Carter Jones stood on the pitcher's mound of the Howard J. Lamade Stadium near Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The late afternoon sun beat down on the back of his neck. A trickle of sweat inched its way through his sandy hair to his temple. He ignored it, just as he ignored the throngs of spectators cheering from the stands and blanketing the famous hillside viewing area beyond the outfield fences.
He'd worked far too hard to let a little sweat and noise distract him from winning the most important game of his baseball career.
The most important game so far, the eleven-year-old southpaw amended silently.
The loudspeakers crackled. "We're at the top of the sixth and final inning of the match between Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes," the announcer reminded the crowd. "Mid-Atlantic is up five to four. Great Lakes is at bat. Two outs, one strike, no runners on base."
As the words boomed through the park, Carter locked eyes with his catcher, Liam McGrath. Liam flashed him a quick thumbs-up.
Carter took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out slowly through his mouth. Then he set his left foot against the rubber, leaned in, and stared down at the batter.
Behind the plate, Liam shifted in his crouch and raised his mitt. The umpire bent forward, ready to make the call. Carter twirled the baseball behind his back. Once, twice around it went, until his fingertips found the seam. Then he went into his windup, reared back, and threw.
The ball flew on a line. The batter swung.
"Steeee-rike!" the umpire bellowed.
The crowd roared like thunder. Liam stood up and hurled the ball back to Carter. Carter nabbed it, his face a mask of calm concentration.
But inside, his heart was pounding.
Mid-Atlantic was now just one strike away from victory. If the team got the win, it would move on to the U.S. Championship, where it would face the team from the West. And the winner of that game would play for the biggest prize of all—the Little League Baseball World Series title.
Carter tightened his grip on the baseball. No pressure though, he thought.
Truth be told, Carter couldn't quite believe he was playing in the Little League Baseball World Series. After all, it was the most celebrated of all youth sports events, and one of the most competitive, too. There were thousands of Major Little League teams throughout the world, but only sixteen made it to Williamsport for the eleven-day tournament. Those sixteen were divided evenly into two areas, with eight teams from the United States facing off in one while eight from other countries competed in the International area. The title game of the Series was a showdown between the champions.
Two months earlier, Carter never would have dreamed his All-Star team would be one of the eight from the United States. Liam, on the other hand, had predicted it the moment he saw the team's roster.
"It's stacked!" he'd crowed, his brown eyes snapping with excitement. "Not a bad player in the bunch! I'm telling you, Carter, this is our year. We're going all the way to Williamsport!"
Carter had just smiled.
He and Liam had lived two houses away from each other since birth. Cousins who were closer than some brothers, Carter was used to Liam's wild enthusiasm and grand visions. If Carter built a snow fort, Liam built a bigger one—and then persuaded Carter to help him connect the two with a twisting maze carved in the drifts. Last summer, an unprofitable corner lemonade stand became an instant moneymaker when Liam moved their cooler of ice, juice, and cups to the busy ball field; sweaty softball players bought every last drop and the leftover ice, too. Not every scheme worked out (Carter had a jagged pink scar on his calf thanks to a fall from Liam's homemade zip-line), but that never seemed to bother Liam. He just moved on to the next adventure.
And he'd decided that this summer's adventure was getting to the Little League Baseball World Series. Carter knew better than to point out the obvious—that the road to Williamsport was a steep and incredibly difficult uphill climb. Reaching the top depended on their team playing its best each and every game, from mid-June right up through early August.
The first step on that road was beating out all the other local All-Star teams to win the District title. If they won Districts, they advanced to the next tournament, Sectionals, where they faced other District championship teams. If they were victorious in Sectionals, they played for the State title against seven other top-notch squads. And if, by some miracle, they were crowned State champs, they still had to play in the Mid-Atlantic Regional competition against the state champs from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia! Only if they won that Regional tournament would they earn the coveted berth at the World Series.
One misstep at any point in that uphill journey and their team would tumble back to earth. Whenever Carter thought about that possibility, a worm of anxiety squirmed inside his gut.
But the team hadn't faltered. One by one, the players blew their rivals out of the water. After each win, Liam turned to Carter and said, "Admit I was right. We're going all the way."
Carter wanted to believe it was possible. But the worm of anxiety twisting inside him reminded him that the higher they climbed, the farther they had to fall. That fall would be much more painful if he attached hope to it.
So in reply, he simply said, "We're one step closer."
Even now, when they were just one out, just one single strike, away from reaching the Bracket Championship round, Carter tamped down his rising hopes and replaced them with one thought.
He took another deep breath, turned back toward home plate, and waited for Liam's signal. His first pitch had been waist-high and to the outside corner. The batter had reached for it and missed. The pitch he'd just thrown had been to the exact same spot and yielded the same result. Would Coach Harrison send in the signal for the same pitch again?
