The story of the best rivalry in international baseball

August 14th, 2023

You surely remember the instant classic World Baseball Classic championship game in March, when Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout to seal Japan’s win. You might also be aware that Team USA and Japan have faced off in four of the five Classics, with one of those teams going on to win each of those four tournaments.

But what you likely don’t know is that the best rivalry in international baseball goes far beyond the inception of the WBC in 2006. In fact, the rivalry has its deepest history on the Little League fields of Williamsport, Pa.

Though it certainly didn’t come with the televised fanfare that it has today, the inaugural Little League World Series was held in Williamsport in 1947, eight years after the founding of Little League as an organization. The first tournament strictly consisted of teams from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but word of the event quickly grew both domestically and internationally, to the point where international teams made up a significant portion of the field by the 1960s.

Since 1976, the tournament has been set up with separate U.S. and International brackets, therefore ensuring a championship game featuring an American team and an international team. And while Chinese Taipei was dominant for much of the mid-late 20th century, over the past 25 years, there have been two clear titans whose names you can probably guess: USA and Japan.

Just how far ahead of the field have these two been? Since 1998, here’s the leaderboard of LLWS championships by country:

USA - 13
Japan - 8
Venezuela - 1
South Korea - 1
Curacao - 1

As those rankings suggest, it comes down to USA-Japan for all the marbles more often than not. In the 24 tournaments held over that time span (no tournament in 2020), there have been 13 USA-Japan championship games, with Japan going 8-5 in such matchups. If we include all of LLWS history, Japan jumps to 11-5 against USA in title games, as Japan’s 11 total championships rank third all-time behind USA and Chinese Taipei.

And these championship games are high in quality in addition to their quantity. Six of the 16 all-time USA-Japan title games have been decided by one run, with five of those six coming in the 21st century. Future MLB players, including but not limited to , and , have been part of LLWS championship games against Japanese squads.

Ahead of this year’s LLWS, which will begin on Aug. 16, we rank the top five USA-Japan showdowns in LLWS history.

1. 2007: American Little League (Columbus, Ga.) def. Kitasuna LL (Tokyo), 3-2 (eight innings)

No matter the age group in question, it’s hard to top the drama of an extra-innings walk-off home run. And that’s exactly what Dalton Carriker provided in a 2-2 ballgame in the bottom of the eighth inning, bringing a championship to his Georgia squad (Little League games typically last six innings). 

Georgia went down 2-0 in the second inning, but was able to tie the game in the bottom of that frame thanks to a double from starting pitcher Keaton Allen. From there, both pitching staffs were dominant, specifically including 10 strikeouts in five-plus scoreless relief innings from Georgia’s Kendall Scott, setting the stage for Carriker’s heroics.

“I felt like I was flying, like Peter Pan,” Carriker said about rounding the bases. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Coincidentally, this was the second straight year in which teams from Georgia and Japan faced off in the title game, though those squads both came from different cities than the 2007 teams did. You’ll read more about that one later. Until then …

2. 2011: Ocean View LL (Huntington Beach, Calif.) def. Hamamatsu Minami LL (Hamamatsu City), 2-1

Japan’s status as a Little League powerhouse has been well established in this article already, but California is on a similarly elite tier. With seven LLWS titles, the most recent of which came in this 2011 game, California has three more championships than any other U.S. state, and more than twice as many as any country besides the U.S., Taiwan or Japan. A California team has faced a Japanese team in the title game three times, and this was the best of those three.

Braydon Salzman pitched a complete-game three-hitter for California, with Japan’s only run coming on a throwing error in the top of the third. In the bottom half of that frame, current Blue Jays pitcher cranked a game-tying home run to right field.

That eventually set the stage for the scenario every kid dreams of: tie game, bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the last inning. And in that spot, current Royals first baseman Nick Pratto -- whose father, Jeff, was the California manager -- came up clutch with his third hit of the day to bring home the championship.

3. 2001: Kitasuna LL (Tokyo) def. National LL (Apopka, Fla.), 2-1

Kitasuna Little League has brought home four LLWS titles in the 21st century, more than any country besides Japan/USA in that span, and the same amount as the leading U.S. state in that span (Hawaii). The first of those four titles came in 2001, and it came by the skin of their teeth.

In front of a crowd that featured President George W. Bush, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the Florida team jumped to a 1-0 lead on a second-inning single from Jeff LoveJoy. For the majority of a stellar pitchers’ duel that featured complete games from both Japan’s Atsushi Mochizuki and Florida’s Justin LaFavers, it looked like that sole run would be enough to bring home Florida’s first LLWS championship.

But in the bottom of the sixth inning, two Florida errors led to Japan having two runners in scoring position. From there, Nobuhisa Baba lined a walk-off two-run single into left field, Japan’s second consecutive game in which it scored two runs in the bottom half of the last inning to survive (also a 2-1 semifinal win over Curacao).

To this day, no league from Florida has won the LLWS, as such teams are 0-8 in the championship game.

4. 1998: East American LL (Toms River, NJ) def. Kashima LL, 12-9

The rest of this list features games that were largely defined by their pitching and defense, but this game was anything but.

Eventual two-time MLB All-Star and 2015 Home Run Derby champion Todd Frazier led off the game with a home run, setting the tone for a slugfest in which all six innings featured at least one team scoring. Though New Jersey led 3-0 after the top of the first, Japan had a 4-3 lead by the end of the third, and the fireworks were only just beginning.

New Jersey scored five runs in the next two innings to take an 8-4 lead. Japan had a four-run fifth inning which tied the score at 8 entering the final frame. New Jersey responded with its own four-run inning in the top of the sixth to go up 12-8, and from there, it was none other than Frazier himself who pitched the final inning, finishing off New Jersey’s 12-9 triumph.

Frazier, who finished 4-for-4 in the game, later returned to Williamsport when he played in the MLB Little League Classic with the Mets in 2018, simultaneously celebrating the 20-year reunion of his own LLWS title. That Mets-Phillies game featured fellow LLWS alumni and .

5. 2006: Northern LL (Columbus, Ga.) def. Kawaguchi City LL, 2-1

The first Georgia-Japan title showdown didn’t feature the walk-off heroics that were seen in 2007. But when a game includes a future MLB player, a complete-game gem by the winning pitcher, and an eventual one-run decision, it’s hard to complain too much.

The game was scoreless until the top of the third. , who has played for the Tigers and Orioles since 2022, singled, and he was then driven in by a two-run shot from Cody Walker.

Japan was able to cut the lead in half in the bottom of the third inning on a single from starting pitcher Go Matsumoto, but it was the Kyle Carter show from there. The ace finished a complete game with 11 strikeouts to carry Georgia to victory, becoming the first, and still only, pitcher to win four games in a single LLWS.