This article was updated at 11:45 a.m., July 26 to add the results of the MD State tournament semifinal game.
The Montgomery County Lower County (MoCo LoCo) 12U All Star Little League team was geared up to play in the District Two championship baseball game on July 13; a win would send them to the Maryland State Tournament in Easton.
This is when Sana Watanuki, the team’s leadoff hitter, starting shortstop and occasional pitcher, stepped up to the plate.
On the first pitch of the game, Sana, 12, crushed a home run over the center field fence. That run would be the first of many for the team, who went on to beat the Brunswick Railroaders 8-3. Sana closed the game out on the mound with a critical strikeout with bases loaded that secured their spot in the state tournament, which began Saturday.
Sana is from Fukuoka, a city in Southern Japan. She moved to Bethesda in December 2022 during her father’s temporary employment in Washington, D.C., and attends Westland Middle School in Bethesda. Several months following her arrival to the United States, Sana is an essential player for the MoCo LoCo All Stars.
“Just to kind of put it in perspective, she is new to this country, new to this language, new to this culture, playing a game which at this point is still a male-dominated game, and she’s by far kicking butt,” coach Sushil Rane from Potomac said. Sana is the only girl on the MoCo LoCo team.
MoCo LoCo is playing in the MD State Tournament, which continues through Thursday. The team has won their first three games, playing in the championship game on Thursday July 27. A victory would advance them to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament in Bristol, Connecticut in early August.
Sana felt confident in her team’s odds going into the MD State Tournament. “I think we’re gonna win… I’m really excited” she said.
Sana’s family initially reached out to Montgomery County Little League (MCLL) in the winter because they wanted her to continue playing baseball during her time in the United States. She has been playing for four years and can play year-round because of the warm climate in Southern Japan, Sana’s father Yuichi Watanuki said.
Ray Thomas from North Bethesda, one of MoCo LoCo’s coaches and a member of the MCLL board of directors, said the first time he saw a video of Sana, he “could tell right away she was special.”
“She’s a unicorn,” Thomas said, “she really is.”
In the second game of the District Two tournament on July 9, Sana hit for the cycle – a single, double, triple and a home run – in three innings, Thomas said. MoCo LoCo won that game 25-0.
In addition to her hitting, Rane said he has “never seen a single shortstop like her.”
MoCo LoCo’s coaches expressed their excitement and gratitude that Sana joined the team.
As for Sana’s future plans? She just wants to keep playing baseball – whether she makes it to the Little League World Series or eventually represents America or Japan in the sport professionally.
Thomas said her skillset is a testament to the focus on fundamentals over in Japan.
“She is polished… I don’t know what she did over there, but she got incredible training,” Thomas said, adding “their sportsmanship is second to none.”
Her coaches notice her modesty on and off the field. “She’s incredibly humble… she’s by far the ultimate leader on this team,” Rane said.
Yuichi Watanuki moved to Bethesda on an extended work stay with the Japanese Electric Power Company, which owns several nuclear power plants. He now works in Friendship Heights, D.C. to foster international relations between the U.S. and Japan.
Playing for MoCo LoCo has been extremely beneficial for Sana, Yuichi Watanuki said. “It’s so exciting and I didn’t expect her to get this kind of valuable and great experience in the U.S.”
He also said it has made her English better, as she can immerse herself in the language regularly while spending time with her teammates.
The Watanukis are expected to return to Japan at the end of March 2024, meaning this is Sana’s only summer in the U.S. – which is peak Little League season.
But for right now, Sana is enjoying her time on MoCo LoCo. She also likes that her gender doesn’t get in the way of the sport. When asked her favorite thing about baseball, she said “it doesn’t matter if I’m a girl playing… it’s kind of fun.”