Top 10 United States players to watch in the Little League World Series
WILLIAMSPORT – A potential deficit looming, Grandview, Iowa infielders Kobe Kunert and Maddox O’Conner quickly impersonated some Major League Baseball players.
North Dakota had runners on the corners with one out and the heart of its order batting in the third inning of a scoreless Midwest championship game last Saturday. Drew Rerick drilled a hard-hit grounder toward Kunert at second base. Instead of it producing a run, Kunert smothered the ball and made a pretty back-handed toss to shortstop O’Conner for the force at second
O’Conner caught the ball and made a rocket throw across his body in one smooth motion and Iowa produced an inning-ending double play. The momentum was stifled and Iowa took a lead it never relinquished an inning later as it captured the championship and reached the Little League World Series.
Those are the types of players that the 16 Series qualifiers have made look routine during their postseason runs. It is that level of play that has made them the world’s best Little League teams.
And as the Series opens Thursday, here are some U.S. players that shined at regionals and are players to keep an eye on.
GREGORY BRUNO, NEW YORK, PITCHER — One of the best pitchers fans might see at the Series this year, Bruno provided the perfect ending to New York’s perfect Mid-Atlantic Regional run. Bruno threw a 6-inning perfect game and powered New York to a 4-0 championship win against Maryland last Sunday. Maybe most impressive, Bruno did so on just 62 pitches, keeping him eligible to pitch if necessary in Thursday’s Series opener against Iowa. The hard-throwing right-hander brings heat in the low to mid-70s range and threw 48 of 62 pitches for strikes, striking out 12. He was about as good as a pitcher can be at regionals, going 2-0, not allowing a run, surrendering just two hits and striking out 23 in 11 innings. Before overpowering Maryland, Bruno silenced Pennsylvania in a winner’s bracket semifinal, throwing five innings of 2-hit baseball and striking out 11. He also is part of a strong New York defense and produced three RBIs against Keystone.
BRENNA HILL, MICHIGAN, INFIELD/OF/PITCHER — Hill did everything possible to become the fourth member of his family to reach the Series. Hill provided powerful hitting, pitching and flawless defense at three different positions as Michigan routed four regional opponents, 46-6. The left-hander hit .625 with a regional-high three home runs and 10 RBIs. Hill also doubled, scored six runs and drove in three runs three times. The left-hander was equally impressive on the mound, going 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA. A hard thrower who also features some knee-buckling breaking pitches, Hill scattered five hits over 8 2/3 innings and struck out a regional-best 19. Hill was at his best in the championship against Indiana when he threw a 1-hit shutout, struck out nine and helped Michigan win, 13-0. Hill came within an out of throwing a perfect game and also went 2 for 3 with a home run, double and three RBIs.
JANSEN KENTY, GEORGIA, PITCHER — Arguably the best pitcher at a loaded Southeast Tournament, Kenty dazzled in two starts against Tennessee and Virginia, going 1-0 and not allowing a run in 11 innings. Mixing a mid-70 mile per hour fastball and a knee-buckling curve, Kenty overpowered both opponents and threw a 3-hit shutout in the final against Virginia while striking out 13. The left-hander also struck out 13 in five innings against Tennessee as Georgia won 1-0 on a Jackson Ryan walk-off single. Kenty finished regionals with a U.S.-high 26 strikeouts and walked just two. Kenty is equally dangerous with the bat and crushed a mammoth home run in the winner’s bracket semifinals against Virginia. Kenty also hit the go-ahead RBI single in the championship, compiled a .545 on-base percentage and finished with four RBIs.
BLAKE LARSON, IOWA, PITCHER/FIRST BASE — An excellent all-around player, Larson put together one of the best performances at the Midwest Regional as Iowa won four straight elimination games. The first baseman/pitcher led Iowa in hitting, batting .500 while hitting a home run, two doubles, a triple and driving in a regional-high nine runs. Larson delivered a hit in each of the first four games, produced two multi-hit games and made just one error in five games. Larson also made a big impact on the mound, throwing five innings of brilliant baseball in an elimination game against Missouri. Larson scattered three hits and allowed just a run in five innings. He also struck out 10 and Iowa scored a run in the sixth to win, 2-1.
