Spark of youth inspires O's in Little League Classic win

August 22nd, 2022

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Sunday night was supposed to be a lesson in baseball for the crowd of mostly Little Leaguers on hand. Watch two teams in the midst of a Wild Card fight duke it out, see how they carry themselves between pitches, after a bad play or a strikeout, in the dugout with one another.

Turns out, it was also a lesson in patience.

rewarded that patience, his eighth-inning three-run double the decisive swing in the Orioles’ 5-3 win over the Red Sox in the fifth annual Little League Classic at Muncy Bank Ballpark at Bowman Field. It was a game with Wild Card implications, one that saw a nimble Orioles lead turn to gridlock a half-inning prior, and one with excitement that built at the Little League complex in the hours prior.

That all came to a head when Mateo’s ball got past the extended glove of Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.

“It was really cool seeing all the kids get excited and really enjoy that moment and cherish it,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “It's something that reminded me of my own childhood.”

It was only fitting that Sunday’s game-winning swing came from Mateo, the Orioles' most electric player who approaches the game with a fearless attitude, blistering speed that turns doubles into triples -- essentially playing each game like a Little Leaguer.

But Mateo’s excitement-filled swing was only a microcosm of the day. There were the off-field excursions, arguably the ones more important: Rougned Odor played rock paper scissors with a Little Leaguer behind the O’s dugout during a pitching change; a horde of fans stormed to the seats adjacent to the first-base dugout to try to get every final-out ball from Ryan Mountcastle; Dillon Tate’s fan for life was interviewed on the ESPN broadcast; and President George W. Bush was given the Home Run Chain to sport.

Sunday was a win, no matter the final result.

“The game, the atmosphere in the game, it brought back memories of being a kid,” said starter Dean Kremer. “Sometimes in this line of work, it becomes work and you forget that it's still a game. Today brought that back for a lot of us.”

Even the big kids had their fun -- case in point, Adley Rutschman and Félix Bautista stopping their celebration at last out to enjoy the fireworks above the batter’s eye.

“Today, it was about the kids, and about trying to give them as good of an experience as we could,” said Rutschman, easily the most popular character on hand for the day’s festivities.

The Orioles, though, also saw Sunday as a chance to more formally welcome themselves to the big stage. It was their first game on a primetime national broadcast in four years -- Sunday Night Baseball against the Yankees in August 2018 -- this contest coming in a far different place than they were then.

Sunday’s victory guaranteed them a season better than 100 losses at the very worst. They see themselves with much higher aspirations, now 2 1/2 games back of the third Wild Card spot.

“We haven’t been on the national stage very often, if at all,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “And to be able to have our guys be seen across the country, the only game that is going, I think it’s a big deal for a lot of our players.”

Really, others have already taken notice.

“In 2018-19, you get to them in the last one-third of the game. Now they have the lead and the game is almost over. It’s a testament to who they are,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “… They’re really good, and this is just the beginning.”

The Orioles have long been steadfast in their internal belief, even when their start to the season maybe didn’t offer as much reason for it. Their experiences in the last several months have only reaffirmed it.

But Sunday accomplished all that even more so. They were surrounded by bright-eyed Little Leaguers, all who went home to rest for another day of competition awe-struck by whom they spent their afternoon with, no matter if Sunday evening made them winners or losers. A lot how the Orioles felt when they were that age.

“It was a cool thing just being able to see the whole setup that they had today, kids just excited to play baseball, be out there in front of a crowd,” Rutschman said. “You can tell a lot of them were nervous to come out and play, as you should be when you're 12 years old.”