Plant City showed it belonged. In fact, it more than just belonged.
It could have gone to Williamsport, Pa.
And that's what made the team's early exit from the Little League Southeast Regional so difficult to accept.
"This one stings a little," acknowledged Plant City manager Tate Whatley, whose team led North Carolina 4-0 on Monday. Had that lead held, Plant City would have advanced to a nationally-televised game Wednesday, just two victories from a trip to the Little League World Series.
But the team from Greenville came back, hitting two homers to take the lead in the fifth inning and prevailing 6-4. Holton Ahlers had the tying solo homer and also held Plant City to one hit while pitching the final 2 1/3 innings.
Over three games in pool play, Plant City went 1-2 but outscored its opponents by a total of 10 runs.
"We allowed the fewest runs of anyone, any of the eight teams there," Whatley said. "We had the most home runs, the best batting average. It hurts because the kids deserved a shot (at Williamsport)."
What caused the statistical anomaly is simple. Plant City had one blowout victory and two very narrow defeats.
The dream of making it to Little League's hallowed ground seemed very realistic after Plant City's opening contest in Warner Robins, Ga., site of the regional. Plant City topped Beehive, Ala. 13-0 Aug. 3. T.J. Gayner threw 4 2/3 innings of two-hit ball with the game still tight, then an 11-run final inning broke it open.
Benji Hidalgo, the team's leadoff hitter, went 4-for-5 with three runs. Christian Laird drove in three, Will Johnson had two hits and both Austin Eldridge and Cody Ginther drove in a pair.
Then came a meeting with the hosts Saturday morning — and Plant City was up 5-0 before Warner Robins rallied for three runs in the third, and three more in the fourth to win 7-6.
In a four-run first inning Hidalgo and Laird started the game with singles and came home on a three-run home by Tate Whatley Jr.
But as rough as that defeat was, Alabama's win over North Carolina later Saturday put Plant City very much in control of its own fate. With all four teams in Plant City's pool sitting at 1-1, it would come down to Monday's winners advancing to play in the Region semifinals.
And Plant City scored twice in both the first and third innings for the 4-0 edge against Greenville, N.C. Hidalgo and Whatley Jr. had singles before Eldridge connected for a clutch two-run double. In the third, Whatley Jr. whacked a two-run homer and Plant City looked to be in good shape.
However North Carolina got back in it with three runs in the bottom half of the third.
Hidalgo went the distance on the mound allowing only four hits while striking out six.
"It's not like the pros. They get 162 games. Here, you can't mess up. We had just those two bad innings," Whatley said.
Though the defeats were both stunners, Plant City can look back — though it might take a little time — on what was a memorable summer. And Plant City did get to walk off a winner.
In consolation action Tuesday, Plant City rolled over Shinnston, W.Va., 14-6. Whatley Jr. had a huge day, hitting two home runs while going 4-for-5 with four runs and four runs batted in.
Every batter in the lineup had a hit as Plant City totaled 22. Laird and Ginther had three apiece and Cody Cribbs slugged his first homer at the regional. Eldridge, C.J. Kirkland and Matt Byars all rapped two hits.
And a cool detail: six different Plant City players got to pitch an inning each (Byars, Cribbs, Kirkland, Emilio Rivera, Zack Ford and Will Johnson).
Except for the narrow defeats the coach said the experience in Warner Robins was tremendous.
"Oh it was awesome, it was the best experience, no comparison to anything we've had," he said. "I can only imagine what Williamsport would have been like."