SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — You might call them the little Ohtanis.
Talk to the players and coaches at the Little League World Series and in the “favorite MLB player” conversation American League MVP frontrunner Shohei Ohtani gets a lot of love. Maybe not coincidentally, the best player on many teams are pitchers who can hit.
“Usually at this level, your pitchers are your best players,” Washington manager Christian Sweeney said. “They are usually your best hitters. You look at most of the teams and their best pitchers are probably one of their best hitters, if not their best hitters.”
It’s easier to have pitchers hit in Little League – for one thing, they have to. The fielders have always hit in Little League and, as of this year, everyone on the roster gets up to bat.
Once pitcher-sluggers reach their teens, pressure builds on players to go one way or the other – on the mound exclusively, or taking another position in the field and focusing on the plate.
But there have been a couple of instances in which the dual-threat pitcher has become a star at this the tournament. The most notable is Taiwan’s Fan Chen-Jun, who clocks 81 mph when up on the mound and hits the ball out of the park.
For him, there is a lot more pressure while pitching than going up to bat.
“I haven’t pitched in four days,” Fan said. “Sometimes, I might be out of sync.”
On the other hand, Washington’s ace, Trey Kirchoff, said hitting, for him, is a lot more difficult.
“Probably getting up and hitting (is harder), because, when I am on the mound I feel a lot more comfortable than when I’m in the box,” Kirchoff said. “There’s a lot more stuff to think about when I’m in the box. Like where to hit the ball and dealing where their arm slot is. When I’m pitching, I’m just trying to throw strikes.”
In Wednesday’s Texas-Washington game, Texas’ Easton Ondruch pitched the last couple of innings, not allowing a run, and then had the game-winning RBI to advance Texas to Saturday's semifinal. Another pitcher-hitter, making a big impact on the game.
“I like both hitting and pitching,” Easton said. “I kind of like being on the mound better. (But) I feel like that hit really did make a big difference in the game.”
One of the players who listed Ohtani as their favorite player is another pitcher-hitter, and the only girl in the tournament, Stella Weaver from Tennessee.
Stella got the nod against Washington on Monday and had a 1-2-3 first inning with a strikeout pitching, though she got in trouble in the second inning and took the loss. Nonetheless, in her first seven plate appearances, she had singled three times, scored twice and got hit by a pitch.
“She can hit,” Tennessee manager Randy Huth said. “She can pitch. She can play.”
Like the Los Angeles Angels have realized, having a pitcher who can hit is a big plus. The two-way players in South Williamsport dream of that kind of success.
“Yeah, they look up to Ohtani and the other players, but they just focus on their game,” Venezuela manager Jannio Gutierrez said. “Versatility at this age is very, very useful for the teams. Not many players do that at this age.”
But that doesn’t stop the comparisons.
“After regionals, I went 2 for 2 and I pitched a good game,” Trey said. “My brother said, ‘Trey’s the wanna-be Shohei.’’
Spencer Ripchik is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
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Spencer Ripchik, The Associated Press