SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Zion Spearman lifted his head to the sky. Manager Alex Rice wrapped his arms around his son, Jack. Jared Sprague-Lott retrieved the game's final bat off the Lamade Stadium turf. Taney's run at the Little League World Series was over.
The Center City-based team was eliminated in a 6-5 loss to Chicago's Jackie Robinson West on Thursday night. The first Philadelphia team to reach the Little League World Series was ousted one win from the U.S. championship game.
The team's run to Williamsport - just two years after obtaining its Little League charter - seemed to captivate an entire region. Its star player, 13-year-old Mo'ne Davis, was the youngest person to make the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The manager called his players to the left-field grass after the team shook hands with the victors at home plate. The Dragons each took a knee. This was the end of the best summer of his life, Rice said.
"I told them to be incredibly proud of themselves," Rice said. "You never think you're going to get here. I don't think many teams think they're going to get to Williamsport or win the U.S. championship. Just feel good, incredibly good, about themselves as a team and individually. None of us in a million years guessed that we would be spending two weeks in Williamsport."
Rice's team left the tying run stranded on third base in the final inning. Scott Bandura, one of the team's smartest ballplayers, started the inning with a walk. The next batter, Jahli Hendricks, struck out. Sprague-Lott grounded into a fielder's choice, Bandura out at second.
Down to Taney's final out, Spearman worked a walk. Sprague-Lott ran past second and reached third when he noticed Chicago was not covering the bag. Jack Rice ended the game, flying out to right field.
"Besides the 12 kids and the 12 families and how happy I am for them," the manager said, "I am thrilled for my city. What a terrific summer it was."
Rice opted to start Erik Lipson instead of Sprague-Lott, whom he labeled earlier in the week as the team's No. 2 pitcher. Lipson, a lefty who crafts a hooking curveball, lasted two innings. He gave up six runs, but none were earned because of three errors. Sprague-Lott pitched the final three innings - all scoreless - and struck out three while allowing a pair of hits.
"It was pretty unanimous," Rice said. "Erik has a variety of pitches. He's been pretty effective for us all summer long. We thought the Chicago team could hit fastballs, that velocity wasn't the thing to come at them with."
Spearman, the team's power-hitting outfielder, provided the punch for Taney's offense. He cracked a two-run single up the middle in the fourth inning to cut Chicago's lead to 6-4. In the first, he smacked a double off the center-field wall to score Sprague-Lott from first. The powerful hitter drove the ball with a check swing.
Kai Cummings started the fifth inning with a leadoff home run, his towering drive landing well over the 225-foot center-field fence. It gave Taney life and seemed to turn the game's momentum back to the Dragons. It would be the closest the Center City team would get. An inning later, the Dragons huddled in the outfield.
"I told them I loved them and I'm sorry our summer has come to an end," Rice said.
After Rice's postgame speech, the 12 players and two assistant coaches piled into a white, 16-passenger van in the bowels of Lamade Stadium. A Little League official closed the door, and police officers opened the fenced gate. The van drove forward toward the player's dorms, and the Taney families and fans began to cheer. Philadelphia's first-ever run to the Little League World Series had come to an end. But it will not be forgotten.