SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Ben Askelson stepped up to the plate thinking curveball.
The 0-1 pitch in the bottom of the seventh didn’t quite break, though, and stayed high in the strike zone — the perfect spot for the 13-year-old slugger from Billings in the Little League World Series.
Askelson hit the pitch onto the hill beyond the left-field fence to send the boys from Billings into the U.S. championship with a stunning 1-0 victory over Huntington Beach, Calif., on Wednesday night.
“Everybody in the dugout was telling me to win it with one swing, but then they said, ‘Just get a hit, we don’t need a home run or anything,’” Askelson said.
Now, the Big Sky All-Stars — the first-ever team from Montana to reach the LLWS — get to rest up until the U.S. championship game Saturday, while Huntington Beach must face the hometown favorites from Clinton County, Pa., tonight.
The winner will face Billings in the U.S. championship at 1 p.m. Mountain time Saturday, a game that will be televised live on ABC.
Wednesday’s early game was close, too, with Mexico beating Venezuela 2-1 to advance to the international final. Bruno Ruiz’s ninth-inning homer was the difference.
Huntington Beach had outscored its first two LLWS opponents 21-0, and had 23 hits in winning its first two games here. But the West Regional champs had only three hits while being shut out by Montana's two pitchers, starter Cole McKenzie and winner Sean Jones.
"It's better to lose tonight than in an elimination game," Huntington Beach coach Jeff Pratto said. "We just didn't hit the ball."
Billings and Huntington Beach had chances to prevent the game from going into extra innings. California couldn’t break through after loading the bases with two outs in the top of the sixth.
Huntington Beach starter Nick Pratto struck out nine over four innings, while Billings counterpart McKenzie struck out four over 5 2/3 innings, aided by timely defense. He wiggled out a couple jams, including a bases-loaded threat in the second that ended with a runner thrown out at home following a passed ball.
“I don’t know if he was the fastest pitcher we’ve ever seen, but it was the top three,” McKenzie said about Pratto.
Huntington Beach loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth on two walks and a hit batter, but the Billings fans breathed a collective sigh of relief after Hagen Danner lined the first pitch from reliever Jones right to Askelson in left for the inning-ending out.
“Runs were going to be tough to come by. We were dodging bullets there for a while,” said Billings coach Gene Carlson said.
His players don’t mind that they’re missing the first day of school back in Billings. McKenzie and Askelson both said it was their “best first day of school ever.”
"It's a little emotional," Jeff Pratto added, "but to tell you the truth we're excited to come out (tonight) and play. We've been sitting around too much."
Mexico 2, Venezuela 1
In the opener, Ruiz’s homer to center off a 2-0 pitch in the ninth broke up another pitchers’ duel.
A smiling Ruiz cringed while getting bombarded by teammates with pats on his green helmet after crossing the plate.
“When I looked up at home plate and I saw all my teammates there, I knew what to expect,” the 13-year-old slugger said through interpreter Sergio Guzman. “Yes it hurt ... But it’s tradition. Everyone hits a home run on my team and they get hit on the helmet.”
Venezuela will play Japan on Thursday, while Mexico can rest up for Saturday after reliever Jorge Jacobo closed out the victory by inducing a groundout. Friends and family serenaded their players with songs in Spanish after the dramatic win.
Starter Keny Marquez struck out seven over six innings and Yonny Hernandez had an RBI double for Venezuela, which lost for the first time in the postseason.
“We haven’t lost a game all tournament and the kids are having a hard time dealing with that,” manager Gustavo Narvaez said through translator Edwardo Caraballo. “We have to have meeting to deal with forgetting this game.”
It was a memorable one for fans of great pitching and excellent defense.
Venezuela catcher Carlos Narvaez’s sweep tag on a throw up the third-base line got Mexico runner Alvaro Valdez as he tried to score on Carlos Arellano’s opposite-field single to right to end the seventh.
An inning earlier, Venezuela loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth with nobody out, but Arellano, the starting pitcher, escaped the jam with a strikeout and a home-to-first double play off a grounder.
“Yes we can! Yes we can!” Mexico’s vocal fans cheered in Spanish as the players jogged back to the dugout.
Arellano struck out 11 over 7 1-3 innings, settling down after giving up a run in the first. A bag of ice strapped to his right shoulder after the game, Mexico’s 12-year-old ace said he made simple adjustments.
“I needed to throw it faster,” Arellano said. “Also, I wanted to work on my mechanics. I wanted to throw more strikes so they wouldn’t get more hits off me.”
A nice reward awaits Mexico’s players after Yankees reliever Luis Ayala told the team he would try to have them out for Thursday’s game in the Bronx against the A’s if they won Wednesday. The players are Yankees fans, though manager Francisco Picos McDonough loves the Red Sox.
Marquez and three Venezuela relievers combined for 11 strikeouts, matching Mexico pitch-for-pitch — except for the one thrown to Ruiz in the ninth.