BRISTOL - Chaos reigned on Saturday. When the dust settled and the confusion simplified, Rhode Island was left standing, a 6-4 victory over New Hampshire gifting the club from Barrington, R.I., a trip to the Little League World Series.
Rhode Island had used pitching and strong defense to stay within a 2-1 deficit before exploding for a four-run fourth inning and a 5-2 lead in the New England Regional championship game.
Then … bedlam broke loose.
New Hampshire’s lethal top of the order put runners on first and second to lead off the bottom of the fifth, and deadly three-hole hitter Noah Durham - one of the tournament’s best bats - sent a high fly ball into shallow right field.
Rhode Island second baseman Mason Crain corralled the ball, but it popped out as he went to transfer it to his throwing hand. In the confusion, New Hampshire runners Adam Lafond and Dillon Gaudet left second and first base, respectively, trying to advance as Crain’s throw came into the third baseman.
Lafond avoided a tag, but Gaudet didn’t. Rhode Island pitcher Owen Pfeffer slung the ball to the second-base bag, where Gaudet was thrown out for a double play as Lafond sprinted home to cut New Hampshire’s deficit to 5-3.
It was a wild, hectic play, and in the ridiculousness of it, all nine Rhode Island defenders at one point were running around the infield as managers, fans and umpires tried to make sense of it all. Durham was just as unsure of the ruling, sprinting to second base not aware of whether or not right field umpire Bill Ridings had called it a fly out or not.
A lengthy review and plenty of mystery later, it was officially ruled a double play with a run scored in what proved to be the game’s most pivotal moment.
“It was pretty chaotic,” Rhode Island manager Chris Promades said. “It was crazy. I think they kind of had the momentum going into that play, and then because of what happened, it stopped them dead in their tracks, and then Owen was able to shut the door and get out of the inning. That was big.”
Four outs later, Pfeffer polished off a complete game with a strikeout to spark a raucous celebration of hats flying and gloves missiling into the sky.
“Owen’s one of the leaders of our team. He’s great,” Promades said. “The way he pitched today was fantastic. He wanted the ball. He never turns it down. He’s a fierce competitor and a great athlete. He’s a small, little guy, but I’ll tell you what, he packs a big punch, and that’s what he delivered today.”
The game stayed within one run until the fourth inning, when Chase Watts tied the game by scoring on a wild pitch, and Lucas Tanous drove in the go-ahead run on a single to left field. Pfeffer broke the game open on a two-run single short after, and Rhode Island tacked on an insurance run in the sixth.
In the bottom half, Pfeffer allowed a double to Max Bridgeman and an RBI single by Chase Phillibotte, but the left-hander doused out the potential rally to complete the victory.
“I thought I did good. All I had to do was throw strikes, and I knew I had the best defense out there to make the plays,” Pfeffer said. “[That last strikeout] felt good. I knew all I had to do was pound the zone.”
Anyone expecting a tight, thrilling and down-to-the-wire rematch between the two teams certainly got it.
Following a 2-1 New Hampshire victory on Thursday that came down to the final pitch, the encore Saturday brought an equally sensational ending as Rhode Island now prepares for a trip to Williamsport, Pa.
“Their grit and tenacity is just unbelievable,” Promades said. “We practice so much, and our preparation is second to none. For being 11 and 12 years old, these guys’ focus, grit and intensity they had, I couldn’t be happier. It’s everything we’ve asked for and more.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com