PALMETTO -- By the time the top of the first inning was over, Lakewood Ranch had a six-run lead and an incredible first impression Monday at Blackstone Park.
By the time the fourth inning was over, the scoreboard had been reset to zeroes. It's part of a district policy that takes effect when a team goes up by 20 runs.
At the end of the inning, the mercy rule kicked in, and Ranch claimed a 22-0 win against Buffalo Creek in the first Majors division game at the Florida District 26 Little League All-Star Tournament. With only two teams in the field, the double-elimination format becomes a best-of-three series, and Lakewood Ranch is now one win away from winning the district.
Game 2 is 7 p.m. Wednesday, and a rubber match would take place Thursday, if necessary.
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"We've got a lot of pitching, good defense," Ranch manager John Schroeder said. "First game in the books, take the pressure off the guys. Now they can be a little more relaxed on Wednesday."
The first batter of the game set the tone for Lakewood Ranch. Chase Yniguez belted one of Ranch's six home runs and by the end of the frame Lakewood Ranch led 6-0.
With grandfather Dick Vitale watching, Jake Krug pitched two scoreless innings for Ranch before Schroeder handed the ball to the bullpen to finish off the game with plenty of run support,
including two home runs by P.J. Fincher.
Seven players on this year's Lakewood Ranch team were part of the group that made last year's state final before coming up a few wins short of the Little League World Series. With a strong core intact, Schroeder has high hopes for his team. Monday was the perfect way to start.
"We just wanted to jump on them, and we did," Schroeder said. "We were anticipating getting started in our first game. These kids have been waiting around for a long time."
The only game to go the distance Monday was still an eight-run victory. Manatee American used a balance offense in the winner's bracket to beat Buffalo Creek 17-9 and clinch a spot in the final two of the 9/10 division.
Landon Gierhart collected three hits, Tripp Helgeson bashed a two-run home run, and Blake Miller and Graden Miller each smacked a pair of doubles to send Manatee into Thursday's championship series. Manatee American will only have to win once while its opponent, either Buffalo Creek or Lakewood Ranch, will have to win both Thursday and Friday to claim the championship.
Buffalo Creek's loss sends it into the loser's bracket, where it will play Ranch in an elimination game Tuesday with a championship spot on the line.
"The score didn't indicate how close the game was," Manatee manager Jeff Helgeson said. "It was just our night tonight, to be honest with you. You never know, but it was a good game."
Lakewood Ranch punched its ticket for Tuesday's game by winning an elimination game Monday simply to stay alive. Starting pitcher Will Bellmore held Manatee National to three runs in four innings, and Ranch pulled away to win 14-4 in five innings.
"We hit the ball pretty well; we made some great plays in the infield," Lakewood Ranch manager Jason Muller said, praising middle infielders Jack Muller and Max Murphy. "Every game we're steadily progressing and improving."