SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – The boys from Billings keep making Montana Little League history.
The first team from the state to advance to South Williamsport overcame a shaky start and three solo homers Thursday by the sluggers from Rapid City, S.D., to win its Little League World Series debut, 6-4.
Connor Kieckbusch and his teammates were understandably a little anxious when they first trotted on to the manicured field at Lamade Stadium, with about 11,000 fans watching their every move.
Those nerves disappeared after a five-run fourth inning highlighted by Kieckbusch's two-run single and Cole McKenzie's two-RBI double with two outs.
"I felt kind of nervous (initially) because we're in Williamsport and pretty much nationals, and I didn't know what to expect," said the red-freckled Kieckbusch, 12, as he flashed a slight grin. "As the game went on, I kind of relaxed."
Mexicali, Mexico, shut out Kaoshiung, Taiwan, 3-0 in the series' first game Thursday behind a two-hitter by flame-throwing righty Jorge Jacobo. He's just 12, too.
Hamamatsu City, Japan, beat Oranjestad, Aruba, 12-1, but the game had added meaning for the Japan squad after a survivor of this year's earthquake and tsunami threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"I told the kids that they should appreciate that they are here to play a game," manager Akihiro Suzuki said through translator Kotaro Omori. "It should teach them to keep working hard and that it's only a sport."
Lafayette, La., shut out Warner Robins, Ga., 2-0 in an entertaining nightcap featuring solid pitching and good fielding by each squad. Both towns have previously sent teams to South Williamsport.
In contrast, no one from Billings — let alone, Montana — had ever set foot on the picturesque Little League complex for a World Series game until Thursday.
Montana trailed 2-0 after two innings before breaking through in the fourth against South Dakota starter Brett Beyer, working deep into counts to get runners on base.
Kieckbusch's high fly to shallow center fell just in between two fielders to score two runners with the bases loaded. The next hitter, McKenzie, lined an opposite-field double to the left-field wall to score two more runs for a 6-2 lead.
On the mound, McKenzie allowed six hits and four runs over five innings for the win. He allowed all three homers, including two by 5-foot-9 South Dakota slugger Erik Petry, 12.
Petry's first shot, lined over the "Little League" sign above the left-centerfield wall 225 feet away, sent his first-base coach dancing down the foul line to greet his power hitter. It was hard to tell who was happier — the coach or the giddy players who skipped out of the dugout behind him.
Hayden McGriff added a solo shot in the fifth before Montana's Sean Jones got the final three outs for the save. Hayden's father, manager Kasey McGriff, told his disappointed players to put the loss behind them.
"If you look at the stats, obviously you wouldn't guess the outcome of the game," he said. "They fought hard. There is nothing to be sad for."
His Montana counterpart, Gene Carlson, said his team's patient approach at the plate paid off when the team settled down.
"They always look for a good pitch to hit," he said. "They're well-disciplined hitters — sometimes."
Louisiana 2, Georgia 0
Georgia broke through against Louisiana starter Ethan Hines to load the bases with nobody out in the sixth, but reliever Haden Erbe came out to get the final three outs for the save, including a Dillon Toms' comebacker to end the game.
Erbe also made a strong throw from the hole to outstretched first baseman Austin Primeaux with two outs and two runners on in the third to end another rally.
Logan Arnett went 3 for 3 to lead Georgia.
Mexico 3, Taiwan 0
Jacobo overpowered Taiwan with 12 strikeouts, including the final five outs. It was the first time a Taiwan team had been shut out in 55 games at the series.
Jacobo helped his cause at the plate, too, doubling home the first run and finishing 1 for 3 with two runs.
Like a seasoned major leaguer, Jacobo, 12, shared the credit for his memorable afternoon.
"My teammates gave me a jump-start at the beginning and that helped my confidence," Jacobo said through interpreter Sergio Guzman.
Ko Chia-Hao struck out five and allowed six hits to take the loss for Taiwan.
Japan 12, Aruba 1, 4 innings
Yoshiki Suzuki, no relation to his manager, hit a grand slam and Mitsuhiro Uchida added three hits and three RBIs in a game that ended after four innings due to Little League's 10-run rule. Suzuki also pitched, striking out five in 2 2-3 innings for the win.
Gillian Wernet was 2 for 2 for Aruba and Endry Brito knocked home the lone Aruba run off a fourth-inning fielder's choice.