For drama’s sake, it’s tough to beat Warner Robins walking off with a home run in the eighth inning against Japan in 2007, giving a team from Georgia a second straight Little League World Series title. Sure, the no-hitter from Danny Almonte in 2001 appeared special at the time, until it was proven he was closer to a legal drinking age than that of a Little League player.
But there is every chance that under the bright lights of Lamade Stadium at 4:30 p.m. PDT today, amid the glare of an expected crowd in excess of 40,000 and an ESPN televised audience, no game involving teams from the United States will have been more hyped and anticipated in the event’s 68-year history.
You can look no further than the cover of Sports Illustrated this week to know why.
Mo’ne Davis has become an overnight sensation.
Davis, the first female to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history, leads a Mid-Atlantic champion team that hails from Philadelphia, meaning the majority of those who stood in line for hours for tickets Tuesday and will cheer at a drag-race decibel level are pulling for the in-state kids and by far the most popular player in Williamsport.
“Some of us might still have the mindset that she is a girl and press a little bit not to get out,” said Mountain Ridge pitcher Austin Kryszczuk, expected to oppose Davis tonight. “But she has proven herself. She is good, so we need to hit like we hit.
“She wants to play baseball, so let’s play. We just have to play like we know we can.”
Said Mountain Ridge leadoff hitter Zach Hare: “It’s just another game. She’s just another pitcher. She’s a girl who pitches. I don’t think we’ll have that many problems. I’m not worried. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be cool.”
Mountain Ridge, the West champion, has advanced to the winners’ bracket final against Davis and her teammates in spectacular fashion, winning its first two games by a combined score of 25-4. A victory tonight would put the Las Vegas team into Saturday’s U.S. championship game and a win from opposing the international champion in the World Series title game Sunday.
But the first obstacle is solving a 13-year-old who throws a 70 mph fastball and who dreams most of one day running the point for the Connecticut women’s basketball team.
The questions about Davis and being a girl pitcher at the World Series have been asked less and less as the last week wore on, given she followed a shutout victory in the regional final with one in Williamsport against a team from Tennessee.
She’s the real deal.
Of the 18 females to participate in the World Series, four have been American. None has come close to capturing a nation’s attention like Davis.
“It’s all so surreal,” she said. “I never thought it would be this big. But now it’s here, so I’m going to embrace it.”
You can’t turn on the TV and not see her, be it smiling as she signs autographs around the complex or glaring into the strike zone as she prepares to pitch. Tweets and texts of support for her have arrived from some of the world’s most famous athletes and entertainers. Tens of thousands are now following her on social media.
She’s a rock star, the darling of ESPN.
“She is amazing,” Mid-Atlantic manager Alex Rice said. “I can’t imagine being her and having to go out in front of this many people, even though most will be pro-Mid Atlantic. She’s unflappable with all the attention. None of it is getting to her. She is having a blast.
“There is nobody else I’d rather go up against (Mountain Ridge) with than Mo’ne. She has pitched against West Coast teams like this in East Coast tournaments and won before. She will be ready.”
You have to believe the Mountain Ridge bats will be as well.
Two games have produced 25 hits and six home runs for Mountain Ridge, which has punished any and all pitching it has seen in Williamsport. Dating to the West Regional semifinals and final, Mountain Ridge has won four straight games by a combined score of 41-7.
But if it can win tonight, if it can beat Davis and a side that will enjoy one of the greatest home-field advantages of any team in Little League history, it will have more than earned it.
“We have had some very good female players in our Mountain Ridge league, ones who played at an All-Star level, so it won’t be anything new facing (Davis) for our players,” Mountain Ridge manager Ashton Cave said. “They have hit against good female pitchers. Mo’ne is very good. She deserves all the attention she is getting.
“I told our kids there could be 45,000 people cheering for the other team and rightfully so. This is the home-state team. We just need to block all of that out and play. It will be a little louder than usual, but if we remain focused and play the way we can, we’ll continue to be successful.”
Mo’ne Davis vs. Mountain Ridge bats.
Lamade Stadium will be rocking.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.