In the aftermath of his team’s final pool play game at the Cal Ripken Major/70 World Series, Branson manager Nick Schafer had only one thing on his mind.
A day off.
Branson had played four games in four days to open the baseball players for ages 12 and under, seeing teams from across the nation and around the world compete for the league’s top title.
Add in the pomp and circumstance for this 29-team tournament, and Schafer knew his players needed a little timeout.
“We put this team together about a month-and-a-half ago, and we’ve been going 90 miles an hour ever since,” Schafer said. “They definitely need a break to recharge batteries.
“A day off is going to be really good for this team.”
Signs of fatigue showed in the Branson team in the final pool play game, a 10-2 loss to a Pacific Southwest team from Hanford, California, on Monday evening at Ballparks of America.
Branson managed just three hits – none after the first inning – and committed six errors, leading to only two of Pacific Southwest’s runs being earned.
“Teams all over the world, this is different for any of these boys, to be part of this,” he said. “All of that has been a grind on them, mentally and physically.”
The Pacific Southwest game didn’t come without any highlights for Branson, though, which flexed its muscles in the home half of the first inning, after spotting the California team a 3-0 lead in the top of the first.
Pacific Southwest struck quickly, with a pair of errors leading to a run, followed by a line-drive single to right field by Noah Gonzales and a moon-shot home run by cleanup hitter Christian Mendez.
A two-out rally in the Branson first inning was just as impressive, with a string of three consecutive hits started by Garretson Cook’s single to left field.
That brought up cleanup slugger Braiden LaMontagne, coming up against Pacific Southwest starter Nicholas Johnson. LaMontagne liked what he saw.
“It was just a fastball outside,” LaMontagne said. “I wanted to take it the other way and go with the outside pitch.
What looked to be a lazy fly ball down the left-field line turned out to be much more. By the time the ball landed far over the left-field fence at the Chicago Field, Branson had pulled to with 3-2 and the dugout got a jolt of energy.
LaMontagne said he was as surprised as anyone when he saw the ball leave the park.
“I was just trying to get a base hit, drive something in the gap or on the ground,” he said.
That jolt of energy didn’t last, though, as Johnson and two other pitchers kept Branson without a hit the rest of the way. Of the final 20 hitters to come to the plate for Branson in the final five innings, only four reached base.
Two of them were on hit-batsmen and two were on walks. Branson mounted a threat in the fifth, when Caeden Cloud was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and Graham Satterwhite walked.
After a pair of strikeouts, Wyatt Vincent walked to load the bases. Conner Rogers lined a sharp line drive down the left-field line, but Christian Wittwer made a nice running catch to end the threat.
Pacific Southwest added a third-inning run on an RBI single by Gonzales, then broke the game open in the fourth inning, when it sent 10 hitters to the plate and scored five runs on only two hits.
The big blows in the fourth came when Gilbert Garcia drew a bases-loaded walk, Wittwer followed with a two-run double and Mendez added a run-scoring single.
All five of Pacific Southwest’s runs in the fifth came after two were out, and all were unearned after an inning-opening error.
“We hadn’t made an error all tournament, and I think we made five or seven errors tonight,” Schafer said.
“We only gave up two earned runs. In theory, it should be a 2-2 ballgame, but that’s just baseball, I guess.
“Unfortunately, they came out on top today and put the pressure on us.
That loss left Branson with a final pool play record of 2-2 in the U.S. Pool D group, good for a tie for third in the five-team field.
The much-needed day off paid some dividends as Branson opened bracket play on Wednesday, staying alive with an 8-3 victory over North Dakota.
It kept Branson’s hopes for a high finish alive, and only extended the unmatched experience for the group of young players who came together only weeks ago.
“They’ll have stories to tell their kids and grandkids, on down the line,” Schafer said. “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids, and they have embraced that.
“It’s been an absolute blast to be a part of this and to coach these young kids.”
Schafer predicted the experience will keep these players together throughout future seasons, when they go back to their regular teams and compete against each other, in youth leagues and throughout high school.
“This will be something even more special, getting to play together,” Schafer said. “They are used to playing against each other, but this will be a completely new bond that they have brought together, for sure.”
Up next for Branson was a Thursday afternoon game against Kentucky and a team from Southeast Lexington, in the round of 16.
The winner of that game played in the 12:30 p.m. Friday quarterfinals. The championship round is set for Saturday, 9 a.m. on the Chicago Field and the overall championship at 3 p.m. on the St. Louis Field.
After pool play and the early stages of bracket competition, that is all the Branson team has its focus on.
“Play Saturday, that’s our goal now,” Schafer said. “Just play on Saturday.”