WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The Pirates and Cardinals spent most of Sunday afternoon serving as honored guests and humbled fans, taking in all the sights and sounds the Little League World Series has to offer. But while the day was dedicated to Little Leaguers, the big leaguers took center stage Sunday night as the Bucs beat the Cards, 6-3, in the inaugural MLB Little League Classic at historic Bowman Field.
For all the fun they had as fans, watching Little League World Series games and chatting up their younger counterparts in the stands, the Pirates and Cardinals knew they were in Williamsport for a reason: a Major League game in a Minor League ballpark before a crowd of Little League families.
So, yes, they lined up and shook hands at the end of the night, showcasing the spirit of sportsmanship. But the game mattered in the standings just the same as the players' presence mattered to the kids in the seats.
"Once the game starts, it's a game. And it was refreshing every once in a while to look in the stands and see the kids watching the game," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "But actually, my attention was on the field, so once we got back in the method of play, a big league ballgame broke out."
Perhaps fittingly, though, it was a kid who led Pittsburgh's lineup on Sunday night. Rookie first baseman Josh Bell crushed his 21st home run of the season and tied a career high with four RBIs as the Bucs beat the Cards for the second night in a row.
"It was cool, beginning to end," Bell said. "From the moment we stepped off that plane, sharing that van ride back to their stadium complex, hanging out with the kids, taking a lot of pictures, having a lot of fun. Coupled with this game, a complete package."
The 25-year-old Bell's bat was enough to back starter Ivan Nova, who bent but did not break as he allowed three runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings.
Cardinals starter Mike Leake exited after allowing six runs in three innings. His ERA since the start of July (nine starts) rose to 7.24. While Nova opted to skip out on the teams' stop at the LLWS Complex, Leake chose to participate in those activities with his teammates.
"Doing my duty as a player," he explained. "I think kids are important. They're the future of us."
The Pirates remain in fourth place in the National League Central, sitting 6 1/2 games behind the Cubs. The third-place Cardinals fell to 3 1/2 games out of the division lead.
"We have a job to do. We're trying to stay focused," Nova said. "We're still fighting to make [up] some ground in the division. We're trying to beat the guys ahead of us. ... I'm lucky to have the opportunity to pitch on a day like today. You keep focused, maintain your focus through the whole process."
This historic game took place across the street from the birthplace of Little League baseball, in a town that has hosted the Little League World Series since 1947. So it would not have been complete without players from all 16 LLWS teams filling out the crowd of 2,596 at the recently renovated ballpark.
"Once the game starts, you don't really pay as much attention to kind of what's going on," said Cardinals third baseman Jedd Gyorko. "Other than that, I think the field held up pretty well. Everything outside of that felt like a pretty normal game."
The Pirates and Cardinals got to know some of the Little Leaguers earlier in the day during bus rides and ping-pong games, and they all stood together around the infield before the first pitch. When the pregame introductions were over, they tipped their caps to each other, big leaguers and Little Leaguers alike.
The Pirates wasted little time after that. Starling Marte singled, Josh Harrison doubled and Andrew McCutchen brought home Marte with a groundout. Then came Bell's homer, a big league blast that sailed well beyond the right-field wall.
Gyorko put the Cardinals on the board with a two-run homer in the second, cutting Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2, but Bell responded with a two-run single in the third before Adam Frazier tacked on an RBI single.
But Sunday may not be remembered most for the Pirates' and Cardinals' hits and runs, wins and losses. It was a day-long celebration of baseball, from start to finish, from Little League to the Major Leagues.
"It'll be one of the highlights of my career," Hurdle said. "I don't know if there's another sport that can do this the way we were able to do it today for everybody."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Ring it: In his first full season with the Pirates, Bell is developing into a consistent power threat and run producer. The switch-hitting first baseman brought back memories of Little League by threatening nearby cars' windshields with his two-run moonshot to right. With the bases loaded and nobody out in the third, the rookie pulled a ground ball through the right side of the infield, giving Pittsburgh a three-run lead. It was Bell's fourth career four-RBI game. He now ranks second on the Pirates, behind only McCutchen, with 21 homers and 72 RBIs.
"He's a maturing player. I said earlier I thought he was going to be a run producer in the middle of the lineup," Hurdle said. "His overall game has found a good, competitive place at this level. He's become a very definite guy that can do some damage at the plate."
Late-inning leverage: All season, the Pirates have searched for ways to get from their starters to the back end of their bullpen. Different relievers have rotated into that role, and Sunday night saw A.J. Schugel and Dovydas Neverauskas build the bridge from Nova to setup man Juan Nicasio and closer Felipe Rivero.
Schugel entered in the sixth with two outs and a man on first and struck out Grichuk. The rookie Neverauskas -- the first born-and-raised Lithuanian to reach the Majors, and a product of the Lithuania Vilnius Little League -- entered a more precarious spot with two on and one out in the seventh. Paul DeJong's grounder yielded one out at second base, then Neverauskas struck out Dexter Fowler to end the inning.
"For the players that were actually able to go watch the kids play, and then for the kids to come watch us play, to both happen in the same day and the evening, I think it's significant. I was happy to be a part of it. Humbled to be a part of it. And I'm very grateful I got to experience it." -- Hurdle, on the MLB Little League Classic experience
"I was proud of our guys. They came into this very open-minded, very others-minded. They had the opportunity to go and really engage, not pass through, but engage with the kids, connect, and hopefully give back to the game that has been so good to them in a small way. -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Pirates have scored at least six runs in five straight games, their longest such streak since six straight games from June 29-July 4, 2006.
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: After an off-day on Monday, the Cardinals will open up a three-game series against the Padres with a 7:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium on Tuesday. Former LLWS participant Lance Lynn will start for St. Louis against lefty Clayton Richard.
Pirates: The Pirates flew home late Sunday night, resting up for the start of a four-game series against the Dodgers, who own baseball's best record, at PNC Park. After skipping the trip to Williamsport, right-hander Gerrit Cole will start the series opener at 7:05 p.m. ET on Monday night against lefty Alex Wood.