The structure of the Little League World Series means that the players on the Greenville North State All-Star Team, also known as the Southeast squad, are fairly insulated from the hysteria surrounding their accomplishments in their hometown.
Between their players and coaches-only housing complex and a packed schedule of practices and activities, the thirteen 12- and 13-year-olds aren’t fully aware of the flood of social media posts about their record-breaking run through the Series so far. They can’t see the signs posted outside of Pitt County businesses wishing them luck , and they might not have heard (yet) that the Pitt County Humane Society named a new litter of puppies after seven of the players on Tuesday.
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It’s just fine with manager Brian Fields if his players are oblivious to some of the side shows. The Southeast team breezed through its first two games, besting the Midwest 6-0 on Friday and the West team 16-0 on Sunday. As if a combined score of 22-0 wasn’t enough, the Greenville pitching staff set a LLWS record with two consecutive no-hitters.
But even if they have made it look easy so far, Fields knows that greater challenges await them starting this evening, when Southeast will take on the Southwest team from Lufkin, TX, at 7:30 p.m. With three days between games, Fields’ primary task has been to keep the players focused on baseball and grounded in the day-to-day reality of the tournament.
From the time they arrived in Williamsport, PA, on August 12, when they were one of the first teams to be fitted for new uniforms and all-new baseball gear, the players have been caught up in a whirlwind of ceremonies, parades and cross-cultural activities to help them get to know the international players.
In the midst of it all, Fields has tried to fit in two practices a day. On Tuesday, the day before the game that will decide if they play in the U.S. final on Saturday, he had them in the batting cages in the morning and going through a brief infield practice after lunch. They might be enjoying the celebrity status, he said, but when they take the field to practice they just look like ballplayers ready to prove once more what they can do.
“They just want to play,” Fields said. “We’ve been up here 10 days and played two games. Once they put those uniforms on and walk out of those living quarters, those boys are ready. They’re focused. It’s fun to watch them, how they keep their composure whether they’re winning or losing.”
A former pitcher for both N.C. State and East Carolina who played for two seasons in the minor leagues, Fields has coached Little League for seven years, and his son Drew is on the World Series team. The coach has made plenty of mistakes over the years and learned from them, he said, but this season he has seen his and his staff’s experience and teamwork dovetail with a boatload of talent in a truly exceptional way.
As pitchers Chase Anderson, Carson Hardee and Matthew Matthijs have teamed up for back-to-back no-hitters, Fields has marveled at their maturity and at the confidence of his offense even with ESPN cameras capturing their every move.
“They have just developed into pitchers,” he said. “They locate, they change beats, they throw any pitch at any count — I mean they’re doing things that sometimes high schoolers can’t do.”
Managing Little League games requires a different type of strategy than in college or the major leagues, Fields said, because of strict pitch count requirements and six-inning games rather than nine. The long rests between games have allowed him to use his three aces in both of the Williamsport games so far, but during Wednesday’s matchup he will watch the pitch counts carefully to make sure Southeast has gas left in the tank in case they have to play out of the loser’s bracket on Thursday.
“You want to win that game but at the same time you have to set it up so you have a chance to win the whole tournament,” said Fields, who focuses on coaching the pitchers while assistant Michael Vaughn coaches the hitters. “When you’re managing Little League you’re always thinking two or three batters ahead. We plan for a bunch of different scenarios, so we know what we’re going to do in any situation.”
As he has carefully tried to shield his players from too many distractions, Fields has welcomed the generous support that has come from sources like major league baseball players — who mingled with the boys before and after the Pittsburgh-St. Louis game in Williamsport on Sunday — and the ECU baseball team, which sent a video to encourage them before they played this weekend.
Tonight that boost from ECU will come in person, as Pirates head coach Cliff Godwin and his staff are traveling to Williamsport to watch the game and speak to Fields and his players beforehand. It’s a scenario that would certainly have inspired pride in their ECU coach, Keith LeClair, if he could have witnessed it — two former Pirate teammates aiming for the stars at one of baseball’s most hallowed events.