LLWS notebook/Westport on brink of elimination

In the span of an hour Wednesday evening, Westport went from sealing a spot in the U.S. title game to the brink of elimination at the Little League World Series.

There were a few reasons why it went awry for the previous unbeatens, but let's focus on where it started to unravel: the top of the sixth inning.

Westport led 3-2 with one out and no runners on, and ace Harry Azadian was at the 20-pitch mark. By throwing one more pitch, the right-hander would've been forced by LL rules to rest one day, leaving him unavailable for an appearance in a potential elimination game Thursday.

Westport manager Tim Rogers didn't want to risk keeping Azadian in, having Chula Vista, Calif. tie it up, then be without the ace a day later with the season on the line. But at the same time, keeping Azadian on the hill would've been the surest way to get two more outs.

So, Rogers opted to remove his ace and handed the ball to Max Popken, who last pitched Aug. 7 in New England regional pool play. The move ultimately backfired -- in a big, big way. Popken walked three straight, California tied it to force extras, and three innings later, Westport suffered a crushing 6-3 loss.

Rogers stuck by his decision after the game, saying that he would've left Azadian in only had there been two outs and no men on. He threw one inning, allowing a home run by shortstop Nick Mora.

"Our plan was if there were two outs and nobody on, we would've let him go," Rogers said. "When the last kid hit the home run, you're one run away. We would've really second-guessed ourselves if somebody else got into one and tied it, and we would've blown Harry for tomorrow."

Chula Vista manager Rick Tibbett, who opted to use his ace Grant Holman past the limit for Saturday's U.S. final, figured Westport would've left Azadian in.

"I was a little surprised," Tibbett said. "I figured they'd go for the throat and try to put us into the loser's bracket, instead of wanting to take the chance."

Sure, Azadian could've coughed up the lead and been burned for Thursday. But had he stayed in, Westport likely wouldn't have had to worry about Thursday.

There's certainly an understandable safety issue with pitch-count limitations, but, as was the case Wednesday, they can force managers to make a decision when there's no need to.

A TASTE OF ADVERSITY: After 20 straight wins, including two at the LLWS, Westport is now one loss from heading home. Westport's faced just two elimination games to date -- the semifinals and final at the New England regional.

The U.S. title game is still in reach, only it will be more complicated with Thursday's game against Sammamish, Wash.

Although Wednesday's semifinal was "grueling," as Rogers described it, the manager expects his team to respond to a rare taste of adversity.

"I expect them to really compete and battle back and shake it off ... That doesn't mean we're going to win, but I would expect them to be competitive tomorrow for sure," he said.

When facing elimination, Westport's yet to allow a run, defeating Saco, Maine, 3-0 and Lincoln, R.I., 1-0.

With both Chad Knight and Alex Reiner unavailable on the mound due to pitch-count limits, Azadian will likely be extended to the 85-pitch maximum Thursday against Sammamish. Azadian started in a 9-7 win over Sammamish on Sunday, allowing two runs over 3 1/3 innings.

"That's Harry's game," Rogers said. "I can't see a scenario, unless we get up 20-0, where Harry doesn't get the lion's share of the game."

Rogers said Popken, Charlie Roof and Matthew Brown are options to pitch out of the bullpen.

"We've got plenty of arms," the manager said.

USING WHO'S LEFT: In a 6-5 win over Nashville, Tenn. on Tuesday, Washington used its top two pitchers: Jacob Dahlstrom and Jack Matheson. By tossing 66 and 52 pitches, respectively, to help the Northwest champions avoid elimination, both will be unable to throw against Westport.

Washington coach Matt Fitzgibbons said that his team's generally kept its pitchers available throughout the summer, creating questions about Thursday.

"We've only burned a guy maybe once in the 28 games that we've played," Fitzgibbons said. "We're in uncharted waters right now."

The team's manager, Rob Chandler, joked that they'll throw anyone who's capable.

"I talk to the coaching and I talk to coach Fitzgibbons. But I think you guys have heard it, the `Johnny Wholestaff,'" Chandler said.

BLAST OFF THE BENCH: Matthew Brown provided the offense for Westport in Wednesday's semifinal, slamming a three-run pinch-hit homer in the fourth. It was just Westport's second hit of the night off Chula Vista ace Grant Holman, who lasted 3 2/3 innings.

The blast put Westport up 3-1 at the time.

"He came up big. I thought it was little bit of a hanging curveball," Rogers said. "He's as strong as anyone, so when he gets good solid contact, it's gonna go. That one was huge."

-Doug Bonjour

Dbonjour@scni.com; 203-255-4561 ext 114; twitter.com/DougBonjour