SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. » Nerves aside, one thought raced through Kaho’ea Akau’s mind as a screaming line drive was heading his way.
"I knew that I can make the play," the Waipio second baseman said.
What he did was make the signature play of the Little League World Series through the first three days.
Akau jumped up, and snared the liner as the ball stuck deep inside his leather mitt. He took it off to show the umpire that he, indeed, caught it before pushing it out. It was just one of several spectacular plays as Waipio rode long balls from Ty DeSa and Shiloh Baniaga en route to a 3-1 victory over Toms River National, N.J., yesterday at Lamade Stadium.
Waipio continues in the elimination bracket and will play the loser of Georgia and Ohio tomorrow. New Jersey sees its all-star season end.
People may dig the long ball, but boy, the youngsters from Waipio sure have some pretty leather they can show off.
ESPN, which broadcasts all the games of the LLWS, could make the day’s top-10 list with all the plays Waipio made.
Yes, they were that special.
"Our boys are always feeling like they will do their best," Waipio manager Brian Yoshii said. "That’s just the spirit they have. They play with their heart."
Akau, whose brother Iolana probably had the signature play of the 2008 World Series with a full-out extending diving catch in the outfield, made another spectacular play on a liner by Patrick Marinaccio in the first, right after teammate Kaimana Bartolome had an amazing sliding grab in right field.
In the fifth, Waipio turned a beautiful, inning-ending double play when Akau cleanly fielded a hard grounder from Marinaccio and quickly flicked it to shortstop Justice Nakagawa, who completed the throw to first baseman DeSa.
"The ball was hit pretty hard, so we had a lot of time to turn it," Akau said.
The person who benefited most from all the web gems was pitcher Baniaga, who tossed five innings of three-hit ball with six strikeouts.
New Jersey’s lone score was a leadoff home run by Kevin Blum in the bottom of the first, knotting the game at 1 after Baniaga crushed a mammoth shot to center in his opening at-bat.
"The home run felt really good," Baniaga said. "It made me feel more confident before I got to the mound. I just felt that we had this game before we started. I knew that my curveball was working well."
While Toms River hit the ball hard, the team couldn’t find that clutch poke with runners in scoring position.
The Mid-Atlantic champs left a player in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings, including the tying run at third in the fourth when Baniaga got a called third strike for the final out.
Toms River left seven on base, and managed only three hits.
"He (Baniaga) had a good curveball, and his fastball did a nice job of setting up that pitch that our kids struggled with," Toms River manager Paul Deceglie said. "I’m an adult, and I don’t know if I could hit that curve. We just didn’t hit the ball as well as we could have, but give credit to their pitcher.
"This has been a great run for our kids. The friendships they have made. The celebrity status they have at home that they don’t even know about. I’m hoping that they remember everything about this experience. And I’m sure they will. They are the type of kids that down the road, they’ll be there with their kids coaching someday."
Bartolome broke the 1-all tie in the third, driving in Akau on a shortstop-to-second fielder’s choice. Two innings later, DeSa crushed his second home run of the series after New Jersey pitcher Michael Tiplady left a fastball belt-high for the youngster to smash.
"All I am doing is looking to hit the ball hard," DeSa said.
Waipio had another golden chance in the sixth with a walk to Brysen Yoshii and an infield single by Ezra Heleski with no outs.
Blum, pitching in relief, got a strikeout and forced DeSa into a pop fly in left-field foul territory. Outfielder Joey Rose jumped into the tarp, making the catch, and immediately threw a frozen rope to catcher Jeff Ciervo, who doubled up Yoshii tagging up on the play.
"We have a team that can make plays like that happen," Deceglie said. "That play that Joey Rose made, going over that tarp and firing a BB to home was amazing. That’s the kind of major league plays that I’ve seen them make the entire all-star season."
Waipio had nine hits in the game, two each by Baniaga and Bartolome. Dane Kaneshiro came in to save it in the sixth.
"We still feel good about our chances," Brian Yoshii said. "We believe that we have several talented pitchers and a strong defense. That keeps you in any ballgame. Our game is playing defense and solid pitching."
Waipio has scored in the first inning of both of its LLWS games. Saturday, DeSa hit a two-run homer against Georgia’s Jacob Pate for an early 2-0 lead. … Brian Yoshii said in the postgame press conference that Kaneshiro will get the start in tomorrow’s game against the loser of Georgia and Hamilton, Ohio. Kaneshiro’s last start was a mercy-rule victory over Arizona in the West Region semifinals. "Dane is a very poised pitcher," coach Yoshii said. "When we put him into the game in similar situations, he’s always calm and confident. We feel good about our chances with Dane starting the next game." … When Waipio plays next, it won’t have the pitching services of Baniaga and Saturday’s starter Noah Shackles. Shackles won’t be available until Thursday because of Little League’s four-day rest rule, while Baniaga can’t throw until Friday, which is a scheduled rain day. … Tomorrow’s game will be at Lamade Stadium and begins at 10 a.m. Hawaii time.