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At the Little League Classic, Nats keep things loose and keep it going

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Joey Meneses and his Washington Nationals teammates had just finished batting practice, which typically means it’s time to hit the clubhouse and prepare for the game. Instead, Meneses made his way into the stands along the first base line. He was there to see his new friends — Little Leaguers from his native Mexico.

A few hours earlier, the 31-year-old from Culiacán had found his way into the young players’ dugout and surprised them with new gear before their Little League World Series game against a squad from Canada. He ended up sitting nearby until he had to leave to prepare for the Nationals’ matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies. In the clubhouse across town at Bowman Field, he had a Team Mexico hat in his locker as a keepsake.

“Something really cool — I never expected that,” Meneses said. “They know you, and they want to be a big leaguer. It’s something really special, and it makes me feel so good.”

With that cap awaiting his return, Meneses collected three hits Sunday night in the Little League Classic to help the Nationals post a 4-3 victory and a series win after the teams split two games back in Washington. The Phillies rallied for three runs in the ninth inning, but closer Kyle Finnegan struck out J.T. Realmuto to end it.

The game’s finish was far from the day’s most important moment: Both teams represented what the players’ dreams had become. Before the game, they stood on the base lines and got a look at whom they once were — Little Leaguers with love for the game. In the stands, those same kids stared back at them — imagining what they one day could become.

“Just seeing all the kids go out on the field, that was truly amazing,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Watching those kids and hear them cheering the whole game — they all had their little chants, which was pretty cool. I think our guys started chanting, too, back at them, which was pretty interesting as well. But the whole experience was absolutely phenomenal.”

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Much has changed for the major leaguers, but they got to be kids again for one afternoon. After touching down at the airport, they arrived at the ballpark not via police escort but via bullpen cart. At Lamade Stadium, where the Little Leaguers were competing, they slid down a muddy hill on collapsed cardboard boxes with hundreds of kids.

They sandwiched themselves between Little Leaguers from Needville, Tex., and Tokyo to take in the youngsters’ games. So used to being watched, the Phillies and Nationals became the spectators for one afternoon.

“That was pretty neat,” Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin said. “To think what those kids are going through now is pretty special. … I’m sure they were pretty nervous — a bunch of fans out there. Pretty special for us, too, to be able to see that.”

The big leaguers still got the rock-star treatment, though. Some of the kids on that hill were wearing their jerseys, and they swarmed in hopes of getting the MLB players to sign a baseball, a card or anything else they could get their hands on.

When the big league game started Sunday night, the young players fixed their eyes on their idols. Behind the dugout, the team from Venezuela chanted and clapped for fellow Venezuelans Keibert Ruiz and Ildemaro Vargas before each of their at-bats for the Nationals (57-68), hoping that would will them to hits. Mexico’s coaches and players pulled out their phones, striving to capture Meneses in a big moment.

Meneses hit a single in the first inning, Washington’s third in a row against the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler. Ruiz followed with a two-run double for a 2-0 lead. Dominic Smith kept the line moving by ripping a two-run single to make it 4-0.

“I got really excited, and I swung at the first pitch, and I tried to do too much,” Ruiz said with a laugh. “I played a lot of Little League, and that’s how we play in Venezuela with the fans cheering.”

Just minutes before, Nationals righty Trevor Williams — participating in his third Little League Classic — had walked two in a 29-pitch first. Philadelphia (67-57) didn’t score, but it appeared it could be another long night for Williams, who hadn’t made it out of the fifth inning of his previous three outings, allowing 16 runs in those games.

But after the rocky start, Williams settled in. He allowed just three base runners over his final five innings, even as the Williamsport fans kept cheering for the Phillies during a Nationals “home game.”

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In the sixth, the chants intensified — the sort typically heard on a field featuring chain-link fences, aluminum bats and grass that hasn’t been cut in a few weeks. The team from Panama broke out with “Let’s go, Harper!” cheers from behind the Phillies’ dugout, giving Bryce Harper a boost.

Maybe the kids had some magic in them — but on this night, it wasn’t enough. Not long after Harper grounded out, Williams finished his outing by getting Bryson Stott to fly out. Jordan Weems and Hunter Harvey tossed a scoreless inning apiece before Mason Thompson (who gave up two hits) and closer Kyle Finnegan (who surrendered a two-run homer to the Phillies’ Jake Cave) scuffled in the ninth. But the Nationals, who entered with a 20-14 record since the all-star break, built on that with another narrow win over the Phillies. The Nationals finished the season 6-7 against the Phillies, with each of their wins coming by one run.

After that first-inning hit, Meneses singled twice more. Each time, he saluted his teammates in the dugout — then looked to the stands behind the first base line for Mexico’s team. He broke out into a dance that the young players mimicked. On a carefree day, the Nationals kept playing like it.

“Everybody is doing his part — the pitching, defense, hitting,” Ruiz said. “So we got to keep it going and keep having fun. Keep having fun and keep helping each other. And we got to believe. We got to believe we got a really good team and we can play with anybody.”

Note: After the game, infielder Jeter Downs was optioned to Class AAA Rochester, allowing third baseman Carter Kieboom to remain on the major league roster. Kieboom, promoted from the Red Wings as the 27th man Sunday, did not appear in the victory.



POST AUTHOR: Andrew Golden

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