BANGOR, Maine — Cole Lankford saw just six pitches during his four at-bats in Saturday’s Senior League World Series championship game.
But those were all he needed to see to lead the West University Little League of Houston, Texas, to the world title.
Lankford went 4-for-4 with a home run, double, two singles, four RBIs and two runs scored as the U.S. Southwest champions raced out to a 7-0 lead and held on for a 9-7 victory over Fremont, Calif., in the nationally televised game at Mansfield Stadium.
“I was struggling a little earlier in the tournament, but I got lucky today,” said Lankford. “It just looked like they were going to throw first-pitch fastballs. My teammates told me that’s what they were doing and once we all got together and established that, everyone just went out and started hitting.”
The top five batters in the Houston lineup went a combined 12-for-18, with Travis Gauntt and Ryan Farney each hitting a double and two singles and John Williamson contributing a double and a single.
“They just have so many good hitters,” said Fremont manager Perry Romero.
Houston also got a solid pitching effort from 15-year-old righthander Kevin Roy, who scattered seven hits over 5ª innings with six strikeouts and one walk before reaching the SLWS’ 95-pitch limit.
“My fastball I could locate from the first inning,” said Roy, who had two saves and was charged with the team’s only SLWS loss earlier in the 10-team Little League championship baseball tournament for 14- through 16-year-olds.
“All through the game I could put it where I wanted and they weren’t catching up to it.”
Houston, which rallied from a five-run deficit in its final game of pool play against Madison, Wis., just to advance to the semifinals, took early control of the championship game en route to becoming the first Texas team to win the SLWS.
Its first five batters in the top of the first all reached base against Fremont righthander Billy Nevin, staking the U.S. Southwest representatives to a 3-0 lead.
Williamson grounded a leadoff double down the right-field line and scored on an opposite-field single to right by Gauntt. Lankford followed with an RBI single to right, then Michael Resnick was hit by a pitch and Farney singled to left to load the bases.
Lankford scored on a fielder’s choice grounder by Matt Luna for the final run of the inning before Nevin escaped further damage by getting Davis Atkins to hit into an inning-ending double play.
“From then on we knew that we weren’t worried about TV and all the hoopla that surrounded the game,” said Houston manager Trey Cornelius. “We were here to win the game. We were here to finish what we came here to do. We came here to win, and we did it.”
Lankford hit a first-pitch fastball over the left-field fence for a leadoff homer in the top of the third to give Houston a 4-0 lead, and his RBI double to left-center capped a three-run rally in the fourth that stretched the margin to seven runs.
“Billy was hitting his spots great, but they jumped on him quick,” said Fremont catcher Casey Jennings. “They just hit better today.”
Fremont finally broke through against Roy in the bottom of the fourth. The U.S. West qualifiers scored six runs thanks to a two-run homer to left by Jennings, consecutive RBI singles by Pierce Romero, Matt Knight and Jack Veronin, a sacrifice fly by Mark Wik and two Houston errors.
“When we pulled to 7-6, my thoughts were that this was anyone’s game,” said Perry Romero, whose team was bidding to become the first SLWS champion from California since 1998. “Getting down seven was hard, but I still thought we could get back in it. These kids have big hearts, and they fought their way back.”
But it was Houston that scored next, adding two insurance runs after two were out in the top of the sixth on a double by Gauntt, an RBI single by Lankford, a walk to Resnick and an RBI single by Farney.
“That [single] was the biggest hit of the game for me, more than the homer,” said Lankford. “That hit got the game going back our way, it gave us back the momentum.”
Fremont mounted one final rally in the bottom of the seventh off Houston reliever Stewart Cartwright.
Wik tripled and scored on a one-out single by Jennings. Jennings got to second on a walk to Nevin but was stranded there as Cartwright retired Bryce Fryan on a fly to center and Justin Dhanda on a popout to second base to set off a Texas-sized celebration.
“I’ve always dreamed about this,” said Gauntt. “They had a really good team, they played a heck of a game, but this is awesome.”