SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Tyler Kem had a lot of fun helping the Chandler National Little League team win the West Regional tournament last week in California.
What he didn't have was a hit. Not one in all six games.
“It was starting to get a little old," Kem said.
But Chandler's 90-pound third baseman finally got one when Chandler really needed it Saturday, snapping a 1-1 tie with a solo home run to kick off a four-run, fifth-inning rally to lift the Arizona team to a 5-1 win over Wilmington, Del. in its opening game at the 57th Annual Little League World Series.
Second baseman Cory Bernard and starting pitcher Matt Potter also homered for Chandler, while relief pitcher Justin Rosales tossed four innings of shutout ball to get the win.
Chandler is 17-1 overall and has won 13 straight games. The team will try to make it two in a row at 10 a.m. today, Arizona time, against Richmond, Texas, with its top pitcher, Bernard, on the mound. Richmond, the Southwest champions, are also 1-0 in Pool B after beating Eldridge, Iowa, 7-2, on Saturday.
The luck was with Arizona all day. About an hour after the game was completed, the Western Pennsylvania skies opened with a 30-minute hard rain that, ironically, appeared to be moving toward Delaware.
Just a three-hour drive from Williamsport and celebrating its first trip to the World Series, the Wilmington team had an overwhelming crowd advantage and cheered loudly through the game. But when Chandler took control with its big inning, the six-row section of family and friends rooting for Arizona was screaming, waving home-made signs and high-fiving wildly.
“It's kind of better when they have more (fans). Then when you win, it disappoints more of them," said a smiling Potter, who pitched the first two innings before moving to first base due to a sore arm.
Kem had a lot of vocal support among the crowd of 12,500 at Lamade Stadium. Not only is his father, Mark, an assistant coach, his mom, stepfather and two brothers and sisters were in the stands, along with two sets of grandparents —
with the Kollmans driving in from Chicago, and the Kems from Fort Wayne, Ind.
“Tyler was in a pretty long slump, so (Friday) I said to him, ‘Do me a favor and get a hit for grandpa today, will ya?" Bob Kollman said. “Well, he sure made it a big one. We didn't expect that, but boy was it exciting."
Chandler went through a little nervous spell in the first inning, giving Wilmington a run thanks to a dropped fly ball — only its third error in the last seven games — and a wild pitch.
“How can you not be nervous?" said Jim Fowler, father of catcher Tim Fowler, who had an RBI double in the fifth. “You're 12-years-old, you're 3,000 miles from home, you have 12,000 people in the stands and you're on ESPN. If you're not shaking a little, you're not human."
Bernard, who later added a double, tied the score with a solo home run in the second inning and the Arizona team seemed to settle down from there.
“I was happy because I knew our team was back in the race and it was an even game after that," he said. “I was just trying to get a hit. We haven't played a game in a while."
Chandler kept the game even with several strong plays in the field. Mike Benjamin Jr. dug out a throw at first base while cousin Trever made a running catch in center field — leaving the ball sticking out of his glove like a SnoKone. Twin brothers Aaron and Trent Hardenburg each hauled in a long drive on the warning track in the fourth inning, and with two on in the fifth, Aaron stabbed a hard line drive from 5-foot-10 Wilmington leadoff hitter David Mastro to keep the score tied.
That set up Kem's heroics and an explosion of five straight hits — capped by Potter's home run to right, which put the game on ice. But the Chandler team didn't do much celebrating when Rosales struck out Kip Skibicki to end the game.
“We don't want to be too excited because our goal isn't to win just one game, we want to win the whole thing," Tim Fowler said.