SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - The tarp had finally come off the infield at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on Thursday night, and the Taney Dragons were taking a belated session of fielding practice.
Manager Alex Rice tossed a baseball in the air and swung. He made contact, and the ball sailed into the outfield, over the head of the waiting Taney player, and past the fence. The crowd cheered.
It was a light moment, and one of many. Starting pitcher Erik Lipson danced in front of the dugout. Taney players playfully turned down an order of Chicago deep-dish pizza from a man in a chef's hat; they preferred cheesesteaks.
The Dragons betrayed no fear of playing in an elimination game of the Little League World Series. And if they had jitters, they certainly did not have any reason to feel them about their defense.
The Dragons' sharp fielding had brought them to the cusp of a spot in Saturday's U.S. championship game. That's what made the opening innings of Taney's 6-5 loss to Jackie Robinson West of Chicago all the more surprising.
The Dragons made an uncharacteristic three errors in the first two innings - more than they had in their last four games - leading to six unearned runs. Chicago took advantage of two two-run errors to build a 6-1 lead.
Those runs buried Taney in a hole too steep to climb from.
"You don't want to blame it, but we fell apart in the field. There were four runs that shouldn't have gotten across," Rice said. "We should have gone into the third inning all evened up."
Both of Taney's two-run errors were a matter of inches. A throw to first went just wide of a stretching Mo'ne Davis. Another throw, intended to pick off a runner at third, went just over the glove.
They were aggressive plays, the kind that endeared the plucky team to so many. But Chicago, a team built on speed and aggression of its own, was the right kind of opponent to take advantage.
"They will make you pay for your mistakes, and we made two bad mistakes," Rice said.
Even on a night when Taney played less than its best game defensively, the moxie that captured the city was evident.
Lipson turned a slick double play from the mound in the first inning, throwing a runner out at home, to help limit Chicago's rally. Jack Rice, who began the game at third base and moved to short, nicely judged a couple of in-between hops and made sharp throws to beat runners.
Those are the kind of moments for which the Dragons will be remembered.
"I'm thrilled for my city," Rice said. "And what a terrific summer it was."