SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- With the tying run on third base, Jack Rice closed his eyes tight and swung as hard as he could. He made contact, and the ball flew toward right field.
Rice took off running, but the ball was caught by the right fielder in the yellow jersey.
The game was over. The season was over. The journey in Williamsport was over for the Taney Dragons, who fell to Chicago’s Jackie Robinson League West All-Stars, 6-5 (see Instant Replay).
The team all of Philadelphia rallied around finally saw its dreams of winning the Little League World Series come to an end Thursday night at Lamade Stadium. And just as the city they represented, they were crushed when the game’s final out became official.
“They’re sad,” manager Alex Rice said. “They’re sad that it’s over, but they’ll be fine. This is our last year as all the kids in youth baseball, and I think a lot of them are upset that they won’t be together again next year, that the team’s breaking up -- people might go their separate ways.”
Rice’s voice cracked as he recounted what he told his players at the game’s conclusion. He wanted them to be proud of themselves, he said. He wanted them to feel good about what they were able to accomplish, to remember just how hard they worked to get where they were.
And he wanted them to know how much it all meant to him.
“I’m incredibly proud of them,” Rice said. “And I thanked them for the best summer of my life.”
The Dragons were never truly out of Thursday’s game, despite their rocky start. In a surprise move, left-hander Erik Lipson started on the mound in place of the team’s usual No. 2 pitcher, Jared Sprague-Lott.
Lipson, though, struggled early. He walked the bases loaded and gave up four runs in the first inning alone. He was charged with an error that inning, too.
Though he allowed all six runs of the game, Lipson certainly shouldn’t be blamed for the loss. There was strategy involved in choosing him for the start, Rice explained, and the game wasn’t lost on the mound. It was lost in the field.
“Erik has a variety of pitches,” Rice said. “He’s been very effective for us all summer long. We thought that the Chicago team could hit fastballs, that velocity wasn’t the thing to come at them with. We felt that breaking balls would keep them off balance and so forth.
“Quite frankly, it did work. We fell apart in the field.”
There were at least four Chicago runners that shouldn’t have crossed home plate, Rice said. And that was the difference maker -- despite trailing by as much as four, the Dragons managed to claw their way to within one thanks to runs in the fourth and fifth innings.
That's what set the scene for the game's dramatic final inning.
In the end, Chicago’s speed and tight defensive play was what thwarted the Dragons. Thursday’s game was a battle of the Series’ two media darlings, though, and either team’s playing for the U.S. title would have meant a lot to baseball. Chicago’s team is the first Urban Initiative team to make it to the tournament in 12 years, and the first all-African American team to play in Williamsport in three decades.
“They’re incredibly fun to watch play,” Rice said. “When you see them, their fielding, their athleticism, their enthusiasm, their love of the game, they’re just fun to watch. I see a lot of them in us. A lot of similarities. It’s just the way baseball should be played. The joy that the kids put into it is just terrific. You don’t like to lose, but it was terrific to play them.”
The Dragons and their families will stay in Williamsport through the rest of the weekend. They’ve got a few all-expenses paid days left, after all, and are all eager to see which of the two teams they fell to here -- Las Vegas and Chicago -- will emerge victorious in Saturday’s U.S. Championship.
Rice knows to expect a hero’s welcome when he finally returns to Philadelphia, but even now, he admits he doesn’t yet have a grasp of just how much the city was rooting for his team.
Perspective, he said, is something that will come with time.
“I still can’t get my arms around it,” Rice said. “… What’s developed at home, I love it, I really still don’t have a true sense of it. The mayor called us last night and everything. Ryan Howard comes up today (see story).
“Put it into perspective? Besides the 12 kids and the 12 families and how happy I am for them, I’m thrilled for my city and what a terrific summer it was.”