Mo'ne, Taney Dragons fall short in semifinal
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Not a shred of green showed on the grassy slope beyond the outfield fence.
Like pilgrims searching for purity, they flocked to the Shenandoah Valley, the second straight crowd of more than 30,000.
They came to see the prodigy; the 5-4, 111-pound vision of poise and presence.
In a world lately rocked by executioner terrorists; in a country stretched taut by militant cops and riotous protesters; in a sports culture poisoned by tanking teams and bird-flipping birdbrains, 13-year-old ace Mo'ne Davis had provided a measure of relief.
Last week, she shut out a team from Delaware in the regional final to lead the Taney Dragons from Philadelphia to the Little League World Series.
On Friday afternoon, she shut out a Tennessee team and won, the first of the 18 girls to play in the 75-year history of the LLWS to win a game. She is the first black girl to play here, too.
Local print and television outlets made her a Philly phenomenon, and Mo'ne Madness quickly spread into a national fever.
National talk shows bickered over rights to land her; move over, Ellen, Matt Lauer is the latest to jump on the Dragon Wagon. Sports Illustrated made her the first Little Leaguer to grace its cover. Connecticut women's coach and Norristown native Geno Auriemma, aware of her preference for basketball, gave Mo'ne a pep talk over the phone Monday.
She handled it all with equal aplomb.
Overnight, she became a beacon: for little girls; for youth sports; for urban hope; for race relations.
Last night, she lost.
That is, Taney lost, 8-1. Mo'ne was the losing pitcher, and will not be available to pitch tonight at 7:30 in the losers' bracket elimination game against Chicago.
Her nerve was unaffected, insisted her coach, Alex Rice:
"She's entitled to an off-night," Rice said. "I don't think any of the distractions impacted."
Davis, like most players on the losing teams, was not made available.
She will be in evidence tonight, most likely playing third base.
The winner tonight faces Vegas in the U.S. final Saturday, and she threw only 55 pitches, so she will be available to pitch Saturday.
She lost last night because she made mistakes, because the Las Vegas hitters were much better in her 2 1/3 innings. She gave up three runs on six hits, one of them a home run, and a walk.
On Tuesday she said she needed her "A" game to beat Vegas.
"There was no question she didn't have her 'A' game tonight," Rice said.
She struck out six, but she needed 55 pitches to record seven outs. She needed 70 pitches Friday to record all 18 outs against Tennessee, but that's because Tennessee was nowhere near as good as Vegas, baby.
Vegas was 16-0 entering last night's game and averaging more than 10 runs a game.
It should be noted that Mo'ne, who throws 70 mph with very good command, isn't the best pitcher in the tournament, just the best on her team.
Also, Taney isn't the most talented team, just the best in the Mid-Atlantic.
Then again, Japan might be the best team, and Japan lost to Korea in the other battle of unbeatens yesterday. The best team doesn't always win.
Taney might, however, be the smartest team.
Certainly, the Dragons' plan against the West's hitting machine last night was sound. Pound the first four hitters with inside heat to handcuff their long swings. Vary her delivery times and motion; pitch quickly, or pause, or use a slide step.
The plan was sound.
But, in baseball, all it takes is one or two missed pitches.
Mo'ne left two pitches in the middle of the plate in the first two innings. The first led to an RBI triple; the second, to a two-run home run by Vegas' No. 8 hitter.
Just like that, Taney trailed, 3-0, after two innings. Mo'ne had thrown 43 pitches. She left the mound for first base with one out in the third, then moved to rightfield later in the game. She walked in the fourth, but she grounded out and struck out in her other two plate appearances.
Now, some of buzz will abate, but don't think the support will wane.
Before last night's game, two big-time little powerhouses, Allen Iverson and Jimmy Rollins, tweeted their best wishes to Mo'ne and Co. They joined a slew of pro-Taney tweeters: NBA MVP Kevin Durant, first lady Michelle Obama, shirtless rapper Lil Wayne, for whatever that's worth.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg wore Taney gear in his postgame news conference yesterday.
Newly minted Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, eager to capitalize on his company's tangential connection to the urban-based Chicago and Philadelphia teams, commingled with the Dragons before the game. A former Little Leaguer in Rome, N.Y. (none of his predecessors played Little League), Manfred threw out the first pitch.
Then, in a blink, Taney trailed, 3-0. Even so, there were moments when it seemed as if old Lady Destiny was smiling again. She was not.
If fate was favoring Taney, then Jack Rice's two-out drive to rightfield in the first inning would have scored two runs. Instead, Alex Barker dived at the warning track and made a highlight-reel backhanded catch.
If destiny was on Taney's side, then Mo'ne would have singled up the middle to start the second. Instead, pitcher Brad Stone deflected it with his glove and it bounced softly to second baseman Drew Laspaluto, whose throw beat Mo'ne to first.
If the baseball gods had been benevolent then, in the fourth, after Taney scored on a wild pitch, they would have pushed backup Eli Simon's bases-loaded line drive a few feet left or right. Instead, it went right to the second baseman, who flipped to first for an inning-ending doubleplay.
None of this should diminish what she has done, or what she represents.
None of it will diminish her fame; at least, not in Williamsport, anyway, where fans chanted "TA-NEY, TA-NEY" . . . after the loss.
She will still be signing autographs when the families eat out with the team.
She still will need her personal golf cart to navigate the adoring patrons at the baseball complex.
She still will need an adult escort to go to the snack stand, as she did Tuesday night during Chicago's win. She had to decline five autograph requests between the checkout line and mercy, but dispensed about 20 high-fives on the way.
There still will be dozens of fans at every Taney practice or hitting session.
And she will be the same sweet, cool Mo'ne, the vanguard of a delightful team that stands for something very good in a world that can be very bad.
That's what the pilgrims flocked here to see.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch