SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — The team from Needville, Texas, was just two wins away from a Little League World Series berth in 2021. On Saturday, it'll play to represent the United States in the tournament’s title game.
It hasn't been an easy path to this point. On Wednesday, it took nine innings for Texas to clinch a spot in the tournament's championship weekend, but Needville has handled its share of close calls and adversity.
“We don’t believe in quitting,” Texas manager Andy McRae said after his team beat Washington 1-0 to become the only undefeated squad on the American side of the 20-team bracket.
Texas had five hits and seven walks but couldn’t get a runner home until Easton Ondruch’s sacrifice fly drove in Corbin Riddle.
Finally holding the lead, Texas shortstop Dalyn Martin, who said he was “nervous the whole game,” laid out for a grounder and threw to first from his knees to end it. Runners were left on second and third.
Wednesday marked Texas’s third LLWS game decided by either one or two runs.
“We’re just gonna keep going and going and going,” McRae said. “It could be 10-0, we’ll still keep going.”
For Needville, a community of 3,000 people about 40 miles southwest of Houston, Little League is a big deal.
“We (now) have four fields. Every field in the middle of July was being used,” McRae said. “I grew up in the town. There was nobody there in the middle of July. That’s what it means to the town. They’ve really bought in and they want to grow and it’s something they take pride in.”
Back in 2021, when the LLWS included only American teams because of the coronavirus pandemic, Needville qualified for the Waco Regionals but was unable to compete because of a player's positive COVID-19 test. Two years later, the team is in contention to claim the U.S. crown.
“Because of the success of this group and the success of the team in 2021, now you go (to the fields) any day of the week and there’s a team practicing,” McRae said.
Washington’s problem against Texas was clear, perhaps a message to the remaining clubs in the tournament: Needville can really pitch.
Easton Benge allowed three hits and struck out six across 6 1/3 shutout innings on Wednesday before Easton Ondruch — who also drove in the game-winning run — gave up one hit over the remaining 2 2/3 innings.
On Monday, Texas ace DJ Jablonski pitched 5 1/3 innings and gave up three hits, striking out 10. He’s eligible to pitch Saturday.
“Their (guys) were throwing around 70 (mph), which is hard. Hats off to them,” Washington manager Christian Shewey said. “They made the plays. They made a few more plays than we did."
After getting through other close games in the tournament — a 2-1 win over Pennsylvania and a 3-1 defeat of California — Texas has grown to accept competing without being able to predict what could come next.
“It’s a baseball game. We might win 20-0, we might lose 20-0,” McRae said. “Whatever happens, happens. We don’t boast. We’re quiet, we’re confident.”
Seth Engle is student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
Seth Engle, The Associated Press