Buoyant Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores team has Georgia on its mind in Little League World Series

By Tom Robinson
Special to The Detroit News
Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan's Reggie Sharpe, center, gets a water bath from Cameron Schafer (9) as he begins to celebrate with Brennan Hill, right, after hitting a walk off single in the bottom of the sixth inning of an elimination baseball game against Des Moines, Iowa  at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Michigan won 5-4, eliminating Iowa.

South Williamsport, Pa.  — Figuring the best pitchers had already been used in the first two games, Matt Kurnet, who manages the Midwest Region champion Grandview team from Des Moines, Iowa, took his coin-flip victory and jumped at the chance to bat first in Monday’s elimination game at the Little League World Series.

“Tails never fails,” Kurnet said.

Kurnet got his three-run top of the first inning, but his team is done and Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores plays on because of the way it has taken advantage of the chance to bat last.

Very little has separated teams, particularly those in the U.S. Division, at this year’s series.

Woods-Shores and Peachtree City, Ga., the teams that will meet Wednesday at 3 p.m. in a game that was rained out Tuesday, know just how close the games have been and just how close they are to being one of the teams on its way home.

When play ended Monday, the Little League field had been cut in half from 16 to eight teams. Wednesday afternoon’s game at Lamade Stadium will trim the number of U.S. contenders from four to three.

Through 20 games to get the field to this point, three have been decided in extra innings, including two U.S. games involving Peachtree City. The Southeast Regional champion came up with one of those wins Monday night, knocking out highly regarded Post Oak from Houston, Texas, 7-6, in nine innings.

Four more games, three of those U.S. games, have been decided by a single run in the regulation six innings. Woods-Shores has two of those wins in remarkably similar fashion, falling behind, 4-0, then coming back to win, 5-4, with the winning run coming in the bottom of the sixth.

“I knew that we were always going to come back,” said Preston Barr, the winning pitcher in relief in both Woods-Shores victories. “We always have faith.”

If Woods-Shores is going to advance, the team will need to alter at least part of its winning formula. The Michigan state and Great Lakes Region champions will bat first against Peachtree City after losing a coin flip.

Six of the first 20 series games have been decided on runs in the final at-bat.

The U.S. games have been decided by an average of 2.4 runs per game and series games as a whole have been decided by an average of 2.9.

A year ago, there were three double-figures margins of victory to this point, five games that were decided by two runs or less and the average result was a 5.7-run margin. This year, there has been just one blowout and 12 of the games have been one- or two-run decisions.

More:New bats, fewer homers at Little League World Series

Brennan Hill left the mound in the first inning Monday and is likely to get his third start in four series games. He has struggled in the two Series starts (0-0, 9.00 ERA), but remains a threat after going 2-0 with an 0.69 earned run average and a 19-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 8⅔ innings at the Great Lakes Regional.

Barr’s nine-strikeout, 5⅓-inning relief performance in Monday’s first win-or-go-home game leaves him ineligible to pitch again until a potential U.S. championship game Saturday.

Every other Woods-Shores pitcher is available going into Wednesday. If Michigan wins, the team will have another game Thursday against the loser of Wednesday night’s winners’ bracket final between Staten Island, N.Y. and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Peachtree City’s nine-inning win cost the team the eligibility of Connor Riggs-Soper and Ben Traxler, the two who have pitched the most series innings, for Wednesday’s game against Woods-Shores. The rainout, however, does get the Georgia team back its opening night starter.

Jansen Kenty was outstanding Friday in the team’s 2-0, 11-inning loss to Honolulu. He struck out 12 in 5⅓-shutout innings before running out of pitches after giving up only four hits and two walks.

Kenty forced extra innings Monday, capping the rally from deficits of 4-0 after four innings and 5-2 with two out and none on in the bottom of the sixth against the Southwest champs. His two-run homer sent the game to extra innings.

Tai Peete leads the team with five hits, including two doubles.  Kenty is 4-for-10 with a double and homer.

Jarren Purify and Barr have been two-way threats to lead Woods-Shores in Williamsport. Each has five hits. Purify has used his speed to lead the team with four runs while Barr leads with three RBIs.

Ryan Knaebel is 3-for-5 with three walks.

Knaebel, Purify and Barr each have a double for the team’s only extra-base hits through three games.

Third baseman Purify, shortstop Barr and second baseman Reggie Sharpe, who had Monday’s winning hit, have provided a series of standout defensive plays.

Little League made the decision quickly in the afternoon to postpone Tuesday night’s games. Woods-Shores was able to get to the batting cages first, then, with the game called off, manager Kurt Barr gave the team the rest of the day off to spend time with their families.

Tom Robinson is a freelance writer.