SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The California kids came hoofing in from the West. Big hombres sporting cool-blue jerseys and pants as gray as the overcast Pennsylvania evening, clubs in tow, striding across the long grass toward the batting cages where their foes from down South were warming up.
“There’s our enemy right there, guys,” one of the Georgia dozen said in a tone that boys playing plastic Army men might use.
Two and a half hours before they would settle their cross-continental score on an almost-make-believe national stage at the Little League World Series on Thursday night, the young men from opposite coasts had their prize-fight, weigh-in moment at pregame hitting practice. Neither bunch blinked. Then again, some of the them had played table tennis together back at the dorms 45 minutes earlier.
The tale of their seasons played out as the night wound down and one of them, the West, was the last team standing, 11-10 winners in a U.S. semifinal slugfest that featured a pair of rallies for the ages.
The 11- and 12-year-olds from Warner Robins American thrived in this rarest of youth-baseball air, on worldwide sports TV, in win-or-go-back-to-school showdown. This big-stage bout was no different.
Thursday night, down 5-1, they conjured a nine-run, fourth inning that was part demolition derby, part sandlot dream.
The game’s ending, though, saw the Warner Robins team’s undoing. With the game deadlocked at 10 with no outs in the bottom of the sixth, two hits an error and a bases-loaded pitch that skipped past the catcher allowed the West’s winning run to score.
“They’re just explosive,” Warner Robins manager Randy Jones said when it was done. “What a great team. I think the best I’ve ever seen.”
Someone asked him if the West’s powerhouse status made falling to it any easier to take.
“Does it sting less? I think so, yeah, I do. If you go out and you don’t play very well and you lose to somebody that you’re not supposed, that’s a horrible feeling,” Jones said.
“As I was leaving the dugout, several of the guys stayed behind and I hugged every one of them. ... The thing that was said over and over again was how proud I am of those guys. I think they’ve done Warner Robins proud – and the state of Georgia.”
Of the game, Jones said, “I felt like we were the underdog coming in. I’m not sure our guys did. ... When I look back on it, maybe we weren’t the underdog. Two out of three would be nice.”
The visiting Houston County crew jumped on top in the second inning. Conner Smith slapped a one-out grounder to left center past a diving shortstop. Jake Farrell entered as a pinch-runner for Smith and Harley Hunt whacked a single to center. Farrell raced home on a wild pitch to Kal Dempsey and Robins had a 1-0 edge.
The West squad from out San Diego way in Chula Vista, Calif., roared back in the third on a solo homer to right center by their No. 9 hitter. Then after a single and a walk, left fielder Luke Ramirez, a 6-plus-footer, launched a rainbow jolt over the wall in center that looked to fly higher than the flagpole on the hillside beyond the park. That made it 4-1, California, and after a hit and a run-scoring double, Warner Robins starter Justin Jones gave way to hard-throwing reliever Cortez Broughton.
The swinging-from-their-heels Golden Staters sent 10 to the plate in their five-hit, five-run third, which didn’t end until Broughton fanned two of the three batters he faced, the second coming on a one-ball, two-strike rocket delivered with a powerful grunt.
Randy Jones had, in his pregame pep talk, squatted and, in a voice barely above a whisper, told his boys to brace for an onslaught.
“These guys are gonna hit the baseball. You’re gonna be busy in the field. You should be saying to yourself, ‘I want the ball hit to me.’ Say, “Please let it be hit to me,’” Jones said. “We’ll throw everything at them if we have to. There will be no need to hit the panic button.”
Huddled beside the same practice field where two years ago Warner Robins’ stars had tuned up before their games, Jones continued. Calm. Quiet. Fans strolled by. One lady even stopped and had her picture made while the coach kept talking and the boys paid the lady no attention. They were tuned to their “coach Randy.”
Randy Jones went on.
“When you’re done with this game, you can say to yourself, ‘I gave it everything I had.’ ... There is no doubt in my mind that from top to bottom you are the best team out here. The pressure is on them to live up to your standard.”
But halfway through the game, down to its final eight outs of this elimination game, the burden to respond was all on the Southeast.
After a leadoff walk to Kyle King, with one gone in the fourth, Warner Robins American’s Smith teed off on an 0-2 pitch and cranked it over the fence in right center. California 5, Georgia 3.
Hunt then looped a double to left center and made third on Trey Maddox’s roller to left. Warner Robins leadoff man Justin Jones then rapped his second infield single of the game to plate Hunt and make it a 5-4 game. Then with Maddox and Jones and second and third, Blake Jackson whistled a grounder past third to put the Southeast on top 6-5.
Farrell punched a single to center, pushing Jackson to third and then swiped second on a ball to the inning’s leadoff batter, King, who reached when a 3-2 fastball hit him in the hip. That loaded the bases for Broughton, who was also plunked, driving home Jackson to make it 7-5, Warner Robins.
Smith, who homered earlier in the frame, then checked his swing on an 0-2 pitch that sailed to the backstop. Farrell and King sprinted home to make it 9-5, Georgia, moving Broughton to third, on a play that left California infielders slamming their gloves to the turf.
“Let’s make this the inning that never ends,” Warner Robins parent Randy Dempsey said.
After a pitching change, Smith singled to third to score Broughton for a five-run lead.
The West drew within three, 10-7, on two-run longball in the bottom of the fourth and, in the fifth, busted its fifth homer of the game and tacked on three more to tie it at 10.
“Wow, what a game,” said a spectator from North Carolina near the Georgia cheering section in the crowd of 21,000.
“Boy, if these kids from Georgia lose this game ...” a woman next to him added.
When it was over, and WRALL’s stars had lost for the first time since early last August at a game near Tampa Bay, their coach mentioned how he thought some of them had become men this night.
Though their season is complete, there may still be ball left to play. Even if it is just for fun.
“I got hit up with a question coming out of the dugout,” Jones said of a Little League official who’d approached him. “Would you like to play Japan tomorrow?”
For the boys from the International City, a friendly game of baseball might just be the perfect way to end a summer.