Beyond the Boxscore
Heartbreak in proud Pearland: Little League World Series repeat yanked away, butlegacy lives on
One out away. One out from baseball's little slice of heaven. One out from the Little League World Series.
That's how close Pearland Maroon stood to giving the town a team in the Little League World Series for the second straight year.
But despite a six-RBI dream night from Austin Hurst, five strong innings from pitcher Nick Landrum and the type of all-out, hustle play from the 12 and 13-year-olds that made the greater Houston area fall in love with another Little League team from Pearland last August, the repeat wasn't to be. Down to its last out, Louisiana Lafayette rallied from four runs down to tie a wild, tense Southwest Regional final in Waco and then won it 8-7 in extra innings Thursday night.
Sometimes baseball is cruel. And it all seemingly happens in a flash. Even in a game that's supposed to be the slowest sport of all.
One year after a Pearland Little League team advanced all the way to the U.S. title game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., another Little League team from Pearland appeared poised to punch its own ticket to the biggest, little show in baseball.
In fact, for much of the night, it looked like Pearland would coast into the Little League World Series. Pearland jumped out to a 6-0 advantage and still led 7-3 going into the bottom of the sixth, with Lafayette down to its final chance. But when Landrum — dubbed "Big Game Nick" by the commentators calling the game live on ESPN2 — had to leave the game after reaching Little League's limit of 85 pitches thrown, the Louisiana team found new life.
One out away. It certainly won't stop other kids in Pearland from dreaming about being the Houston area's next winning boys of summer (it's not like the Astros will qualify for that designation anytime soon).
Nick Frudge hit a three-run home run with two outs to forge a 7-7 tie and force extra innings (a regulation Little League game is six innings). Then after Pearland was retired in the top of the seventh, Lafayette quickly scored in the bottom of the seventh to win it, touching off one of those wild, almost-made-for-TV celebrations.
Of course, the cameras largely stayed away from Pearland's heartbroken players.
You couldn't help but root for coach Buddy Ingram's band of battlers as they built that big lead. And you couldn't help but feel for them when it all started to unravel.
Think Major League players face a lot of pressure? The best Little League players know they have one chance, maybe two if they're lucky, to make Williamsport. Then, they're too old. Hunter Pence gets a lifetime of tomorrows in comparison. To get to the final game before the Little League World Series, to get one out away from advancing and then see it end?
It's almost unfathomably cruel.
But the best thing about Little League baseball — the thing that still gives heart to a Little League World Series that's grown from a slice of Americana to a monstrosity that's become a huge ESPN programming platform that turns the games of 12-year-olds into pressure cookers — is that kids are resilient. Whether you have youngsters just starting out in a no-score-kept Tee Ball league or middle schoolers on national TV, this much is true.
So Pearland Maroon still came together in a circle around their coach post heartbreak, still leaned on each other as some of the best teammates anyone will ever have. The cameras have moved on. The love has not.
This Pearland squad still has plenty of reason to be proud. There's Hurst, who had one RBI in the regional coming into the final, coming up with the biggest game of his life. He hit a two-run double in the first and a three-run home run in the third, finishing 3-for-4. The ESPN commentators kept calling him by the wrong name, but who cares when your bat's doing this much talking?
The best Little League players know they have one chance, maybe two if they're lucky, to make Williamsport. Then, they're too old. Hunter Pence gets a lifetime of tomorrows in comparison.
There's Landrum who kept Lafayette's powerful bats in check for five innings in the near 100-degree heat.
There's Baidon Broeder who hit a home run of his own. There's a team full of kids who never stopped believing or playing together, like Hunter Lytle (2-for-4), Richard Mendoza and Jacob Whitehead.
They finished one out away. Which doesn't make it any less of a special summer.
And it certainly won't stop other kids in Pearland from dreaming about being the Houston area's next winning boys of summer (it's not like the Astros will qualify for that designation anytime soon). Pearland came so close to having back-to-back Little League World Series teams. That doesn't happen often or to many cities.
Certainly not one with a population of less than 150,000.
Pearland power? One out away cannot stop that.
Sometimes you don't have to win to keep the dream alive.