STEVE MARTINEZ, NEW YORK, PITCHER/INFIELD — A fantastic No. 3 hitter, Martinez is to the New York offense what Bruno is to its pitching staff. He was nearly perfect at Mid-Atlantic Regional, hitting .833 and going 10 for 12. Martinez reached base in each of his last seven at-bats, while adding two doubles, a home run, three RBIs and three runs. Also a superb defender, Martinez hit safely in all four games and collected three multi-hit performances. He also came up huge in Sunday’s championship, going 2 for 2 with a two-run double. The game was scoreless in the third inning before Martinez hit that clutch two-out, two-run double. Rather than face him in the sixth inning, Maryland chose to intentionally walk Martinez, but Derek Mendez followed with an RBI single, highlighting opponents’ dilemma.
JAKE MATHER, RHODE ISLAND, PITCHER/CATCHER — Speaking of players who came up huge Sunday, Mather might have played the game of his life in the biggest game of his life at that point. The talented catcher and pitcher crushed the go-ahead, two-out home run off the light pole beyond the left-field fence in the fifth inning, breaking a tie and paving the way for a 3-2 championship win against Massachusetts. Mather finished the game 3 for 3. He wore out pitchers at the New England Regional, hitting .615 and going 11 for 16 in five games. Mather drove in four runs, scored seven and had at least one hit in each game. Mather did not make any errors in Bristol and provided four multi-hit games, including three 3-hit games. Mather also is an excellent pitcher who went 1-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings. He shut down Vermont in a winner’s bracket semifinal, throwing 4 2/3 shutout innings and striking out eight.
JARREN PURIFY, MICHIGAN, INFIELD — All one needs to know about how dominant Purify can be is that Indiana intentionally walked him three times in four innings at the Great Lakes Regional championship, including with one out and nobody on base in the first inning. One can hardly blame Indiana either. Purify was retired just one time in four regional games, putting together a fantastic display. The 5-foot-7 slugger reached base in each of his final 11 regional at-bats, hitting .900 and blasting two home runs. Purify saw one strike against Indiana and tattooed it over the left-field fence for a 2-run home run. He finished with eight RBIs, nine runs and hit safely in all four games. Purify delivered three multi-hit games, stole a base and the slick infielder also made just one error. Over the last three games, Purify has reached base in every at-bat.
CHRIS REYNOLDS, IDAHO, PITCHER/SHORT STOP/OUTFIELD — There is little this dynamic athlete cannot do. Reynolds was a force at the Northwest Regional and is an excellent pitcher, center fielder and shortstop who also provides big offensive pop. Reynolds has been described as one of the best center fielders Idaho coaches have seen and played error-less defense at three positions. He was virtually untouchable on the mound, going 2-0, not allowing a run and holding Wyoming and Montana to three hits in 11 2/3 innings. Reynolds threw a 1-hit complete-game against Wyoming and stymied Montana in the final, throwing five innings of two-hit baseball with 10 strikeouts. The hard-throwing right-hander finished the tournament with a regional-best 21 strikeouts. Reynolds was just as potent with the bat, hitting .500 with four RBIs and five runs. Reynolds hit safely in all five games, delivered two multi-hit performances and helped Idaho reach the Series for the first time since 1999.
RYAN SELVAGGI, TEXAS, PITCHER/ CATCHER/THIRD BASE — Tall, explosive and versatile, Selvaggi displayed his entire arsenal at the Southwest Regional. The sweet-swinging 12-year-old hit .500 in four games, slamming two home runs, driving in four runs and scoring eight times. He also stole two bases and played flawless defense whether he was pitching, playing third base or roaming center field. As good as he is offensively, Selvaggi might be even better on the mound. The hard-throwing right-hander threw four no-hit innings in an 8-0 regional championship win and also threw a six-inning perfect game during districts. Selvaggi struck out nine in four innings against Oklahoma in the final and finished regionals 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. He also allowed just two hits.
SEAN YAMAGUCHI, HAWAII, PITCHER/SECOND BASE — A super player who ignites an explosive Hawaii offense, Yamaguchi overwhelmed West Regional opponents with his skills and power. The second baseman/pitcher made no errors and dominated offensively and on the mound. The team’s No. 3 hitter batted a team-best .615, going 8 for 13 with two home runs, a double, eight RBIs in four runs.