A group of wide-eyed kids in baseball hats waited patiently outside Lamade Stadium for a glimpse of the Tennessee Little Leaguers after they emerged from a postgame news conference to head back to the dorms.
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The boys from Goodlettsville — not even teenagers themselves — are turning into stars at the World Series.
Cole Carter had an RBI single after Jake Rucker scored the tying run from second on a throwing error to give Tennessee a 4-3 victory over San Antonio on Wednesday night.
"I just wanted to get the ball in the air deep enough to get the run home from third," said the 12-year-old Carter. "I felt great when it landed in the outfield."
Next stop for unbeaten Tennessee: The US championship game Saturday.
"We’re enjoying the ride. At this point, win or lose, we’re happy," manager Joey Hale said.
Earlier Wednesday, Japan played textbook baseball in a 4-1 victory over Panama to advance to the international finals.
Texas scored twice in the fifth before Tennessee rallied with its late-game heroics.
Reliever Luke Brown closed it out with a double play, and giddy Tennessee players celebrated in front of their dugout with wide smiles while kneeling on the ground as friends and families cheered from the stands.
Texas must now play an elimination game Thursday night against Petaluma, Calif. Tennessee can rest up until Saturday, when it will face the winner of the elimination game.
"We’ll go back to the room now, address some stuff and then it will be over," Texas manager Jack Wideman Jr. said. "We’ll be back at it tomorrow."
Tennessee had squandered several opportunities to build on an early 2-1 lead. Texas reliever Zachary Sanchez loaded the bases in top of the fifth after hitting a batter with two outs, but got a force at third to get of that inning.
San Antonio small ball earned Texas a short-lived 3-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth. Landry Wideman had an RBI single before pinch runner Jack Scarborough scampered home from third on a passed ball.
But Texas couldn’t hold on in top of the sixth. Rucker led off the inning with a walk and moved to second on Jayson Brown’s single before racing home after an errant pickoff throw at first sailed into the outfield.
"We just made some mental mistakes down the stretch," Wideman Jr. said. "I wouldn’t say the wheels came off, it’s just baseball. The roles were reversed, they put the pressure on us."
Tennessee had taken 2-1 lead in the third after 12-year-old sluggers Brown and Brock Myers hit back-to-back homers. Showing big-league slugger form, Myers sidestepped up the line as he watched the ball sail on to the grassy hill beyond the left-field fence.
In the early game, strong pitching, solid defense and powerful bats carried the team from Tokyo to the international finals, also this weekend. Kotaro Kiyomiya homered in the first, and starter Ryuji Osada struck out seven.
The left-handed Kiyomiya displayed prodigious power for a 13-year-old slugger. His blast landed nearly halfway up the hill beyond the right-field wall, about 310 feet from the plate.
"As soon as I hit it I knew it was a home run," he said through an interpreter. "That’s why I didn’t take off quickly."
Panama finally got on the board in the fifth after Edwin Nieto hustled around first to score on a double by Daniel Cruz and an error.
But Osada got the next batter to ground weakly to short to end the threat.
Traditional power Japan is in contention again to make that victory lap around the park. Japan has appeared in the World Series finals four out of the previous six years, including a title in 2010.
Now, Tokyo is two wins away from taking home another title to Japan. Noriatsu Osaka retired the side in order in the sixth for the save.
The two teams then lined up for the customary postgame high-fives at the plate before Japan’s players sprinted out to center to pay homage to the bust of Howard Lamade just beyond the outfield wall — another Japan tradition at the World Series. The main Little League stadium is named after Lamade.
Japan pounded out eight hits but squandered a couple other scoring opportunities. Despite the first-inning homers, manager Yoichi Kubo thinks his boys aren’t swinging the bats well.
"We have not adjusted to this big stage" at the plate, Kobo said. "Our pitching has been very good."
The Panama team from Aguadulce moves into the elimination bracket to play Mexico on Thursday, with the winner of that game facing Japan in the international championship game on Saturday.
It’s time for Panama manager Luis Gonzalez to settle his players down.
"We will have a team meeting to get them to relax because we have to ready to play another game," Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
While they struggled at the plate, Panama pitching settled down after the rough first. Kiyomiya’s homer to right was nearly caught by a fan watching the game from a beach chair carefully perched on the steep hill; Shun Oshima followed with a solo shot to right two batters later.
Twelve-year-old reliever James Gonzalez got a strikeout to end a bases-loaded jam the next inning before Panama. He allowed a run and two hits in three innings, benefiting from some nifty glove work like 13-year-old shortstop Daniel Cruz’s diving stop to his right and Edisson Gonzalez’s sweep tag at first to end the bottom of the fourth.
Panama pitchers were often serenaded to chants of "Strike him out" in Spanish by their fans, who were yelling the phrase when Oshima tripled down the left-field line to tack on an insurance run in the bottom of the fifth.
The late game also featured a Little League first when a ball down the right-field line initially ruled foul was overturned to fair on a replay review. The umpire’s discretion put the runner at first.
This is the first tournament in which replay reviews are allowed for calls down outfield lines.