BANGOR – A recent family vacation gave Ian Forrest a brief respite from a summer otherwise filled with baseball.
But upon rejoining his Brewer teammates for practice at Mansfield Stadium on a recent day, a look at the right field fence quickly reminded him of the opportunity that awaits.
Adorning the fence in large capital letters was a simple message: “SENIOR LEAGUE WORLD SERIES,” for which Forrest and his Brewer teammates have qualified as the host team.
“I remember when I came here the first day and saw that sign I thought, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’” said Forrest. “I was glad to be back.”
Brewer will be representing Maine District 3 in the seven-day, 10-team tournament that crowns the Little League baseball world champion for 15- and 16-year-olds for the second time in the 10 years the event has been held in Bangor. Brewer previously qualified in 2007.
Brewer nearly earned a spot in last year’s SLWS before losing an extra-inning decision to Bangor in the District 3 championship game. This year, the team battled back through the 2011 district tournament loser’s bracket after an early loss to Bangor and defeated the defending champions twice to earn a chance to match skills against some of the best in the world beginning Sunday.
“We don’t know how good the other teams are, but we assume they’re going to be good,” said Evan Pelkey, who pitched the first five innings of Brewer’s district title-clinching 4-2 win at Bangor on July 26. “If we play our game, we should be able to do pretty well.”
Brewer’s hopes could be buoyed by the success of last year’s Bangor team, which went on to reach the SLWS championship game before falling to San Nicolas, Aruba, 8-1.
“I think it sets a bar, not for what level we have to play at but for what other people might expect from us,” said left fielder Ben Pushard.
“If anything, it should give them confidence that as the District 3 representative they don’t have
to go through states or regionals, but they can still compete against these teams as long as they
play smart baseball and pitch, play defense and get timely hitting,” added Brewer manager Roger White.
Like last year’s Bangor squad, Brewer is stocked with older players. Eleven of the 14 team members are 16 years old.
“It helps tremendously,” said White, who is being assisted in the Brewer dugout by coaches Phil Pushard and Alan Alexander. “Nine of them were on the team last year, and it’s been documented how close that team came to getting here. All of them have been leaders this year in one way or another, and having that additional year of growth and maturity has really helped out.”
There’s also a camaraderie among the team members that stems from their growth together through the Little League baseball system, beginning in the 9- and 10-year-old ranks.
“This means the world to me,” said Forrest. “This is seven years in the making. As 9- and 10-year-olds we started playing Bangor, and now we’re finally here.
“I remember coming to the games when I was younger thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to play at that level,’ and now it’s actually happening. So here we go, I just want to have a good time with it.”
Forrest will catch a pitching staff that White believes is one of the team’s strengths, in part due to its depth. Kyle Alexander is expected to get the start in Sunday’s noontime opener against Canada, with Jeff Weeks slated to work the following day against Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy. Pelkey and Zach Violette also figure prominently into Brewer’s pitching plans, with all the teams facing four games in five days of pool play and a 95-pitch limit in use.
“That first game we’ll go with Kyle as long as we can,” said White, “then after that I’ve got three other number ones to go to.”
John Hand will play first base for Brewer, with Alexander and Tony Bissell – back from an appendectomy that sidelined him during the district tournament – at second base, Weeks and Pelkey at shortstop and Matt Morrow at third base.
Jeremy Bissell will play center field, flanked by Ben Pushard in left and Spencer Valley or Dan Davis in right.
Catcher-outfielder Dylan Birmingham and first baseman Kurt Massey, who along with Tony Bissell are the lone 15-year-olds on the squad, also will play contributing roles.
After playing Canada on Sunday, the Brewer team will be back in action at 5 p.m. Monday against Italy before taking Tuesday off. The District 3 champions’ pool play schedule continues with 5 p.m. games on Wednesday against the U.S. East and on Thursday against the U.S. Southwest.
The top two teams in both Pool A and Pool B advance to Friday’s semifinals, with the world championship game scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played, and we just want to get out there and play some of those teams from out of state and out of the country,” said Pelkey. “It’s going to be pretty cool.”
And how successful this Brewer squad will be against the tournament-tested teams from other parts of the country and the world likely will come down to baseball fundamentals and mental toughness, according to their manager.
“These kids have played together for quite a while, and it’s been fun to watch their baseball growth,” said White. “You couldn’t tell at 9 and 10 or even 11 and 12 how these kids were going to mature into ballplayers, but here they are.
“Baseball is such a mental game. Most of these kids have physical tools, and if you’re still playing at this level, you can hit and you can throw. But it’s how do you do if you go 0-for-4, how do you come back the next day, or if you make an error in a tight game, are you hoping the next ball is hit to you? We’re hoping that these kids are mentally tough enough that they think, ‘Hit the next ball to me and I’ll handle it and we’ll still get out of the inning.’”