He didn't. Instead, Liam flashed him the sign for a changeup.
Carter nodded, wound up, and threw. The moment the ball left his hand, he wished it back.
The ball dipped just ahead of the plate. The batter swung from his ankles. The bat connected with the ball. And then the ball disappeared into the blue sky.CHAPTER 2
Liam leaped to his feet and tore off his mask. The batter had hit Carter's pitch, but it wasn't a clean blast to the outfield. No, that ball was shooting straight up like a rocket ship—and Liam needed to be directly under it when it came back to Earth!
His brown eyes locked onto their target. He lifted his glove. It was a make-or- break moment. Make the catch, and the game was theirs. Miss it, and he'd break the hearts of his teammates, not to mention the thousands of fans who'd traveled to see their local team in action.
Liam's and Carter's families were among those fans. Liam knew exactly where they were sitting. Before the game, they had unfurled a huge banner that read "Mid- Atlantic All the Way!"
The banner had been his mother's idea. "We'll paint the words in neon colors on a long bolt of fabric," she declared, fanning her hands out to diagram a headline in the air. "The Mid-Atlantic fans will love it!"
"Unless it's in front of them and blocking their view of the field," Carter's mother pointed out.
Her sister waved her objection away. "Then we'll take it up to the hill and invite everyone to gather under it! Imagine all of us cheering together, one big booming voice, as our home-state heroes play their way to the title!"
Liam, Carter, and everyone else in their families had pitched in to make the banner. Liam's older sister, Melanie, had even offered to hold one end, although she made it clear she had an ulterior motive.
"Your games are shown live on one of the big sports networks, right?" she'd said the week before the tournament. "They always pan around the crowd, looking for stuff like this banner. When that camera lands on me, it could be my big break."
While Liam dreamed of one day playing professional baseball, Melanie longed to make it in show business. She took every dance, voice, and acting class their small town had to offer, performed in local theater productions, and spent hours in front of the mirror perfecting her appearance. Liam's mother encouraged her every step of the way, and for all Liam knew, his sister was chock-full of talent. But living in the boondocks of Pennsylvania limited her chances of ever being "discovered"—as she complained to their parents at every opportunity. She'd once thought that New York City was where she should be, but a two-week family vacation to California the summer before had changed that. Now living near Los Angeles was all she could talk about.
For Liam's part, he couldn't imagine leaving Pennsylvania for California. He'd had a great time on their vacation. The people they'd met had been friendly and helpful, the weather had been great, and the food even better. But compared with Pennsylvania, everything about California was just so ... different.
That afternoon, when he saw the banner on the hillside and heard the cheers from the crowd gathered by it, his heart swelled with pride and determination. Those feelings stayed with him throughout the game. They thrummed in his chest when he hit the RBI triple that gave the Mid-Atlantic players their fifth run of the game. They powered him through the long fifth inning, when Great Lakes threatened to overtake Mid-Atlantic by racking up four straight runs. And those feelings surged in his veins when Coach Harrison pulled the starting pitcher, Daniel Cho, and put Carter on the mound for the final inning instead.
His pride peaked when Carter stopped Great Lakes' rally cold. Now his determination to win took over as he tracked the ball in the air above him. It reached the top of its climb and started its descent. Liam shuffled sideways. He widened the fingers of his glove a hair more. A moment later—Thud! The ball landed in the pocket and stuck there!
"Yer out!" the umpire yelled.
The fans erupted, roaring, clapping, and stamping their feet. Liam leaped into the air, only to be brought back to earth when his teammates swarmed him, their screams of victory ringing throughout the ballpark.
Final score: Mid-Atlantic 5, Great Lakes 4.
Mid-Atlantic's dugout was a sea of chaos, and Liam was right in the thick of it.
"Come on, guys, cut it out!" he cried as his teammates took turns riffling his dark crew cut. "You're going to give me a bald spot!" Laughing, he dodged one more swipe of his hair and hurried to find Carter.
He spotted him sitting on the bench unlacing his cleats. He snuck up behind him and snatched off his cap.
"Hey!" Carter whirled around. "Give it back, doofus!"
Liam waved the hat over his head. "First admit I was right, dork. We're going all the way!"
Carter grinned and pushed his shaggy light brown hair behind his ears. "We're one step closer. Now give me my cap."
Instead Liam danced away, brandishing the cap like a flag and chanting, "We're going all the wa-ay! We're going all the wa-ay! Admit I'm right, admit I'm right! We're going all the wa-ay!"
He looked over his shoulder then, expecting to see Carter shaking his head or rolling his eyes. But his cousin wasn't even looking at him. He was standing stock-still and staring at the stands.
