BRISTOL – One of the most storied Little League towns in America continued their trail back to Williamsport on Sunday night. Toms River East of New Jersey gutted out a 3-2 win over Cumberland, Rhode Island to advance to the Metro Region semifinals on Wednesday.
The team did so with Little League royalty, Todd Frazier, in attendance to support his former league. Frazier, a former MLB and Little League World Series star, led Toms River East to a LLWS title in 1998.
Following a 65-minute weather delay, New Jersey and Rhode Island finally took the field and it only took the state champions from Cumberland Little League three batters to wake up the crowd. Rhode Island third baseman Ryan Amaral lifted a ball over the scoreboard and deep into the night for the first two runs of the game.
Despite their best efforts, those ended up being the final two runs of the summer for Rhode Island.
In each of the final three innings Cumberland was able to load the bases but left every runner stranded. New Jersey manager Mike Mendes is giving credit to his catcher, Ryan McHugh, for what he is calling the two biggest plays of the night. In back-to-back innings, McHugh was able to end the threat by handling foul balls popped behind home plate with the bases loaded.
“We never practice that, but it was really stressful because it was so dark that sometimes you lose it in the lights, but I stayed with it,” explained McHugh.
Mendes said the coaches put an added emphasis on just putting the ball in play after Saturday’s loss, and not trying to do too much with every pitch. The strategy paid off as they scored two of their three runs on a single and a fielder’s choice.
“We did what we had to do today,” Mendes said. “We got some big hits in big spots early. We ran the bases well in the first inning - that helped us. We just got enough.”
After Toms River East reached the LLWS a year ago, Mendes explained how they embrace their history, and it helps this year’s team keep their belief alive.
“These guys see the signs all around our Little League: Little League World Series Champions, Eastern Region Champions,” Mendes said. “They saw the team last year go to Williamsport. I think it’s just the belief that it is possible, and we can do this. They’re friends with all the guys from last year and when they went there last year our guys said, ‘hey we can do the same thing. We’re just as good as those guys. Why can’t we go to Bristol?’… It’s not just a dream that can’t be reached. It’s very hard to get here but it can be reached.”
New Jersey will play again on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the loser of New York and Connecticut for a chance to play in the first-ever Metro Region championship.