SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Finally, a team gave Red Land the challenge it had long avoided.
From the outset, it looked to be another walk-in-the-park, blowout victory for the team representing the Mid-Atlantic Region at the Little League World Series. Red Land led 5-0 before even making an out in the bottom of the first and had the majority of the 33,672 fans dressed in red rocking.
But, a four-run top of the fourth by South Carolina, followed by four, two-out runs in the top of the sixth, shockingly saw Red Land trailing 8-6 with only three outs to play and in danger of losing for the first time all summer.
Then, a leadoff home run by Kaden Peifer got Red Land to within one, and after a walk to Adam Cramer and a double by Braden Kolmansberger, star Cole Wagner was due up. The decision to intentionally walk Wagner was an easy one for South Carolina, loading the bases with nobody out. That brought up Jaden Henline, who let the lead get away in the sixth on the mound and was on the hook for the loss. He quickly went from goat to hero. On a 2-0 pitch, Henline roped a double down the left-field line, scoring Cramer and Kolmansberger and giving Red Land an exciting 9-8 victory. Red Land improved to 2-0 in the tournament.
"Roller coaster," Red Land coach Tom Peifer said after the game. "I'm proud of the boys for battling. We haven't had a lot of these games. And when we get in these games, they start to worry that they're not prepared for them and I don't know how you can prepare for them with what we've done previously this summer. But, I was very proud of them today, responding and getting it done."
When Red Land finally got out of the nightmarish top of the sixth, the age of the players started to show in their emotions. A few members of the team were crying, with the team's first loss of the summer staring it square in the eyes. It was somebody's job to pick the team up, and that fell on Kaden Peifer's shoulders, and he delivered.
"I was just trying to put it in play and make something happen," he said about his leadoff home run. "I wasn't really trying to hit a home run there, but it happened."
It kick-started the team. South Carolina, which is representing the Southeast Region, wouldn't retire a batter in the inning before Henline ended the game with the walk-off hit.
The victory improves Red Land to 18-0 this summer, but the eight runs it allowed were the most in a game this year, having only permitted 13 in the 17 games prior to Sunday.
Quick start: Red Land quickly jumped on South Carolina starter Bradley Lewis in the first, getting the first five guys to reach base before making an out. Lewis exited the game, allowing all five runs, with the big blow coming by Ethan Phillips, who hit a bases-clearing double to make it 3-0. By the time the inning ended, Red Land sent 10 guys to the plate and recorded four hits.
Red Land made it 6-0 in the bottom of the second on a Chayton Krauss' RBI single, but South Carolina refused to go away. Red Land starter Cole Wagner ran into some trouble in the top of the fourth, allowing four runs to bring South Carolina back to within striking distance. The big shot in the inning came off the bat of Alex Edmondson, who launched a three-run homer to make it 6-4.
Wagner bounced back and got through five innings, striking out South Carolina's No. 3 hitter, Terrence Gist, with one on and two out. The final strike came on Wagner's 85th pitch, the maximum for a pitcher, meaning he had to exit the game and needs four days of rest before he can pitch again.
Henline looked to be in control in the top of the sixth, getting the first two South Carolina hitters easily. But, five straight South Carolina batters reached base with two outs, including Pate Myers, who launched the go-ahead bases-clearing triple to put his team ahead for the first time at 7-6. An RBI single by Gage Laymon extended that lead to 8-6. That set up a dramatic finish for Red Land.
"I was thinking about the next inning and what we were going to do," Henline said after coming off the field after the top of the sixth. "Once they switched pitchers and Coach Tom told me that they were going to put Cole on, I was thinking in my mind about what I could do in my next at-bat, whenever I was up in the sixth."
Strong position: The victory puts Red Land in a strong position moving forward. It won't have to play again until Wednesday. Had it lost, Red Land would've had to come back on Monday to play in an elimination game and then navigate the rest of the tournament in the losers' bracket.
"The kids have a couple days off and the pitching gets fresh," Tom Peifer said. "I was really concerned — like my next question was 'Do we pull Jaden?' Obviously he wasn't going to be available tomorrow if we would've lost, but how far are we going to let him go? — So, getting the win, obviously bailed me out big time, not having to worry about that decision and having a couple days off."
Henline wound up earning the win for Red Land, but, aside from the rough fourth inning, Cole Wagner was again dominant on the mound. He pitched five innings, allowing four runs, all earned, on five hits, a walk and struck out 10.
Offensively for Red Land, Kolmansberger, Henline and Krauss each had two hits, while Phillips drove in a team-high three runs. South Carolina navigated its way around the hot-hitting Wagner, walking him in three of his four at-bats and striking him out in his second time to the plate.
Red Land will next face Southwest Regional champ Pearland, Texas, at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @P_Strohecker