In New Jersey’s Little League World Series elimination game against Connecticut, Joey DiMeo hit a grand slam that gave Tom’s River East a lead it held until the final pitch.
In any other year, Tom’s River would never have set foot in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, much less earned a World Series win.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s Little League World Series is the first since 1963 without international competitors. Usually the tournament’s 16 teams are made up of two brackets: eight American squads and eight from around the globe.
The absence of international teams changes the dynamics of the Series. Tokyo-Kitasuna, Japan’s premier Little League program, has won five of the last ten tournaments, and international teams have won 37 titles since 1963.
However, the opportunities lost by international squads are giving a second chance to U.S. teams that finished in the usually-heartbreaking second-place position in their regional tournaments.
Even though they were eliminated from the Series on Saturday, Connecticut manager Rob Rastelli said that just competing in the tournament was the team’s biggest accomplishment, and a victory would have been a “cherry on top.”
“It is unbelievable,” Rastelli said. “Any manager out there that may hear this, you don’t know what you’re in for if you haven’t been here before.”
New Jersey took advantage of its second chance in a big way with an 11-4 win in the consolation bracket Saturday. The team lost to Upper Providence, Pennsylvania, in the Mid-Atlantic regional and struggled against Midwest champion Nebraska in the opening round of the Series.
While qualifying out of second place is a luxury that no teams in recent memory have had, it also means teams have to fully bounce back from a disappointing loss in the Series. Florida manager Paul Mika said his team had to make critical adjustments after their regional final and opening-round losses to come out with a win in the elimination round.
“This has been our dream for a long time and this team doesn’t give up. They don’t quit,” Mika said. “We came out slow against Nebraska; we looked flat. We changed the way we practice yesterday and did a different practice. We changed the lineup a little bit today, and the boys were professionals today.”
The practice changes were designed to help the team relax and recover from the losses. Mika said the team skipped working out in the batting cages Friday, and the coaching staff took the kids to the pool.
The inclusion of second-place regional teams also gave the Series Ella Bruning, a catcher for Texas and the only girl competing in the tournament this year. Texas lost 6-2 to Louisiana in the Southwest regional final, but they had a massive 6-0 victory Friday against Washington to remain in the main bracket.
Washington won the Northwest region but was forced to survive elimination against Florida Saturday. Washington is not the only regional champion who lost to a second-place finisher in the first round. In fact, more runners-up won their opening games than regional champs.
South Dakota shut out Louisiana, Oregon took down Pennsylvania, California crushed New Hampshire and Ohio narrowly pulled out a win over Tennessee.
Little League has approved an expansion to 20 teams for 2022, so this will be the last time that regional runners-up face the teams they lost to in the regional final. New Jersey will no longer be in the same region as Pennsylvania, and Connecticut will be separated from New Hampshire.
South Dakota manager Mike Gorsett said beating a team with such proven talent as Louisiana gives him and his boys more confidence heading into their next game in the main bracket against Oregon.
“I feel really good. That team is really good,” Gorsett said. “When we were out at regionals, we played Iowa in the first round, and when we came off the field, I said, ‘That team’s probably gonna make it all the way back through the loser’s bracket.’ I feel the same way about this Louisiana team.”
Follow Emily Adams on Twitter @eaadams6.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Little League World Series teams make most of second chances