North State Little League had never sent a team to the World Series until this month. So when the boys from Greenville, N.C., showed for the tournament last week, few people expected them to compete for the title.
They do now — although it's taken a historic performance to turn those doubters into believers.
Greenville became the first U.S. team in World Series history to pitch consecutive no-hitters Sunday when it blitzed Rancho Santa Margarita, 16-0, in a game that was halted after five innings by Little League's "mercy rule."
With the loss, Rancho drops into the loser's bracket where it will play the team from Jackson, N.J. in an elimination game Monday (ESPN, noon PDT). Greenville moves on to Wednesday's U.S. semifinals against the team from Lufkin, Texas.
"They're unbelievable," Rancho coach C.J. Ankrum said after losing for the first time in 18 games this summer. "They swing the bats, one through nine. Even their pinch-hitters. You've got to tip your cap to that team."
Twelve of the 13 Greenville players contributed to the team's 18-hit attack, with two of those hits landing on the other side of the wall. But if Greenville can hit — and the team is batting .464 in the tournament — it can pitch even better.
In its World Series opener Friday, three pitchers combined on a perfect game against Sioux Falls, S.D. Rancho did only slightly better against Chase Anderson and Matthew Matthijs, with Bobby Gray drawing a fourth-inning walk on a full-count pitch and Nick Haddad walking an inning later.
The nearest Rancho came to a hit was Matt Haddad's slow roller to the left side of the infield with one out in the third. The play was close enough to warrant a review, but the video replay showed Haddad was out.
The last team to throw back-to-back no-hitters in World Series play was Japan in 2002.
"Knock on wood. I can't believe it," said Anderson, who hasn't allowed a baserunner in six World Series innings.
"I still can't believe I'm actually here," added the hard-throwing Matthijs, who has struck out five in 4 2/3 hitless innings. "It hasn't hit me yet."
That's become a common refrain among the Greenville players and coaches, who have adopted "surreal" as their favorite word to describe their World Series experience. That "gee-whiz" attitude has also allowed coach Brian Fields to keep a straight face while continuing to refer to his team as an underdog.
"If we had our way, we'd definitely want to be the underdog," he said. "And we're going to keep thinking that."
But Fields conceded his players have grown over the long summer and are now peaking at the right time.
"They're getting more and more confident," he said. "It's amazing, on this type of stage, that doesn't seem to bother them. The composure's there. These guys have a lot of confidence."
They played that way Sunday, when homers by JoeJoe Byrne and Carson Hardee — the second with the bases loaded — giving Greenville a 6-0 lead after two innings.
"Right now it's just crazy that we're in it," Hardee, who scored three runs and drove in five, said of the World Series. "You have to win so many just to get [here]. And now we're here. Not a lot of people get to do this. So I understand that, how lucky this team is to be here."
Lucky and good, with North Carolina delivering the knockout blow in the fifth, scoring nine times on eight hits, including a pair of doubles.
The two homers matched the number the team hit in the four-game Southeast Regional while the five extra-base hits Sunday were one short of its total from that tournament.
"You couldn't write it any better than that," Fields said. "We had everything working today. When these guys start hitting, we can be a dangerous team."
Ankrum, meanwhile, conceded his players were beaten but unbowed.
"We got punched in the mouth," he said. "And I'd rather get knocked out than TKO'd. We'll go through to the losers bracket and do the best that we can. But I have nothing negative to say about our kids.
"They tried. They put their heart and soul into it. [Greenville] is a really, really good team. And I hope we see them again."