SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pennsylvania — Defense, finesse, power and poise. As usual, Japan has it all, and it is returning to the Little League World Series title game again.
Takuma Gomi led off the top of the sixth inning with a tiebreaking home run, and Tokyo beat Tijuana, Mexico, 3-2 on Saturday (Sunday, Manila time) to win the international title.
It was the 11th win a row in the international bracket for Japan, which hasn't lost a game since 2009. Japan will make its sixth appearance in eight years in the World Series finals and will play Chula Vista, California, which beat Westport, Connecticut, 12-1.
Japan and Mexico have faced off 15 times in World Series history, and Japan improved to 10-5 against its rival when Gomi homered over the wall in right-center field.
"I was happy when I hit it — not because I hit a home run but because it gave our team the lead," Gomi said. "I was just trying to get on base, so I let the ball come in deeper. That's why it went to right field."
Mexico was after a payback of sorts, having dropped a 5-2 decision to Japan on Wednesday. The Tokyo team confounded Tijuana manager Francisco Fimbres, powering to the victory behind home runs by starting pitcher Kazuki Ishida and Seiya Nishin, and hitting three doubles.
"We thought Japan would play small ball, and they changed strategy," Fimbres said. "They were free-swinging it. I think it's important to have a lot of patience. Our pitchers may have to be a lot smarter. Two mistakes cost us two home runs."
Another huge mistake on Saturday cost Mexico again.
With the score tied at 2, Brandon Montes led off the bottom of the fifth with a double down the left-field line. The next batter, Martin Gonzalez, was fooled for strike three but reached base when Japan catcher Ryusei Hirooka's throw pulled the first baseman off the bag. Montes moved to third, and Mexico's vociferous fans chanted, 'Let's go Mexico.'
Keita Saito relieved and struck out Mendoza. Japan then got a huge break.
Saul Favela slammed a high fly to deep center, and Montes took a few steps toward home, stopped, and didn't have time to go back and tag up. He was stranded at third when Brandon Meza struck out as Fimbres boiled.
"I think the nerves got to him," Fimbres said. "It's a play we've practiced all summer. It was the perfect setup for a sacrifice fly. He knew he was supposed to run. He's 13 and he's human. He's going to make mistakes. I'm still proud of him. We have to remember these are still kids."
Moments later, Gomi put his team ahead with a homer off reliever Jorge Romero. He was then mobbed by his teammates.
"I was relieved when the game was over," Japan manager Masumi Omae said. "It was a nerve-racking game with all the pitching decisions and the pressure. We told the kids going in that we would go all out to win. Every pitcher had to be ready to throw
"I really thought he (Montes) was coming home on that fly ball. When he didn't, I felt really fortunate."
Mexico threatened one last time in the sixth but was foiled by Japan's stout defense. Jorge Rodriguez led off with a single and was forced at second on Romero's sacrifice attempt. Luis Manzo then hit a grounder into the hole at shortstop, and Sho Miyao gloved it and got the force at second on a close play. Mexico challenged the call, but it stood. Miguel Artalejo grounded to short to end it.
Mexico trailed 2-0 but tied it in the third against reliever Kensuke Tsuchida. Martin Gonzalez led off with a single, and Ramon Mendoza hit a screaming line drive over the center-field wall. He was congratulated by his teammates after crossing the plate.
Japan starter Nishino had pitched only one inning in the World Series, and starting first baseman Tsuchida was warming up before the game's first pitch.
Japan scored a run in the top of the first on just one hit. Miyao walked, took second on a wild pitch, and scored on a single to right field by Shunpei Takagi.
Mexico starter Manzo settled down after that, striking out four of the next five batters, two looking and two swinging.
Tijuana left fielder Alexander Artalejo was hit hard on the left elbow leading off the second, and Mexico quickly threatened. Rodriguez followed with a sizzling liner to left, and the runners moved up on a passed ball. Nishino then walked Romero to load the bases with nobody out and was relieved by Tsuchida.
Playing the sound fundamental ball it is known for, Japan escaped with its 1-0 lead intact. Manzo hit a dribbler in front of the plate, and Tsuchida flipped the ball to Hirooka for the force at home.
Artalejo then hit a sharp grounder to short, and Miyao got another force at home. Montes, who had four home runs in the World Series, struck out swinging to end the inning.
Japan made it 2-0 in the third. Ishida singled hard up the middle, and Miyao followed with an infield single off Manzo's glove, putting runners at first and second with one out. Ishida was caught trying to take third on a pitch in the dirt that Mexico catcher Favela made a terrific backhand stab on.
Shunpei Takagi singled to right to keep the rally alive, sending Miyao to third. Miyao scored on a passed ball for a 2-0 lead, barely beating the throw as he eluded Favela's tag.