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Jackie Robinson West advances to U.S. Championship

Updated: August 22, 2014 12:59PM

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — After Jackie Robinson West lost to Mountain Ridge on Sunday, manager Darold Butler called it a “blessing in disguise.”

Jackie Robinson West’s emotional center now had a carrot that would motivate his kids through the rest of the tournament: earning a rematch. It worked.

The Morgan Park-based team staved off elimination for the third time this week, beating Taney of Philadelphia 6-5 Thursday, to earn a spot in the U.S. championship game and another shot against Mountain Ridge from Las Vegas.

Since the Little League World Series went to a two-pool format — U.S. and international — this is the first time a team from Illinois has made it to the national championship.

In 1958, 1962 and 1967, teams from Illinois were World Series runners-up under the old format. The ’67 team, Roseland Little League, was from Chicago.

“A lot,” Butler said of how much he used the loss to Mountain Ridge as motivation this week. “Like I said, I really did feel like the game we lost was a blessing.

‘‘It woke us up. The kids, they’ve been more focused than they’ve ever been so far this year, and I think today’s game showed how focused we really were.”

Either Butler is a seer or maybe he just knows his team exceedingly well. Jackie Robinson West always has played its best under pressure.

Butler fell short of making an all-out prediction, but he said his team would see Mountain Ridge again.

The mood around the Jackie Robinson West team changed dramatically after its 13-2 mercy-rule loss against Mountain Ridge.

Onlookers seeking autographs were much less of a priority. When it came time to practice or hit in the batting cage, that was the focus.

Their popularity — albeit growing every day — was the furthest thing from their minds.

All that was on their mind was Mountain Ridge.

‘‘It’s hard to beat a team twice, and these guys here are so competitive, they want that shot,” Butler said. “We are blessed to have a chance to play them again, so I can’t see that game being exactly how it was the first time.”

Facing elimination again, Butler went with a surprising move, going with Marquis Jackson as the starting pitcher. Jackson is the team’s hardest thrower — he was clocked at 74 mph — but has been the closer throughout the tournament.

Jackie Robinson West scored all six of its runs in the first two innings, but that’s all it would need in fighting off a spirited comeback attempt by Taney.

After Jackson hit his 85-pitch limit in the top of the fourth inning, Butler looked to Cam Bufford to finish the game.

Though Bufford struggled, the always-calm Butler stayed with him.

Taney had the potential tying run on third when Bufford got the last out.

“It gives me more confidence that I can do better and achieve more, so I can do better the next game,” Bufford said of Butler staying with him.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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