BIG LITTLE LIES?

Ken Hoffman handicaps Little League's wild World Series

Photo by LittleLeague.org

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This has been the best Little League World Series ever — with championship weekend still to go.

The coach of the New Hampshire All-Star team accused the Rhode Island team of stealing signs, a definite no-no, totally against the honor code of Little League. Thou shall not steal signs or bases. There's no leading off bases in Little League.

Online gambling sites are taking wagers on the Little League World Series this year. Bovada, one of the most popular sports books on the web, has the international children a -150 favorite over the U.S. tykes. The Japanese and South Korean teams are the bettors' picks to win the title.

Bet on these kids

Why not bet on Little League? I've bet on dogs, horses, jai alai players, celebrity boxers, the Academy Awards, and whether a tiny little ball will land in a red or black slot.

A player on the New Jersey team threw a hissy fit on TV after his coach pulled him for a pinch runner. You don't see that too often in Little League. I was rooting for the Jersey boys because the team was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and practiced on the same fields in Warinanco Park where I played Little League.

Here's the thing about Little League that you don't hear mentioned on ESPN, maybe because ESPN paid $60 million to air the Little League World Series.

A big drop for Little League

Little League's popularity is in steep decline. Participation is way down across the U.S. In the Southeast Region (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas), once a hotbed of Little League, the number of players has dropped 43 percent from 2007, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The culprit is select baseball, which takes youth baseball to crazy levels of competitiveness, expense, and sometimes heartbreak. This is the sales pitch select managers give to parents of a talented 12 year old, "Do you want your kid playing Little League … or real baseball?"

Little League...or Select?

Little League doesn't allow leads off bases, the bases are only 60 feet apart, there are strict pitch limits, everybody makes the team regardless of ability, and everybody must get in the game.

Select ball pretty much plays by the same rules as college and professional baseball. The highest levels of select ball are super serious and cutthroat. A player could pour his guts into making a team, only to be replaced if the manager finds a better player. That's life, kid.

True story. I once wrote a column about a local, absurdly successful select baseball program with teams in several age groups. These teams travel to tournaments across the U.S. Parents pay about $3,000 for their kids to be in the program. I met a woman who said her family was moving from North Carolina to Houston, so her 13 year-old son could play for one of the teams.

Select’s domination

How dominating are these select teams? I asked the manager, if your team of 12 year olds played the Little League champions, who would win? He laughed at me. "We'd win every time. Give me a number, that's how many runs we'd win by."

As for the Rhode Island team being accused of stealing signs, the coaches and kids allegedly used an elaborate system of hand gestures to relay to the batter what pitch was coming. I never saw sign stealing when I coached in Little League, but here's how I watched coaches work it during summer travel ball.

If the third base coach caught a glimpse of the opposing catcher's signs, he'd let the batter know by innocently saying his name. If a fastball was coming, the coach would shout "Come on, Jimmy!" If a curve was on its way, the coach would yell, "You can do it, Johnson." A changeup was "Let's go, son." First name, fastball. Last name, curve. Son, changeup.

Continue on CultureMap to find out if Little League is still dangerous.

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Houston's winning streak moves to six

Eighth-inning rally powers Astros to series sweep over Rangers

Yuli Gurriel brought in the go-ahead run late in Sunday's game. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Winners in the first three games of this series and their last five games overall, the Astros continued their climb towards the A's for first place in the AL West. They completed the four-game sweep, ending a successful homestand on a positive note before heading on the road.

Final Score: Astros 6, Rangers 2

Astros' Record: 24-17, tied for first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Brooks Raley (2-2)

Losing Pitcher: Joely Rodriguez (1-2)

Astros strike first, McCullers Jr. goes six scoreless

After the Rangers went down 1-2-3 in the top of the first, Houston grabbed an early lead off the bat of Alex Bregman. He provided the third single of the inning, a one-out RBI to put the Astros in front 1-0, a score which would hold steady for a while. Another run didn't come across until the bottom of the fifth when Houston would load the bases with one out when Carlos Correa would get an RBI groundball to double the lead to 2-0.

Lance McCullers Jr. did well with the small lead, backing up his recent eight-inning gem with a quality start against Texas. He allowed a couple of hits each in the third and fourth but would erase the runners with no damage allowed. The Rangers threatened in the top of the sixth with a leadoff double before the runner moved to third on a wild pitch, putting him in a great position with no outs. McCullers Jr. would come away unscathed, finishing the inning and his day by retiring the next three batters. His final line: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 95 P.

Rangers tie it against Scrubb

First out of Houston's bullpen was Andre Scrubb, and he would not fare as well as the Astros starter. A leadoff single turned into a two-run game-tying homer, making it 2-2 before Scrubb would sit down the next three in order. Still tied in the top of the eighth, Brooks Raley had a terrific inning, striking out the three batters he faced.

Houston rallies ahead in the eighth for the four-game sweep

The top of Houston's order mounted a threat in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases with one out to try and regain the lead. Yuli Gurriel would come through with the go-ahead at-bat, getting a sac fly to put the Astros back in front 3-2. A two-out walk loaded the bases again, setting up Chas McCormick to provide two insurance runs on a two-RBI single.

Myles Straw added one more on an RBI single, making it a four-run game at 6-2 heading to the ninth. Enoli Paredes made his long-awaited return from the IL, appearing for the first time since April 8th to try and close things out in the ninth. He tossed a scoreless inning, finishing off the four-game sweep, extending Houston's winning streak to six games, and keeping them in step with Oakland for the AL West lead.

Up Next: After a day off on Monday, the Astros will begin a six-game road trip on Tuesday. They'll kick off a three-game set in Oakland against the A's at 8:40 PM, an exciting matchup to determine who will head into the weekend atop the division. While Cristian Javier (3-1, 3.08 ERA) is the expected starter for Houston, Oakland has not yet determined their rotation for the series.

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