BRISTOL, Conn. — Since stampeding their way through the state tournament and romping to victories in their first two games at the New England Regional, the Little League All-Stars from Bedford, N.H., have taken on a new image at the A. Bartlett Giamatti complex: underdogs.
The same team that won its seven state-tournament games by a combined score of 108-22 and its first two regional contests by a combined 30-14 dropped two in a row before rallying behind the two-hit pitching of Grant Lavigne for a 2-0 victory over Wellesley (Mass.) South in Thursday's New England semifinals. That earned the Bedford boys a nationally televised showdown today (ESPN, 6 p.m.) with the tournament's top seed, unbeaten Fairfield (Conn.) American, for a berth in the Little League World Series.
Buoyed by large crowds in its home state, Fairfield American has produced nearly 10 runs per game, hit at a .352 clip and posted a paltry 0.86 ERA.
“We really can't make mistakes because it's really hard to dig out in this kind of tournament,” said Bedford manager Kevin Lavigne, Grant's dad. “We have to limit errors. We can't give teams runs with two outs. It always comes back to haunt you.”
Bedford learned that lesson on Tuesday, when it allowed six unearned runs in a 9-5 loss to Wellesley South in pool play. The Granite Staters'shutout of the Mass. champion two days later was, by its manager's account, the team's cleanest game to date.
“I'm certain (our) players realize the margin for error is very small,” the elder Lavigne said. “You're going to run into good pitchers. The competition level is very high. What they've figured out is there has to be some constants. One is defense. Even when you give teams you don't think of as being as good as you extra outs, those teams will beat you.”
After a close call in a 1-0 tournament opener against Rhode Island, Connecticut pounded Vermont (17-1), Maine (15-2) and Massachusetts (9-2) before nipping Vermont (4-3 in eight innings) in the semifinals. Connecticut and New Hampshire did not meet in the preliminary round.
Bedford seeks to become the fifth New Hampshire team to go to reach the Little League World Series. Previous Granite State champs to make it all the way to Williamsport, Pa., include Dover North (1987), a previous generation of Bedford All-Stars (1993), Goffstown (2000) and Portsmouth (2006).
Neither Bedford nor Fairfield American has its top pitcher available for the final. Grant Lavigne (2-1, 2.65 ERA) threw 74 pitches Thursday in his complete-game two-hitter. Connecticut's Joe Quintal (0-1, 3.00) threw 68 in his complete-game effort in Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Scarborugh, Maine. Little League pitch-count rules state that each has to rest for four calendar days before pitching again.
Lavigne said choosing a starter is “a work-in-progress,” but indicated he probably would go with either Tim Saltzman or Connor Collins.
“They're polar opposites in how they perform,” the manager said. “Tim relies on his stuff. He has three or four pitches and doesn't throw particularly hard but keeps the hitters off-balance. Connor is a fastball pitcher who throws in the mid-60s and high 60s on occasion. We haven't decided which direction to go.”
Connecticut will start Matt Kubel (3-0, 2.16).
Bedford, batting .333 as a team, has been led by cleanup hitter and catcher Connor Zendzian (8-for-16, 5 runs, 6 RBI) and fifth hitter Brennan Hughes (7-for-12, 5 RBI, 4 walks). Second baseman Joey Barrett (.455) and Collins (double, triple, 5 walks) have also been productive.
The coaching staff and players have been thrilled with the way the Bedford community has rallied behind them. Kevin Lavigne was particularly thankful for the efforts of Cory Buxton, the manager of the 2005 Bedford team that lost in the New England semifinals.
“He's driven down every day to pitch batting practice,” Lavigne said. “He's driven back and forth five times. He has remarkable dedication and a love for the game and the boys. That's what Little League is all about.”