SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Their collective pride and joy, the pint-size ballplayers from Warner Robins, were starring in a sunshiney baseball matinee at the Little League World Series on Monday.
Sixty or so of them — parents, grandparents, siblings and neighbors alike — who have followed the boys since their kiddie bats were about as tall as they were, sat basking in their glow, their moment that has spanned two months and landed them two wins shy of a berth in a world-championship showdown.
Monday afternoon in what amounted to a tuneup tilt against the series-winless champs of the Little League Northwest, the now 3-0 Warner Robins American crew kept its most devoted supporters in spectating limbo.
In a game that lasted two hours and 18 minutes, the Southeast champs used every second to get past the team from Mercer Island, Wash., in a 3-2 squeaker.
The triumph vaults Robins into the U.S. semifinals as a top seed. It is the second time in three Little League World Series that the Georgia league’s 11- and 12-year-old all-stars have been one of the nation’s final four Little League teams standing at the Series.
Robins plays the loser of tonight’s West-Southwest matchup Thursday at 8 p.m. in a contest televised on ESPN.
Though it was already known that Warner Robins would advance as a top seed no matter the outcome of Monday’s game, all that hung in the balance was whether the Georgians would do it as an undefeated team.
It would, but it took all 18 outs Monday for the Southeastern squad to notch its 18th win in 18 games this all-star season.
Meanwhile, in the stands, the fathers and mothers and grandmas and grandpas weren’t so much watching the team as they were, and are, a part of it. For them, it is reality TV as real life. When their boys are batting, ESPN cameras are trained on them.
Few are the nationally televised sporting events where the players’ parents all sit together and holler as one. For the rooting relatives, the World Series arena is akin to a birthday party they don’t have to decorate for. They just get to enjoy it — as much as their nerves will let them.
“You just want to see them do well,” said Luther Broughton, whose son Cortez plays first base for the Robins stars. “And everybody here supports everybody. We’ve got a common interest.”
In the early going Monday and on into the slow-moving middle innings with the Peach Staters trailing 2-1 after five, the Houston County cheering section at Lamade Stadium was as subdued as it has been so far.
Still, the encouragements and hang-in-theres were as plentiful as ever from the Georgia partisans as they fought off the heat with homemade fans:
“Come on, do what you did in the cage!”
“Get you one! Smack it!”
“Be patient, OK?”
Not that there weren’t frustrations to be heard.
The Northwesterners from Mercer Island, Wash., had been out-hit 6-2 by Warner Robins through four innings, and yet the Georgia kids still trailed on the scoreboard.
“I do not want another sixth-inning finish. I cannot take that,” one grandmother sighed.
In a crowd of better than 10,000, outfielder Jake Farrell’s grandma, Linda Farrell, looked on from above Georgia’s visitors’ dugout.
“It brings tears to my eyes to know our grandson and these kids have this awesome opportunity,” she said. “They are having the time of their lives, and to be a part of it is an honor.”
As it turned out, her grandson would figure large in Monday’s outcome.
Warner Robins still trailed 2-1 heading into the top of the sixth when center fielder Kyle King led off and reached first after a pitch hit him. The ball to the foot also ended the day for Washington’s ace lefty and his crafty curveball at the 85-pitch limit.
“I moved my front foot, but it caught my back foot,” King, a righty, said. “I just left it there.”
After a strikeout, outfielder Farrell walked. Catcher Jeremiah Stephens then stood in with King at third, thanks to a pair of earlier wild pitches, and Farrell at first.
Stephens, whose family was holding up a placard calling him “Bullfrog,” bunted the first pitch back the screen. Then he took a ball and Farrell swiped second.
Stephens swung and missed the next pitch, which skipped away from the Northwest catcher. King bolted for home.
“I hesitated when I ran because I thought (Stephens) foul-tipped it. ... But I still got the run,” King said later.
Farrell zipped to third on the play and when the next pitch to Stephens whistled to the backstop, Farrell sprinted plateward and slid in with the go-ahead run.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s gonna be a passed ball. I just need to go ahead and get home,’” Farrell said. “It was my first time touching home plate (at the Series) so I felt like I really did something good today.”
Robins hurlers Hunter Phillips and Cortez Broughton, two of the five Georgia pitchers who as a group on the day surrendered just two hits, closed it out in the bottom of the sixth on a pop out and a pair of strikeouts.
Blake Jackson slapped three hits and reached base four times for Robins. Leadoff man Justin Jones tagged two singles as well, but neither he nor Jackson scored.
Stephens singled in a run in the second to score Kal Dempsey and, in the fourth, King and Farrell both rapped singles but were stranded on base.
“What happened today was that word got out that we had already clinched the No. 1 seed,” Robins manager Randy Jones said. “So I had kids coming up saying, ‘Can we use wooden bats?’ ... ‘Can we bat left-handed?’ And so last night we had a little meeting and apparently we didn’t quite get things straightened out.”
Jones called the eked-out win an example of the two ways Robins tends to score victories, a “scratch-and-claw” instead of its typical “shock-and-awe.”
“That was definitely scratch-and-claw there,” he said. “But it is comforting to know that we have the composure it takes to win a ballgame like that — when you don’t have your best.”