.
"It's just a dream come true," Danner said. "I never thought we would be in that spot, let alone winning it."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.