SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) _ His white pants covered in dirt, Josh Lester adjusted his slightly oversized helmet, and clapped his hands after reaching third base. A well-deserved break for the 12-year-old from Columbus, Ga. He came up with two clutch extra-base hits Thursday night to send his team to the U.S. title game of the Little League World Series.
Lester hit a base-loaded triple in the second inning and doubled in two more runs in the fourth in Columbus' 8-0 win over Portsmouth, N.H. Both hits came after Portsmouth intentionally walked slugger Kyle Carter to get to Lester.
``It just motivates me when they walk him,'' Lester said, displaying a cheeky smile. ``It just makes me want to get a hit more.''
Carter was pretty good himself on the mound, striking out eight and tossing a three-hitter for the Columbus Northern league team (3-1). They will face Beaverton, Ore., on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the World Series championship game Sunday.
Players slapped hands and a coach tossed the ball from the final out to Lester before the team waved to cheering and whistling fans standing three-deep in the stadium aisles.
The international title game Saturday is also set, after Kawaguchi City, Japan, defeated Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 4-1 earlier Friday. Japan will play for Mexico, with the winner playing for the tournament crown.
Carter, who hasn't allowed an earned run in South Williamsport, is pretty good at the plate, too. He had hit 52 home runs this season before arriving at the series, and added a two-run blast to center in the fifth on Thursday.
``I think in the fifth, you saw why we were walking Carter,'' Portsmouth manager Mark McCauley said. ``Our game plan going in was to hit the ball hard, hopefully, eventually they would fall in. We hit the ball hard in the beginning, but we just couldn't stop them from scoring runs.''
Opposing managers have taken to walking Carter, at times even with nobody on base, a la what opponents have done to Giants slugger Barry Bonds.
Not a good move for Portsmouth (2-2).
Lester's triple in the second came after Portsmouth intentionally walked Carter with runners already on second and third and two outs. Lester drove a 1-2 pitch from Keegan Taylor to the right-center field wall, clearing the bases. Cody Walker followed with a solid single to left scoring Lester.
Lester added a two-run double in the fourth after another intentional walk to Carter.
Lester doesn't envy the decision opposing mangers have when Carter comes to the plate.
``It's hard, when they pitch to him, he hits,'' Lester said. ``When they pitch to me, I hit.''
In the early game, 5-foot-6 pitcher Ryoya Sato frustrated the strapping Little Leaguers from Saudi Arabia with his breaking ball and added a key two-run homer in the sixth inning to lead Japan (4-0).
Sato drove in two runs in the fourth with a single before homering to straightaway center for a couple of insurance runs.
``I was fortunate I was able to hit a curve ball at the right time,'' the 12-year-old said through an interpreter.
Japan was bolstered by a cheering section that wore bright-red jackets and hats emblazoned with the Japanese flag.
Their rhythmic clapping resonated throughout Lamade Stadium, and after Sato struck out Michael Knight to end the game, fans exchanged high-fives and waved little flags.
Sato needed to get through trouble late before celebrating himself.
With Japan leading 2-0 in the fifth, Sato walked Knight, then hit Nate Barnett to put runners at first and second with two out.
Matt Timoney followed and doubled to the left-field wall, scoring Knight. Sato struck out Andrew Holden to end the rally. Sato finished with 11 strikeouts.
The 6-foot-3 Knight is tall for a 12-year-old, but he's not the biggest player on his team. That distinction belongs to 13-year-old first baseman Aaron Durley, who at 6-foot-8 is the tallest participant ever at the Little League World Series.
Aaron's father, Dhahran manager James Durley, is just as tall and his mother stands at just under 6 feet.
Holden was one of Dhahran's offensive threats, homering twice in the series.
Despite the loss, it was still a great tournament for Saudi Arabia (2-2), which went 0-3 at last year's series. Six players returned this year, including Aaron Durley.
``I want to tell you guys that I have 11 guys with the biggest hearts I've ever seen,'' James Durley said.