Making it into the Little League World Series, which features the top 16 teams in the country, was icing on the cake for Eastlake Little League this year.
After a busy week competing against teams from Texas, Florida and Nebraska, Eastlake players have now returned home to savor their extraordinary season.
On Aug. 15, the day after winning the Northwest Region championship, the team got a chance to fly a chartered plane to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of Little League Baseball, which made the travel logistics much easier.
Eastlake’s first game on Aug. 20 against the team from Wylie, Texas, ended in a 6-0 defeat. Texas scored one run in the second inning and five in the sixth inning. Ella Bruning, the Texas catcher and the only girl to play in this year’s tournament, shined in her World Series debut, going 2-for-2 and leading the Texas team in hits. Eastlake’s Eli Jones and Kellen Kinney mustered one hit each.
During the game, the world was introduced to “The Shimmy” by Eastlake pitcher Sawyer Todd, who pitched two innings of shutout baseball. In a brief interview with ESPN, his mother, Michele Todd, said that he got the inspiration from San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto.
While the team scored zero runs, team president Nicole Steinbok credits the strong pitching and defense for allowing only one run during the first five innings.
“It was a tough game as we scored zero runs,” she said in an email to the Sammamish Independent. “However, our pitchers and defense kept us in by only allowing one run through 5 innings. That is a big highlight.”
After the game, the team from Honolulu, Hawaii, cheered Eastlake up with cupcakes, chocolate, coffee, cake, hats and necklaces.
“They really embrace the Aloha spirit,” Steinbok said.
From there, Eastlake moved to the elimination bracket, where they still had a chance to compete in the World Series final if they won that bracket’s Hank Aaron final. The next day, the team won against Palm City, Florida, in a close 1-0 elimination game.
Despite the low score, Eastlake made history when Jones pitched the first no-hitter in the World Series since 2015. It was “super special,” Steinbok said, noting that the pitcher’s father, Brian Jones, cried for joy at his son’s performance.
Two days later, Eastlake played against the team from Hastings, Nebraska, in another elimination game. This time, Eastlake lost by 3-2, which ended their World Series run.
Pitcher Sanath Chari led with eight strikeouts during the five innings he pitched in, allowing only three runs. He also made one of the team’s two hits in the game.
On the opposing side, Nebraska’s pitcher Hunter Nepple struck out seven.
When not playing, the Eastlake team enjoyed watching other baseball games and passing the time with ping pong matches against their coach Ajay Jaganathan.
During the week, they also met some Major League (MLB) baseball players. Eastlake played whiffle ball with the Cleveland Indians and met Los Angeles Angels players Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani for autographs and selfies.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, only family and friends of the teams were allowed at the World Series games, with a maximum capacity of 250. The atmosphere felt similar to a local game rather than the typical 40,000 spectators that would watch a World Series game in prior years.
Furthermore, players could not leave the complex, which meant families had minimal interaction with them during the week.
Steinbok said there were still some benefits to these strict rules. Fewer people onsite meant that siblings of the players could also meet and get autographs and selfies from the MLB players.
The team also got to enjoy sliding down the hill outside Lamade Stadium with the MLB players, as per World Series tradition. Steinbok said this would not have been as much fun if there were tons of people around. Since it was raining earlier that day, the players ended up getting muddy, which did not take away from the experience.
Overall, Steinbok said that this season was unbelievable. Several close games in the district and state tournaments, such as against Mercer Island, nearly ended the season early for Eastlake.
She credits the coaches for a wonderful job teaching and taking care of the children for the past three weeks, including manager Rich Todd and coaches Kameron Rausch and Ajay Jaganathan.
While the pitching and defense this season kept many of their opponents’ scores low, Steinbok felt the offense is something the team can improve on.
“To win [World Series] games, you need to find a way to score more runs than we did,” she said.
Steinbok hopes for another fun season and an increase in the number of players involved.
“[World Series] gets the most public visibility, but it’s not the best part of Little League,” she said. “The best part is going to a field super close to home, sitting with your neighbors cheering on your child playing ball with their friends against another team full of friends and neighbors.”
To stay in touch with the team, Steinbok suggests signing up for the Eastlake Little League Newsletter. The team is still accepting donations to help with their travel and equipment expenses on their GoFundMe page.