Puzzled, Liam followed Carter's gaze. He spotted a boy wearing a West team jersey and matching baseball cap.
"You know that kid?" Liam asked.
Carter started as if he'd forgotten Liam was there. "Yeah," he muttered. "He was at baseball camp with me. He's a pitcher."
The summer before, Carter had attended the prestigious Little League Baseball Camp in Williamsport. Liam had hoped to go, too, and was bitterly disappointed when he found out that Carter's session fell right in the middle of his family's California vacation. Their mothers had tried to switch Carter's week to another, but all the other sessions were full. So when camp time rolled around, Carter went alone.
Liam looked at the boy with new interest. "Hold on a second! We're playing his team in the U.S. Championship, right?"
Carter turned away and started collecting his gear. "So?"
A tingle of excitement shot up Liam's spine. "So you spent a week playing baseball with this guy! You can give us the scoop on him! What're his weaknesses? What's his favorite pitch to throw? Can he hit? Is he—"
Carter cut him off. "All I know is that he's the biggest jerk I've ever met."
The anger in Carter's voice caught Liam off guard. Lots of kids called other people names, or bad-mouthed them behind their backs. Not Carter. In fact, Liam had heard his cousin say something like that about only one other person.
They'd been eight years old and playing catch in Carter's backyard. Suddenly, there was a squeal of tires followed by a high-pitched yelp. Carter had dashed to the front yard before Liam had even registered the sounds. Moments later, he found Carter kneeling over a small black-and-tan dog. Carter was making soothing sounds, clearly trying to calm the injured dog. He looked up at Liam with stunned disbelief that quickly turned to anger.
"He didn't even stop! That—that—idiot just kept driving like nothing happened! If I ever find out who that jerk was I'll—"
Liam never found out what Carter intended to do, because Carter's mother appeared at that moment. Mrs. Jones rushed the dog to the veterinarian hospital. Three days later, the dog's injuries were on the mend. Carter and Liam posted signs about having found a lost dog, but no one claimed him. So the Joneses adopted him, and Carter gave him his name: Lucky Boy.
Liam hadn't thought about the hit-and-run for a long time. But he had never forgotten Carter's fury—nor had he ever heard his cousin sound that angry again. Until now.
What did that kid from West do to make Carter dislike him so much? he wondered.
Just as he was about to ask, however, someone grabbed him from behind.CHAPTER 3
Carter knew his aunt Amanda was waiting for them even before he saw her.
"I am so proud of you two I could just burst!" she cried. A midsize woman with a supersize personality, she swept Liam up in a one-armed embrace, wrapped her other arm around Carter, and then crushed them together in a huge bear hug.
"Mom, you're squishing the air out of us!" Liam protested, laughing.
"Nonsense! Carter's not complaining, are you, Carter?"
Carter's mother saved him from having to answer. A carbon copy of her older sister in looks, with the same medium brown hair and light brown eyes, Cynthia Jones winked at him and said, "Amanda, would you mind if I congratulated my boy now?"
Mrs. McGrath gave Carter one more squeeze and then released him. As Liam's father and sister crowded around Liam—"I'm so jealous! Every camera in the stadium was on you when you made that catch!" Melanie moaned—Mrs. Jones folded Carter into her arms.
"Wow," she whispered. "You were amazing."
"Thanks, Mom," he whispered back.
"Well done, son," his father added, beaming.
"Enough with the mushy stuff," Amanda cut in. "You boys head up to the Media Center for Coach Harrison's postgame interview."
Liam struck a pose. "Do I look all right, Melanie? I'll probably get on camera again, you know!"
She yanked his cap down over his face. "There, that's perfect!"
The families left then. Carter started for the stairs that led to the concourse level of the stadium, where the Media Center was. He'd gone only one step, however, when Liam pulled him back.
"Hang on, Carter," he said. "The interview isn't for another few minutes. That's plenty of time for you to tell me what that kid from West did to make you so mad."
If anyone else had asked, Carter would have pretended he wasn't mad, just surprised to see the other boy. But he knew he'd never fool his cousin.
"You know how I said I lost my Little League Baseball Camp jersey? Well, I didn't lose it. I threw it away."
Liam raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Why? You told me camp was awesome."
"It was, for the first two days, anyway."
Carter thought he'd be homesick at camp without Liam, but he was so busy he didn't have time to be. Out of bed by seven, breakfast by seven thirty, and then two hours of intense baseball practice starting at nine. Carter worked harder and learned more about playing in those sessions than he ever had in his life. He gauged his improvement by how he played in the daily afternoon games. He wasn't a great hitter, but he made good, solid plays at his third-base position.