Dominant duo drives Westport to Williamsport
On Thursday, Harry Azadian tossed 4 2/3 shutout innings to lift Westport Little League past Saco, Maine 3-0 and onto the New England regional final.
Already with two wins to his name in the tournament, Azadian struck out seven and allowed four hits in a masterful 68-pitch outing. By exceeding 65 pitches, the right-hander was required by Little League rules to rest the next three days, making him ineligible to pitch in Saturday's championship game in Bristol.
Azadian, however, paid no attention to his pitch count. Unlike many other teams, Westport had another ace to turn to two days later.
"I just went out there like always and pitched," he said.
The team's other ace, Chad Knight, was handed the ball against Lincoln, R.I. and tossed the most dominant game of the tournament. Displaying complete command, Knight struck out 14, walked one and allowed only a bunt single as Westport shut down Rhode Island 1-0 to secure its first trip to the Little League World Series.
"Chad was throwing so well, I knew if we put one run up there, we could get it done," said Westport shortstop Ricky Offenberg, who doubled and scored the winning run.
Rhode Island manager Matthew Netto, whose team plated 40 runs in its previous five games, would later say, "He had us baffled."
The New England runner-up wasn't the only opponent to feel that way against Westport's premier pitchers. In a 6-0 run through the New England regional, Azadian and Knight were flat-out dominant, spearheading Westport to an appearance in Williamsport, Pa.
"They've done it all season. When the competition increases, they step up their game and just really dial up their effectiveness, their concentration and mix of pitches," said Westport manager Tim Rogers, whose team arrived in Williamsport Sunday.
After a series-opening parade in downtown Williamsport Wednesday night and formal opening ceremonies Thursday morning, the team gets its first taste of competition Thursday night.
Westport will face Southeast champion Nashville, Tenn. at 7 p.m. at Lamade Stadium in a game that will be televised on ESPN2.
A UNIQUE PUNCH
Westport is the fourth team from Fairfield County in the last six years to reach the LLWS, joining Shelton National in 2008 and Fairfield American in both 2010 and 2012. And while those teams each featured three pitchers along the trek to Williamsport, Westport relied mainly on just two in the regional.
Knight led the staff with 13 innings (five appearances), Azadian pitched 11 2/3 innings and Charlie Roof was a distant third with 4 1/3 innings. Max Popken (3 1/3) and Alex Reiner (2 2/3) also made appearances.
Knight and Azadian together accounted for 70 percent of the innings.
With premier competition and a condensed schedule at the LLWS, however, Rogers knows he'll need the back of the rotation to step up if Westport's going to advance. And he believes his pitchers are fully capable of that.
"I'd love to be able to throw Chad or Harry out there every game, but it's not possible. But it's not possible for anybody else either," the manager said. "Having not seen all these teams, I'd be willing to bet that we could put our 3-4-5 up against anybody's."
In 24-2/3 combined innings, Azadian and Knight accounted for five wins, one save and a 0.73 ERA. Baserunners were a rarity when either pitched, with opponents logging just 12 hits and four walks against them.
The two pitchers were even more dominant as the tournament progressed. After Knight's start in a 9-2 win over South Burlington, Vt. on Aug. 2 (1 1/3 innings, two earned runs), the duo did not allow an earned run for the rest of the regional.
In the single-elimination semifinals and final, Azadian and Knight retired 35 of the 43 batters they faced, including 23 by strikeout.
Knight paired with Popken to throw a perfect game against Saco, Maine on Aug. 4 -- the duo struck out 14 in an 8-0 win -- but was even more dominant in the championship game. Mixing an overpowering fastball with a sharp-breaking curveball, Knight fanned six consecutive Rhode Island batters and seven out of eight at one point.
"I was just trying to be confident in my pitches, trying to keep my cool and get the job done," the right-hander said of his 74-pitch shutout. "I had no idea that was going to be the result."
With pinpoint command, he was too much to handle.
"You can't work his pitch count up if everything he's throwing is strikes. It just doesn't work that way," Netto said. "It was either, swing at three strikes or you're going to look at three strikes and go back to the bench."
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