SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Hagen Danner pitched the biggest game of his Little League career before a large, passionate crowd rarely seen at youth baseball games.
The 12-year-old ace from Huntington Beach, Calif., came through with a performance Thursday night that would make even the most seasoned major league pitcher proud.
Danner struck out 12 and hit a home run, and California spoiled the Pennsylvania party at the Little League World Series with a 2-0 victory over the hometown heroes from Clinton County to advance to the U.S. final Saturday and a rematch against Billings, Mont.
Montana beat California 1-0 in seven innings Wednesday night. Pennsylvania was eliminated.
Danner was the biggest reason why with a stellar night on the mound being leaving in the sixth because of Little League's pitch-count rules. The cool Danner got out of a fifth-inning jam with one out and a runner on third with a grounder and flyout.
"Somebody said to me before the game, `You know there is going to be a big crowd there,'" Danner said. "And I said, `What crowd?' I was thinking there wasn't going to crowd there, that there would be no noise. I heard the noise, but I wasn't bothered by it."
Either on the mound, or at the plate, where Danner homered to right-center in the third.
With the Lamade Stadium stands rocking, Pennsylvania later put the tying run at the plate with one out in the sixth after Alex Garbrick reached on an infield single.
But closer Braydon Salzman ended Clinton County's run with a strikeout and a force play at second.
Japan moved on as well, to the international final Saturday against Mexico, with a 9-6 victory over Maracay, Venezuela.
Yoshiki Suzuki blasted two homers to lead the mashers from Hamamatsu City trying to defend the crown won by a squad from Tokyo last year.
The late game had all the intensity again of a major league playoff game, thanks in large part to the vocal backers of the Keystone Little League from Clinton County – just 30 miles from South Williamsport.
An estimated 167,000-plus fans attended Pennsylvania's five World Series games, including 31,000 on Thursday night – a huge crowd for a non-championship weekend contest.
"Every person has been very warm and friendly. They have all said good luck, I hope we beat you, but we'll be cheering you on," California manager Jeff Pratto said. "They were 40,000 fans, but not 40,000 enemies."
The first Williamsport-area team to advance to the series since 1969 has captured the attention of central Pennsylvania. Blue "Keystone" T-shirts were being sold at roadside stands around Williamsport, and electronic signboards wished good luck to the "Big Blue Machine."
No such luck Thursday night.
The teams exchanged high-fives and fist-bumps at home plate before Pennsylvania players trotted back to their dugout, still serenaded by chants of "Keystone" by proud friends and family.
"It's hard to explain. The crowd has been absolutely amazing," manager Bill Garbrick said. The players "might not experience anything like that the rest of their lives."
Instead, it's California advancing to the U.S. title game for a rematch with undefeated Montana.
Pennsylvania hitters managed just three singles off Danner, who effectively mixed a heater that hit 77 mph with an off-speed pitch that had batters off-balance.
Pinch-hitter Ryo Takada tacked on an insurance run with an RBI double in the fourth.
Japan 9, Venezuela 6
Seconds after the ball left his bat in the third inning, Suzuki raised his right arm in celebration and admired his opposite-field blast just over the left-field wall.
Then he did it again in the fifth in a game that had the makings of a blowout before Venezuela rallied late.
Venezuela had the tying run at the plate with one out in the sixth after Yonny Hernandez's RBI single, but reliever Gaishi Iguchi struck out the last two hitters to finally allow Japan to celebrate and eliminate Venezuela.
Japan's berth Saturday in the international final is secure thanks in large part to the long ball.
Kazuto Takakura added a three-run homer in the fourth for Japan. It was his first-ever home run for the 12-year-old Takakura, and his teammates toasted him at the plate by raising both his arms in victory as if a prize-fighter following a title-winning bout.
"We are from Japan so we don't have much power. Ask the players," Japan manager Akihiro Suzuki, no relation to Yoshiki, joked with a chuckle. "That's why we reacted like that. We were all very happy for him."
Ken Igeta had an RBI double in the third before Suzuki belted the first of his two homers. Doing his best impression of slugger David Ortiz, the left-handed Suzuki watched in awe at the plate as the ball clear the 225-foot wall.
Hiroyasu Sugiura, 12, was so excited that he bolted out of the dugout and raced toward home, nearly beating the happy Suzuki to the plate.
"Both times, I was just trying to hit the ball to center," Suzuki said.
Not quite, but Japan will gladly take the two shots to left just the same.
After Iguchi's game-ending strikeout, Japan's players briefly exchanged handshakes and pats on the back before lining up on the third-base line to exchange handshakes with Venezuela, a Little League tradition.
Venezuela trailed 8-0 before finally solving Japan pitching in the fifth. Elio Narvaez highlighted a five-run inning with a two-run blast to right with two outs to cut the deficit to three runs.
"Our bats didn't come today. Our rally was too late," manager Gustavo Narvaez said through interpreter Edwardo Caraballo about his nephew "Japan is a very good team, they fouled off a lot of pitches and wore down our pitchers."