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Power, speed await Mountain Ridge

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.

There is a tradition in which the home side of a specific game is often decided by coin flip. In baseball, like many sports, those who win the flip almost always choose home.

It comes down to this: Bats or gloves.

Hit or defend.

“We’ve been known to win the toss and choose bats at times,” Darold Butler said. “If we can jump ahead and put the other team’s back against the wall, our pitcher can go out a little calmer. We got here by having our No. 9 hitter hit a grand slam in the regional. Against us, you have to chase a team that hits 1-9.

“We have speed, so we’re going to run. We have power, so we’re going to hit. We’re going to make the other team play baseball and make plays. If they do that and beat us, we will tip our caps.”

Butler is the manager of the Great Lakes champion out of Chicago, a team that represents what has become one of the more popular stories at the Little League World Series and one that now stands in the way of Mountain Ridge advancing to within one victory of the U.S. championship game.

Mountain Ridge as the West representative meets Great Lakes at 11 a.m. today on ABC.

The team that wears bright yellow is a big deal throughout Illinois.

It has become one just about everywhere else, too.

The first all-black team from Chicago to reach a Little League World Series in three decades is formed from the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars and has inspired in a positive way dialogue about race in and around Lamade Stadium. Back home, large crowds gather at local fields to watch the team on giant video screens. In Williamsport, those in yellow are swarmed for autographs and pictures as much as anyone this side of a certain female pitcher from Philadelphia.

“I know for a fact our kids have no idea how big this is to so many people at home and other places, the (historical) significance of it,” Butler said. “I had an idea the attention would be really big if we got here. In time, they will definitely know what this meant to so many people, and it will be important for them to understand it. But for now, I just want them to be kids. Have fun. Stay loose. Play the game they love. I just wish they would go to bed before me just once.

“I know both teams will be nervous (today), but not for any other reason than it’s the next game.”

Those for Mountain Ridge didn’t appear all that anxious on a practice field within the Little League complex Saturday. Fielding was followed by hitting. Focused but relaxed best defined the attitude of all wearing blue.

A water main in the area that houses players and coaches broke late Friday and sent those from Mountain Ridge scurrying from the facility. Some players spent the night with their parents at local hotels and others with Little League officials.

“We’re back on the property now, and everything is fine,” Mountain Ridge manager Ashton Cave said after practice. “All is good.”

This might explain his calm demeanor: Teams that survive long tournaments almost always have deep pitching, a strength of which Mountain Ridge can boast. On Thursday, during a 12-2 win against the Midwest champions, it was able to keep ace Austin Kryszczuk below the Little League pitch limit of 50 that would allow him to throw again on two days rest. He can throw 85 pitches today.

Whether he gets the call to start or not — hard-throwing right-hander Brennan Holligan an option — you figure this is the best pitching the Great Lakes will have seen on its journey to Williamsport.

This is also the best opponent Mountain Ridge has played all summer. Period.

“They have a lot of speed, but that can get you in trouble as much as it can help you if the defense can make the right decisions on where to throw the ball,” Cave said. “There is such a thing at times as being too aggressive. We’re prepared. We’ll be fine. If our pitchers can hit spots and aren’t just grabbing the ball and throwing from the hip and letting it fly, we will be perfectly fine.”

The texts and tweets and phone calls from professional athletes began rolling in soon after Great Lakes opened its World Series run with a 12-2 win Thursday, a nation of sports stars throwing its support behind the kids from a Little League founded in 1971 and whose central desire at the time was helping black families better integrate into an all-white community.

Pierce Jones wasn’t thinking politics or race when he hit three home runs against the Northwest champions, when he became an overnight star on ESPN. He was just thinking mechanics. See ball, hit ball, leave the part about historical significance to the adults.

“We’re all sort of in a bubble here, and that’s a good thing,” said Jones, who started in right field for Great Lakes. “Sure, we’re trying to make the city of Chicago proud of us, and we’re seeing some things on social media about what’s happening back there, but we just love to play baseball. We just want to show what we can do as baseball players.”

This is a big game in deciding who might ultimately represent the U.S. in the championship. For some, it’s a continuing story of something much bigger.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com 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.

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