SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — The Little Leaguers from Japan are playing textbook baseball.
Strong pitching, solid defense and powerful bats have carried the team from Tokyo to a berth in the international final at the World Series following a 4-1 victory over Panama on Wednesday.
Kotaro Kiyomiya homered in the first, and starter Ryuji Osada struck out seven.
The left-handed Kiyomiya displayed prodigious power for a 13-year-old slugger. His blast landed nearly halfway up the hill beyond the right-field wall, about 310 feet from the plate.
"As soon as I hit it I knew it was a home run," he said through an interpreter. "That's why I didn't take off quickly."
Panama finally got on the board in the fifth after Edwin Nieto hustled around first to score on a double by Daniel Cruz and an error.
But Osada got the next batter to ground weakly to short to end the threat.
Texas and Tennessee play the nightcap in the U.S. bracket.
On the international side, Japan is a traditional power, having appeared in the World Series finals four out of the previous six years, including a title in 2010.
Now, Tokyo is two wins away from taking home another title to Japan. Noriatsu Osaka retired the side in order in the sixth for the save.
The two teams then lined up for the customary postgame high-fives at the plate before Japan's players sprinted out to center to pay homage to the bust of Howard Lamade just beyond the outfield wall — another Japan tradition at the World Series. The main Little League stadium is named after Lamade.
Japan pounded out eight hits but squandered a couple other scoring opportunities. Despite the first-inning homers, manager Yoichi Kubo thinks his boys aren't swinging the bats well.
"We have not adjusted to this big stage" at the plate, Kobo said. "Our pitching has been very good."
The Panama team from Aguadulce moves into the elimination bracket to play Mexico on Thursday, with the winner of that game facing Japan in the international championship game on Saturday.
It's time for Panama manager Luis Gonzalez to settle his players down.
"We will have a team meeting to get them to relax because we have to ready to play another game," Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
While they struggled at the plate, Panama pitching settled down after the rough first. Kiyomiya's homer to right was nearly caught by a fan watching the game from a beach chair carefully perched on the steep hill; Shun Oshima followed with a solo shot to right two batters later.
Twelve-year-old reliever James Gonzalez got a strikeout to end a bases-loaded jam the next inning before Panama. He allowed a run and two hits in three innings, benefiting from some nifty glove work like 13-year-old shortstop Daniel Cruz's diving stop to his right and Edisson Gonzalez's sweep tag at first to end the bottom of the fourth.
Panama pitchers were often serenaded to chants of "Strike him out" in Spanish by their fans, who were yelling the phrase when Oshima tripled down the left-field line to tack on an insurance run in the bottom of the fifth.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP