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Eighteen Up, Eighteen Down

A shy 12-year-old as soft-spoken in his native Spanish as he is in English came close to strikeout perfection at the Little League World Series on Saturday.

Danny Almonte threw the series' first perfect game in 44 years and struck out all but two of 18 batters as the Rolando Paulino team from the Bronx, N.Y., defeated Apopka, Fla., 5-0.

Almonte, a left-hander with a 70-mph slider, struck out the first 15 batters and allowed just a handful of foul balls.

Heading into the sixth and final inning, he was three outs away from becoming the first LLWS pitcher to strike out every batter. But Apopka's Ryan Markell and Andrew Cobb bunted in front of the plate and were thrown out at first.

Almonte then struck out Jeff Lovejoy swinging to end the game with 53 strikes on 64 pitches.

Still, Almonte seemed unfazed by his accomplishment, answering only "Bien" when asked how he felt about the perfect game.

The first team from the Bronx to reach the Little League World Series has been embraced by New Yorkers and dubbed the "Baby Bombers," after the New York Yankees, who make their home in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and are known as the Bronx Bombers.

The last perfect game in the series was by Angel Macias of Monterrey, Mexico, in the 1957 championship game against La Mesa Northern (Calif.)

The only other pitcher who did not allow a batter to reach base was Fred Shapiro of Delaware Township (N.J.) in 1956.

"We don't care about no-hitters or perfect games. We just care about getting wins," Bronx manager Alberto Gonzalez said. "We don't care if it's 5-4 or 10-9, we're just going for wins."

That's why Gonzalez didn't take Almonte out after the first inning, when the Bronx got a 5-0 lead. The first five Bronx batters crossed the plate in the opening game for both teams.

Apopka pitcher Stuart Tapley walked the first three batters and hit Hector Rodriguez to drive in the first run. With the bases still loaded, Carlos Garcia sent Tapley's fastball over the left-field wall for a grand slam to make it 5-0.

"I think we were a little nervous when we hit the field," Apopka manager Bobby Brewer said. "Our energy level wasn't there."

But Apopka hit 49 home runs in 21 games in getting to the series, and Gonzelez said he didn't want to take Almonte out against a team with that much offense.

"All the teams here are champions," Gonzalez said. "We have very tough competition."

Tapley recovered to allow just one Bronx hit after the first inning, Rolando Torres' single in the second inning. But Apopka couldn't get any offense going.

"He's the kind of guy, if he gets ahead in the count he's going to be hard to beat," Brewer said of Almonte.

Apopka continued to swing away until the sixth inning, when Markell and Cobb bunted. Brewer said his team didn't want to resort to bunting, but needed something to get going.

"We didn't come here as a bunt ball club, and we're not going out as a bunt ball club," Brewer said. "We swing the bats ad we swing hard."

Translating for Almonte, Gonzalez said they knew Apopka eventually would try to bunt to get on base.

Almonte threw mostly fastballs, but mixed in curve balls and sliders to keep Apopka off balance.

"He was mixing it up," Gonzalez said. "We knew they were a good team hitting the ball."

The outing gave Almonte 32 strikeouts in his last two games. On Tuesday, he fanned 16 to lead his team to a 2-0 victory over State College, Pa., to qualify for the series.

Taller and leaner than his teammates, Almonte practices in a Cincinnati Reds jersey bearing the name and number of his favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr. His sunglasses rest atop the brim of his cap like another hero, fellow Dominican Sammy Sosa.

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