Game 24
2 vs. Great Lakes 3
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
8:00PM ET

Only in Williamsport
Maryland advances from strange triangle on thrilling night at Lamade

By Mike Lipka

Whatever you could make of the excitement and roller-coaster of emotions that three teams went through Tuesday night at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, there is one underlying truth to it all.

It could only happen at the Little League World Series.

The Mid-Atlantic Champions (Maryland) sat beyond the fence in the outfield, rooting for Great Lakes to win, but to give up at least two runs. The Great Lakes Champions (Kentucky) sat in the home dugout, needing to win while allowing one or zero runs. The Northwest Champions (Washington) sat in the visitors’ dugout, needing to simply win. Whichever scenario worked out would propel its team to a second-place finish in Pool B and a spot in the United States semifinal.

And of course, it all came to a point in the bottom of the sixth.

With Kentucky leading 3-1 with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of sixth, ace Cole Sturgeon worked the count to 0-2 on Washington cleanup hitter Colin Porter. Sturgeon aimed his curveball for the dirt, hoping to get Porter to chase and send Kentucky on.

But his curveball hung up, and didn’t come down until Porter had whacked it over the center-field fence. Many of the Kentucky players, knowing their hopes were dead, fell to the ground. But after Sturgeon regrouped in time to get the final out of Kentucky’s 3-2 win before 12,100 disbelieving fans, the Maryland players cheered with delight, as they knew they would advance to a Thursday matchup with Pool A Champion Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“You hate to get that close, one pitch away,” said Kentucky manager Vic Evans Jr. “We’ve struggled up here, and we just wanted to play one good game for ourselves … I was too thrilled with the way they played to be upset.”

The teams all finished pool play in a three-way tie for second place at 1-2. Since their head-to-head wins cancel each other out, that meant it came down to the tiebreaker – lowest run differential (runs allowed divided by defensive innings). Since Kentucky allowed 2 runs to Washington, its ratio (21 runs in 16 defensive innings – 1.3125) was not as good as Maryland’s (23 runs in 18 innings – 1.28). Washington’s total (24 runs in 17 innings) wasn’t quite enough to topple the Mid-Atlantic squad, either.

“Wow,” said Maryland outfielder Nick Nowottnick. “It was exciting. We all cheered. I’m just glad we’re in. I can’t believe that happened.”

Until it did happen, Sturgeon’s effort was nothing short of superhuman. Faced with the unenviable task of not only getting his team the win but allowing a maximum of one run, the southpaw tossed a 15-strikeout, three-hit gem.

If that weren’t enough, he also went 3-for-3, knocking in what was almost the game-winning run with a two-run homer, and scoring the eventual game-winning run after doubling in the fifth. He also blocked what would have been Washington’s second run from scoring on a wild pitch with his lower leg in the fourth inning, tagging the runner out and temporarily preserving his team’s hopes.

“I think we all thought it was one [run maximum that we could give up],” Sturgeon said. “I was trying to do my best to have that man not score.”

“I did everything I was supposed to do with a passed ball with a runner on third,” said catcher Jake Tanner. “I think I did everything right, and I got him the ball.”

Ryan Beliel took the ball for Northwest, and for a while, it seemed that he would challenge Sturgeon to a pitchers’ duel. If Washington had won, it would have advanced without any tiebreakers with a 2-1 record.

But once the left-handed Sturgeon blasted his opposite-field two-run shot in the third inning, the question in the Owensboro ace’s mind was not whether Kentucky could hold on, but if he could hold Washington to one run or less.

He gave up his first hit in the fourth on a leadoff single to Michael Conforto, who eventually came around to score on Stephen Thompson’s bloop single to right with two outs. That hit put Nick Rubideaux, who had walked, on third, and when a Sturgeon pitch snuck by catcher Jake Tanner during the next at-bat, it looked like Kentucky’s hopes were dashed.

“I don’t know if [the players] exactly knew the [maximum] number [of runs they could give up],” Evans said. “The coaches knew the number.”

Tanner rushed back and delivered the ball to a covering Sturgeon, who blocked Rubideaux’s slide long enough to tag him out. It was clear that he knew the number when the pitcher jumped for joy as he headed back to the dugout.

From there, he could taste it. He retired the side in order with two strikeouts in the fifth. After doubling in the top of the sixth, he appeared to be injured from his slide into second, but he got up and immediately scored on Meghan Sims’s single.

He then confidently took the hill for the sixth and struck out the first two on nine pitches. He had Porter at 0-2 before he hung the curveball.

“I knew we were one pitch away,” Sturgeon said. “We won the game, but it’s a weird way to win a game.”

The entire path was weird, for both teams. The night would have been more comfortable for Maryland if it hadn’t allowed seven runs in the sixth inning to Texas earlier in the day – an occurrence Kentucky knew the significance of when it watched the game on TV.

And Kentucky would have only needed to win if Sturgeon – whose reputation preceded him to Williamsport with a pair of 17-strikeout games in the Great Lakes regional – had not been so wild in their opening loss to Maryland.

“You talk about being disappointed tonight,” said Kentucky coach Keith Evans. “I was disappointed with the start of our tournament. Had we taken care of business in our first game, then this game, we don’t have to worry about it. You just go win.”

And though they did win, in the end, the winner was Maryland on the year’s most thrilling night in South Williamsport – so far.

Not that Kentucky’s consolation prize was so bad.

“You finished your little league career winning your last little league game at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on ESPN,” Vic Evans said. “How in the world could you not be happy with that?”

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© 2004 Little League Baseball Incorporated