SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The Little League teams from Huntington Beach, Calif., and Billings, Mont., shared hopes of making it to the World Series when they shared the same dorm in regional play.
Well, they both made it to Little League's biggest stage -- but only California will play for a world championship.
Starter Nick Pratto struck out 10 and had three RBIs at the plate, and California built an early three-run lead to cruise to an 11-2 victory over Montana and the U.S. title on a cloudy, dreary Saturday at Lamade Stadium.
California will return to the same field to play for the World Series crown against Japan, which took the international bracket earlier Saturday with a 5-2 win over Mexicali, Mexico.
Game time had initially been moved up three hours to noon ET, but as Hurricane Irene turned into a tropical storm Sunday it was decided to return to the original 3 p.m. start. The game will be broadcast on ABC.
The Hamamatsu City mashers hope to defend the title won last season by a team from Tokyo.
"When I was younger, I used to watch the Little League World Series on TV," said Dylan Palmer, 12, who hit a two-run shot to right in the second. "It was like, 'Wow I really want to be there some day,' and now we're there."
Three nights after losing to Montana, 1-0, California won its second straight elimination game and a rematch with the boys from Billings. The two squads became fast friends after rooming together during regional play, with players from each side wondering what a trip to South Williamsport would be like.
"I think they did a better job of taking advantage of their opportunities, unlike Wednesday," Montana manager Gene Carlson said.
The first trip for a team from Montana came to an end, though California made a chummy gesture to their newfound friends when they lined up along the first-base line to applaud the Montana team and its fans.
Then the squads took a postgame group picture together near the mound.
"I don't think anybody in the Northwest expected Billings to be here. They've been our friends for a long time," said manager Jeff Pratto, Nick's father. "It's been a special ride with them. We told them maybe we'll play again somewhere in the middle, maybe Colorado."
California left the outcome of the rematch in little doubt after the fourth inning.
After an RBI groundout in the first, Pratto hit a two-run double in the fourth to help give California a 5-1 lead.
Montana added a run in the sixth after 13-year-old slugger Cole McKenzie's prodigious blast, a homer that landed well beyond the 225-foot fence in center field and on to the brown, muddy hill.
"That was (Cole's) mission in that sixth inning to hit a home run at the Little League World Series," Carlson said.
But the California boys did a collective bear hug behind the mound after reliever Trevor Windisch got a force play at second to secure the game's final out.
Japan 5, Mexico 2
First Kaito Suzuki lifted one fist high over his head, then both fists, as he stood at first base and soaked in the cheers from his teammates in the dugout.
The rest of the team would be celebrating a Little League international title soon afterward. Starter Yoshiki Suzuki struck out seven and Kaito Suzuki scored two runs and had an RBI single.
"I know it's going to be my last Little League in my career and I want to have a smile on my face when we go back to Japan," Yoshiki Suzuki said through interpreter Kotaro Omori.
He held Mexico to seven hits and made a nice defensive play at the plate to help thwart a Mexico rally. Mexico trailed 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth before rallying to within three runs on Jorge Jacobo's RBI triple.
But Jacobo was thrown out on the next play after Suzuki covered home on a weak grounder up the first-base line. Suzuki blocked the plate with his left foot, then took the backhanded throw from catcher Taiga Iwamoto and tagged Jacobo for the out.
Iwamoto, 12, was so impressed he smiled and did a double-take looking back at Suzuki before putting his catcher's mask back on.
Japan was pretty good with the bats, too, hammering out 10 hits and never trailing after taking a 2-0 lead in the third. Japan also hustled around the base paths to take advantage of Mexico's three miscues.
"Japan is a very smart, very intelligent team and they will jump on any mistakes that you make," Mexico manager Francisco Picos McDonough said through translator Sergio Guzman. "We made some mistakes and you see the result."
Kaito Suzuki scored in the third as a pinch-runner, then drove home a run and scored again in the fourth to give Japan a 4-0 lead.
"The substitutes have surprised me, I didn't expect them to play this well," said manager Akihiro Suzuki, who is not related to either Yoshiki or Kaito. "I just want all my kids to play their best and have fun, so I'm very happy for them."