SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Chris Cartnick hit four home runs and had 10 RBIs for New Jersey in its Mid-Atlantic regional tournament. Ethan Righter of Connecticut struck out 18 over 9 1/3 innings in the New England tournament.
On Thursday, in the first inning of their first game at the Little League World Series, the two faced each other at a key moment.
Righter had just surrendered a deep home run to Tai Mann of Jackson, New Jersey, with Cartnick, who has picked up the nickname Diesel, coming to the plate.
Unlike many little leaguers, Righter displayed no signs of frustration after allowing his first run in three games. He fought Cartnick for nine pitches before striking him out on a high fastball, something not many pitchers have been able to accomplish this year.
Fairfield, Connecticut, then built a five-run lead before hanging on for a 7-6 win.
"I was just trying to get them to put the ball in play and get outs," said Righter, who gave up four hits and bounced on the mound when a couple of calls went against him. "I knew my defence would back me up."
Righter settled into a groove after sitting Cartnick down. He struck out the side in the second inning and allowed only one run more in 3 2/3 innings before reaching the 85-pitch limit. He finished with seven strikeouts.
Just for perspective, Jackson averaged more than 10 runs in the Mid-Atlantic regional tournament and didn't score fewer than eight in a single game.
Righter hovered around 66-68 mph with his fastball and mixed in a disappearing curveball about 15 mph slower to keep hitters guessing. Everything needed to be on the outside half of the plate to take away Jackson's pull power, and Righter did his job.
Righter also showed poise and baseball knowledge beyond his years in clutch situations. When he faced Mann again in the third inning, Righter remembered the last time he tried to groove a high fastball past him. To keep this ball from leaving the stadium, Righter spun four straight curveballs to Mann and struck him out.
In the same inning, Righter found himself in a bases loaded jam with two outs. One wild pitch got past catcher Aidan Rivera and Cartnick scored from third, but Righter again found his composure and struck out Charlie Meglio to limit the damage.
"He was dynamic," said Jackson head coach Rob Grano. "He could place his fastball anywhere he wanted, great curveball. He really did a great job today, and even when he had runners on base he got real tough."
If stifling a high-powered club on the biggest stage wasn't enough, Righter also cracked two singles and scored two runs to help pace Fairfield's offence.
Fairfield took a 7-2 lead into the sixth inning, but Cartnick wasn't done. Delighted to see a different pitcher in the game, Cartnick crushed a two-run homer to left-centre off Michael Iannazzo to spark a four-run rally. But Tyler Bauer subbed in as a reliever and closed out the game.
Fairfield will play again Sunday in the winner's bracket, but Righter will not be able to pitch because he threw over 66 against Jackson.
BIG LEAGUE SUPPORT
New York Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier took to Twitter before the start of Thursday's game to show his support for his New Jersey neighbours.
"Holbrook letssssss gooooo #boysofthesummer. Represent #jersey," tweeted Frazier with a photo of himself wearing Holbrook's New Jersey State Championship T-shirt.
Frazier won the 1998 Little League World Series with his team from Toms River, New Jersey, which is about a 30-minute drive from Jackson. Both towns are in Ocean County.
The Holbrook Little League team's players have practiced with Frazier and his two brothers during the off-season.
Jack Dougherty is a journalism student at Penn State. Penn State is partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2017 Little League World Series.