WEST TAMPA — Can there really be two champions?
The girls from the West Tampa Junior Little League Softball Division think so.
Dominating performances by the pitching tandem of Nikki Lopez and Amanda Weathers carried the team through its undefeated season and on to the World Series for the first time in the local league's history.
What stopped them in the final round in Kirkland, Wash., however, was a team from Puerto Rico.
The match was close until the very end, though Puerto Rico's team edged out the Tampa girls 4-3. That might have been the end of it — if not for Rule 9 in the Little League playbook.
The mandatory play provision says that a player in the field must also get a chance to bat.
Everyone agrees that didn't happen with one of Puerto Rico's players.
Yet the Puerto Rican team went home with a championship trophy. Leaders of the West Tampa team, meanwhile, continue to protest and hope for what they say would be justice.
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The West Tampa team was undefeated all season on the way to its first World Series berth. On Monday, Mayor Pam Iorio will present team members with congratulatory certificates for their achievements.
The team, composed mostly of 13- and 14-year-old girls, traveled to Washington to compete at the Junior League Softball World Series from Aug. 14 through Aug. 21.
Before reaching the finals, they played Latin America's champion, Maunabo, Puerto Rico, only to be defeated 5-0 that game. But that game, part of "pool play," didn't count in the actual tournament.
Three days later the teams would face each other in the championship bout.
Monique Puentes, 14, played left field that day.
It was a close game going into the seventh and final inning, with Puerto Rico leading 3-2. Paola Torres, No. 11 on Puerto Rico's team, was a defensive substitution in the top of the inning when West Tampa tied the score.
That meant Puerto Rico was again at bat.
Torres is a left-handed batter considered a "slapper" — a player who typically plays right-handed, but bats left with a slap-style swing, Monique said. West Tampa, she said, has been good at defending against that hitting approach.
Observant, Monique told her coach: "Watch out because Paola still hasn't batted and the game is almost over."
Puerto Rico scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh, before Torres stepped to the plate. Monique watched as her counterparts celebrated.
"I know it's not the girls' fault but really the coach's," Monique said. "That's a rule we've known since we were little. He has to know the rule."
The Tampa team immediately protested, but tournament officials decided not to take any action and named Puerto Rico the victor.
Now the Little League Florida District 6, which oversees 12 leagues in Hillsborough, has gotten involved. Officials sent a letter of protest reconsideration on Aug. 26 to the Little League International offices in Williamsport, Pa., but were still waiting this week to hear whether something will happen.
"We are at their mercy," said West Tampa league president Maggie Puentes, who is Monique's mother. "There is no rule that they have to answer us back at all."
By not batting Torres, Puerto Rico broke the mandatory play rule. Punishment is suspension of the manager for two games, according to league rules. But that was the last game of the season.
"I felt like they took it away from us. It was a close game the whole time," Monique said.
In a statement, the Tournament Committee said there is no precedent for what happened during that game. Since there is no way to suspend the manager for two games, the committee might take some other action against the coach next season, the statement said.
The District 6 letter suggested crowning both teams champs.
"I don't want to take the title away from them. They still played a good game but it is not fair to our team," Monique said. "I don't think they should strip them of their title. They could give us like a dual championship."
Both teams did get plaques.
The girls from Puerto Rico were crowned World Champions. Puentes and her teammates got one that said runner up.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or email@example.com.