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Monday, March 19 Sports

Fairfield American will face Maine for spot in Little League World Series

BRISTOL — It all comes down to one game … and there is no margin for error.

The Fairfield American team stands just a victory away from achieving the dream of every kid who has ever played Little League — reaching the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. — but winning this game will be the hardest thing this team has ever done.

After winning every one of its first 17 games to reach this point, Fairfield American must win Game No. 18 on its schedule — today at 1 p.m. against South Portland, Maine — to earn the trip to Williamsport. If they lose, the season is over.

“You know what, it definitely makes me nervous,” Fairfield American manager Mike Randazzo said. “But to be fair, we had a bye and whoever we play will have played at least one more game than we did. This is the format; this is the what we’re going to live with.”

Throughout the District 2, Section 1 and state tournaments, Fairfield always had a bit of breathing room, as those tournaments were all double-elimination. The New England Region tournament, however, is not. It uses a double-elimination format (Phase One) to reach what’s called Phase Two, bringing together the winner from the losers bracket and the team left in the winners bracket.

Despite already beating Maine 8-0 earlier in the week, Fairfield American must do it again if it wishes to reach the Little League World Series.

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WHAT: New England Little League Region championship
WHERE: Breen Field, A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center, Bristol
WHEN: Today, 1 p.m.
RECORDS: Fairfield American 17-0 (2-0); South Portland 12-2 (4-1)
THE SKINNY: The winner of today’s game will punch its ticket to Williamsport, Pa., and the Little League World Series. Fairfield American will start ace Ethan Righter, who allowed just two hits with nine strikeouts in 65 pitches in an 8-0 win over Maine on Monday. In Wednesday’s 9-4 win over New Hampshire, Righter went 3 for 4 with two runs scored and a RBI. Against Maine, Matt Vivona went 3 for 4 with two home runs and a triple, scoring three times and driving in three runs. In its 17 tournament games, Fairfield has hit 55 home runs (Iannazzo, 13, Vivona 10) and is averaging 11.2 runs a game.

“I do not like, at all, winner-take-all games,” Randazzo said. “Without double-elimination, without playing that first game … but that’s what we have to deal with.”

Getting the ball for Fairfield American today will be Ethan Righter, who on Monday defeated Maine 8-0. Righter threw just 65 pitches in going five innings, allowing only two hits while striking out nine. Only one Maine runner got as far as second base.

“He’s gets the ball; he’s our ace,” Randazzo said. “There’s no secret about that. We’ve got Tyler (Bauer) and Matt (Vivona), so we have three of our top four arms ready to go. They’ve all been battle-tested all summer, so we’re in a good position. We have the people in line to get us through the game.”

Over the course of its 17-game win streak, Fairfield American has won games with its power (55 home runs), its pitching (just 45 earned runs, a 2.90 ERA) and its defensive poise. Over its two New England tournament games, Fairfield has played error-free baseball and has made just five errors in its last five games, going back to the state tournament.

“You’re not getting this far unless you have a strong defense,” Randazzo said.

Another key has been scoring early and maintaining that momentum. Righter, the team’s leadoff hitter, is 5-for-7 in the two New England Regional games (.714) with two runs scored and an RBI.

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“If I get a hit or get on base, I’m hoping that it intimidates the pitcher,” Righter said, “And then the rest of the lineup goes to work to bring me home.”

And while the top of the Fairfield batter order has done plenty of damage — Righter (.527), Michael Iannazzo (.592), Vivona (.464), Bauer (.479) and Troy Ashkinos (.429) have combined to hit 40 home runs and drive in 111 runs — the contributions have come from every player in the lineup.

Among the subs, Andrew Cutler had a two-run triple and Anthony Pollack had a three-run double in the 9-4 win over New Hampshire, while Owen Kalagher had a two-run single in the 8-0 win over Maine — Kalagher also had the game-winning walk-off hit against Newington in the state tournament — and Griffin Dodder, Anthony Falletta and Christian Smith have also found the spotlight in key situations.

“The subs have been contributing all summer … top to bottom, everyone is contributing.” Randazzo said.

One thing Fairfield American will try to do today is work the count. Force the New Hampshire pitcher to throw strikes and push his pitch count higher and higher.

“One of the things that we work on in practice and scrimmages is making sure the pitcher throws pitches,” Randazzo said. “We’re not afraid of two-strike counts. We’re working on getting them to that 85 (maximum pitch-count) number, to the threshold, to make sure that pitcher gets out of the game. Fortunately, everyone has bought into it and so far, so good. We’re one win away.”