Heading into the bottom of the seventh and last inning, Williamsport clung to its two-run lead. Out to the mound walked Tyler Byers, bad ankle and all. Warrenfeltz had expected to use him for one inning at most. This would be his second. It showed. He hit one batter, gave up a double to another and soon enough it was 5--4, with two outs and a runner on third. Tyler got ahead 0 and 2. The Liberty batter sent the next fastball screaming over the Williamsport dugout. Twice more Tyler threw heaters, and twice the batter fouled them off. If there were ever a time to call for a changeup, it was now. Warrenfeltz considered it, then gave the sign. Tyler reared back and unleashed an eye-high heater. The boy didn't stand a chance. He swung, and the umpire yelled, "Strike three!"
On the mound Tyler rejoiced, then looked up and raised one arm straight above his head, as if signaling a first down to the sky. All around him the Wildcats hugged and yelled. On the other side of the diamond Liberty coach Erik Barnes walked over to Warrenfeltz. "Great job," he said. "Now go on and win this thing."
Win it? Hell, Warrenfeltz was ecstatic just to have another day of practice. Yet two days later Williamsport won again, beating South Carroll 5--4 on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh. The following afternoon, in the regional final, the Wildcats beat Century High of Sykesville 11--6. It was Williamsport's fourth game in six days, yet, improbably, the team was only getting better. During the regular season the boys had occasionally played selfishly, concentrating on putting up numbers and earning college scholarships. Now the chemistry was back. No one cared about anything except not being the guy who ended the season. In one game reserve Aaron Green came up with a huge pinch-hit RBI single. In another Nick Sauble pitched two much-needed innings. If there was a concern, it was over the team's bunting, in particular that of sophomore shortstop Brandon Toloso. Three times in the playoffs Warrenfeltz had asked Brandon to sacrifice, and three times he had failed.
With each win the buzz built. The NBC affiliate in Hagerstown, WHAG, featured Williamsport on the evening news. Players on eliminated teams told the Wildcats on Twitter: Win this s---. Williamsporters patted the boys on the back at the Waffle House, flew blue-and-white flags on their cars. The Wildcats were back in the state semis.
It was a bittersweet time for the Colliflowers. Chad, a youthful-looking 41, couldn't stop thinking that his son would have reveled in the moment. The two of them, occasionally mistaken for brothers, had gone to rock concerts together and played video games in Chad's two-bedroom apartment. "He really was my best friend," Chad says. Yet he was amazed by Brendon's patience and drive, unable to believe this was his son. "Don't be like me," he often told Brendon. "Be better than me."
So on Tuesday, May 22, when Williamsport traveled to College Park to face Loch Raven on Maryland's turf field, Chad was there. He stood and cheered when Zach took the mound, wearing Brendon's number stitched on his hat. Chad roared when, two innings later, Zach jacked a triple to right center to give Williamsport a 2--0 lead. And he high-fived everyone when Tyler Byers closed out the 3--0 win.
That night the Wildcats headed to the Waffle House, as they always had. They sat in their favorite booths, near the counter, and antagonized the night waitress, Minnie, as they always did, dipping their napkins in their water glasses and firing wet fastballs at each other and the front windows, the gobs sticking on the glass for a moment before sliding down, the streaks looking from the outside like tears.
The same night, as the clock neared midnight, Warrenfeltz huddled in his living room with his assistants, eating from cartons of Chinese food and preparing for the title game. Earlier that day Warrenfeltz had sent two of them to scout the other semifinal, instructing them to track pitch location. Now the coaches broke down Williamsport's opponent, Patuxent, a southern Maryland powerhouse with a 19--4 record. Patuxent was the clear favorite, a deep, pitching-rich team that excelled at small ball. But as Lewis pointed out, "We're not good enough to be here in the first place, so let's not worry about that."
Two afternoons later, on May 26, the team boarded a charter bus—the first one the boys had been on—and headed two hours east to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, home to the Class A IronBirds, an Orioles affiliate. The Wildcats peered up at the ballpark's towering brick facade, then walked through the tunnel to the field, staring at the two decks of stands and the big video scoreboard. Later Lewis would compare the boys' reaction to "the awe of Hoosiers combined with the excitement of getting dropped off at Disneyland."
Presently Warrenfeltz gathered the team and talked again about bunt defense. For nearly an hour on the previous afternoon they'd practiced it: covering first, the wheel play, guarding the line. The players loved to complain about it, but Warrenfeltz didn't care. As his father always said, "You can't expect them to do something that they've never practiced." His dad said something else too: There's no way to defend against a well-executed squeeze play.