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LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES

Conejo Valley Plays for U.S. Title

August 28, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Conejo Valley and Richmond, Texas, the top pitching and hitting units from the eight American teams that started play at the Little League World Series, will meet today in the U.S. championship game.

No surprise there, especially in Little League. At the highest levels of play between 11- and 12-year-olds, a team with overpowering pitching and power hitting can steamroll opponents, which has been the case with the two finalists.

And the field dimensions at the Little League level can make a young boy feel as if he were Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds.

The pitching rubber is 46 feet from home plate, meaning balls thrown about 70 mph reach the batter as quickly as a fastball hurled from 60 feet 6 inches at more than 90 mph.

Conversely, the outfield fences are only 205 feet from the plate, making any fly ball a threat to leave the park.

Conejo and Richmond, which play in a nationally televised game scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m., have sterling earned-run averages of 1.04 in four tournament games. The Texas team leads all teams with a .440 batting average, nine home runs and 51 runs scored. The Conejo team from Thousand Oaks is second with a .354 average and is tied for second with five home runs.

Last year during this tournament, there were 57 home runs hit in 32 games. This year, in 28 games, there have been 45.

The recent introduction of titanium bats has helped to fuel the home run barrage on the Little League level, but with it has come some unexpected dangers.

By the time a pitcher finishes his throwing motion, he is about 40 feet from the batter with little time to react to a ball hit at him.

"The potential to hit someone is amazing," said Mike Rubideaux, whose son, Nick, played for Redmond, Wash., which was eliminated earlier in the week.

There have been close calls this week.

Danny Leon, one Conejo Valley's top batters, hit a line drive off the foot of pitcher Trevor Kenyon of Davenport, Iowa.

Spokesman Lance Van Auken said a study showed that injuries from batted balls to pitchers ages 5-12 had declined 76% from 1992 to '99. However, that study included softball and was completed before recent technological advancements in bats.

Little League's only stipulations for bats are that they must not be longer than 33 inches or more than 2 1/4 inches in diameter at the barrel.

Conejo Valley's John Lister says he has hit balls at the end of his bat and they've still gone for home runs -- including one in a U.S. semifinal Thursday, his third of the tournament.

"The bats now have a lot of pop in them," he said. "If you hit the ball on the right part of the bat, it's going far, even if it's not on the sweet spot."

Cody Thomson, Conejo Valley's ace, is hoping to avoid those spots today.

Of particular concern is Richmond's Randal Grichuk, who is batting .769 with four home runs. He hit a 300-foot home run in his last game.

And if Conejo gets past Grichuk and his Richmond teammates?

Next up could be Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, which will play Guadalupe, Mexico, today in the international final.

Curacao is led by 5-foot-11, 169-pound Carlos Pineda, who hit a home run with a half-swing in his first at-bat of the tournament.

*

TODAY'S FINALS

International Division

* Willemstad (Curacao) vs. Guadalupe (Mexico), 11 a.m., ESPN

U.S. Division

* Thousand Oaks Conejo Valley East vs. Richmond (Tex.), 4:30 p.m., Channel 7

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