SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA -- With chants of "Me-ji-co" ringing down from the stands at Lamade Stadium, Mexico's Armando Verdugo reared back and delivered a high fastball that breezed by Nobuyuki Kawashima for the pitcher's 10th strikeout of the game. Temporarily keeping the powerful Japan squad at bay, Verdugo pounded his chest in excitement.
With the bases loaded and just one out, however, the next batter -- Koki Jo -- hit a slow bouncer up the middle to plate the game-winning run in a 1-0, seven-inning nail biter. But even as Japan celebrated, it was apparent that Mexico had shown plenty of championship mettle in what may have been the best game of the tournament thus far.
Verdugo had been the star of the game through the sixth inning, carrying a no-hitter through regulation.
"It was the best game of his career," Mexico manager Jorge Joel Armenta said through an interpreter afterward. "He did a great job."
Japan's manager, Masumi Omae, was just as impressed.
"He threw really good -- inside and outside, on the corners, with a combination fastball, sinker and slider," Omae said of Verdugo. "We told batters to move toward the pitcher but they still couldn't figure it out."
The only problem for Mexico? They had just as much trouble figuring out Japan's Kabu Kikuchi.
Kikuchi, who was pitching in his final game as a Little Leaguer, had been nearly as good, giving up just four hits and no walks while striking out 10 through seven innings.
"I knew today was going to be my last day as pitcher in Little League, so I put 100 percent of my energy into every single pitch," Kikuchi said through an interpreter. "[Verdugo] was really great, so I tried not to allow any runs at all."
"I always tell the players not to allow a run so we are not going to lose any game," Omae added.
Sound strategy for Japan, and one that would serve them well in the championship game on Sunday.
Jake Schwartzstein is an editor for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.