Taylor North dominates Florida in Little League World Series opener, 8-0

By Tom Robinson
Special to The Detroit News

Mark Rodgers watched four of Ethan Van Belle’s previous pitching appearances and told his Florida championship team that what he saw, even on the mound, was the athleticism of a shortstop.

Although Van Belle never worked the left side of the infield Friday, when he left the mound, he did show off that athleticism while playing first base.

Taylor, Mich.'s Ethan Van Belle delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against against Palm City, Florida at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Van Belle, one of four Taylor North players to produce four hits, was right in the middle of the two biggest outs the Michigan and Great Lake champions produced while shutting out Palm City, Fla., 8-0, in a Hank Aaron Bracket opener at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

“He’s got to be the player of the game, the first baseman who was their starting pitcher,” Rodgers said of Van Belle. “ … That kid is a phenomenal athlete; fearless.”

The Little League World Series is back after a year off with a United States-only field of teams, extremely limited fan attendance and press conferences, like the ones for Rodgers and the leaders of the Taylor North victory, handled through videoconferencing.

Van Belle became one of the standouts of the first round with a well-rounded performance. He joined Max LaForest, Jackson Surma and Gavin Ulin with two hits, going 2-for-2 with an RBI single to cap a three-run bottom of the first and an infield single to load the bases and set up the five-run fifth.

In between the offensive contributions, Van Belle got Taylor North through fourth- and fifth-inning bases-loaded situations — first with his pitching, then with his fielding — with the team protecting a 3-0 lead.

The game’s winning pitcher with four scoreless innings in which he allowed three hits and two walks, Van Belle got his sixth strikeout on the final batter he faced, with the bases loaded, two out and a full count.

“His location was still on point,” Taylor North manager Rick Thorning said. “You could see it in his eyes when he threw that last fastball, it was just ‘I’m going to give you my best fastball, you take your best swing.’

“Nine out of 10 times, Ethan wins that matchup.”

Before advancing into Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the winner of Friday’s late game between the winner of Wylie from Abilene, Tex. and Eastlake from Sammamish, Wash., Taylor North needed one more big play from Van Belle.

Van Belle had already displayed his bat and pitching arm and would later show off his speed on the bases with the infield single. It would not be accurate to say he used his glove, but the athleticism and fearlessness that Rodgers praised were evident when McClain Lewis smashed a hard grounder to first base with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a glove on it, so I just stayed in front of it and I knew (Jackob Furkas) was going to be able to get to first base,” Van Belle said.

Van Belle knocked the ball down with his legs, calmly moved forward to pick it up and flipped to Furkas, who relieved him on the mound, in time for the out.

“Obviously, earlier in the game, he made a great play on a bunt, then there he blocks the ball, hits the pitcher coming across the bag with the bases loaded,” Rodgers said. “If he doesn’t make that play, maybe we open the game up a little bit.”

Instead, Van Belle and Furkas executed a difficult play that Thorning said the team works on diligently in practice and the first four Taylor North batters reached base in the bottom of the inning.

LaForest followed Van Belle’s infield single with a two-run single through the middle of a drawn-in infield for a 5-0 lead.

Taylor North finished with 12 hits, including three in the first inning and four more in the fifth when it also came up with a hit batter, walk and sacrifice fly to break the game open.

LaForest, who got the final two outs as the third pitcher, drove in two runs and also scored in the fifth when the home plate umpire ruled he had successfully evaded a tag to score on a sacrifice fly.

Surma doubled for the only extra-base hit among the dozen hits. He also scored and drove in a run.

Ulin drove in one.

Van Belle, Furkas and LaForest finished with a combined five-hitter as the Florida champions left 10 runners stranded.

“It’s unreal,” Thorning said after his team, the 13th in Michigan history to make it to Williamsport, remained undefeated and improved its winning margin to 185-9 through four tournament stages. “It really is a dream come true with these guys, 8-nothing in the Little League World Series, I would say what they did tonight was a great feeling.”

Surma is expected to get the pitching start Sunday as Taylor North continues its pursuit of the state’s second World Series title ever and first since Hamtramck in 1959.

Tom Robinson is a freelance writer.