SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Nerves grew nerves. Fists clenched. Some eyes closed. Others didn't blink.
Cameron Bufford had been here before, or at least it felt like it. Maybe not on the mound in the sixth inning, a berth in the U.S. championship of the Little League World Series in the balance.
But the nerves weren't unfamiliar to the boy who hit the go-ahead grand slam in the regional final to send Jackie Robinson West to the World Series in the first place.
For a change Thursday, somebody had to finish what Marquis Jackson started during a 6-5, fingernails-to-the-nub victory against Pennsylvania in a U.S. semifinal at Lamade Stadium.
That somebody was Bufford, who, with runners on first and third and one out separating his team from advancing, watched Jack Rice pop out to right field. Jackie Robinson fans erupted and hugged and hooted and hollered in the stands.
"I was nervous," Bufford said. "I knew it was going to be a tough lineup, so I had to give it my all."
The victory pits Jackie Robinson against the Nevada team that defeated it 13-2 in the winner's bracket.
The U.S. final, which begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC-7, marks the farthest a Chicago team has advanced since North Roseland played for the title in 1967.
"I really did feel like the game we lost was a blessing. It woke us up," manager Darold Butler said. "The kids have been more focused than they've been all year.
"It's hard to beat a team twice. These guys are so competitive. They want the shot. I can't see that game being exactly like it was the first time."
Jackson, usually a relief specialist, gave up two runs in the first inning of a rare start. He left with six strikeouts and his team ahead 6-2 in the top of the fourth after exceeding the 85-pitch limit.
That's when things unraveled a bit, and Pennsylvania added two runs on a single by Zion Spearman.
Jackie Robinson center fielder DJ Butler didn't bother to see where Kai Cummings' fifth-inning home run landed, but it pulled Pennsylvania within a run at 6-5.
"He's one of the coolest, calmest guys you'll see on the field," Darold Butler said of Bufford. "I might have been a little nervous, but because it was Cameron on the mound, you just look at his face."
Unfazed after Jackson allowed those two early runs, Jackie Robinson responded with four in the bottom of the inning. A 1-2-3 double play with no outs and the bases loaded wasn't enough to slow the South Siders. Josh Houston singled in Trey Hondras and Jackson. Houston and Brandon Green also scored.
In the second, Hondras followed Pierce Jones home on an errant pickoff attempt at third base to make it 6-2.
"I was surprised I was starting," said Jackson, who had recorded 20 strikeouts in a possible 23 outs since regional play began. "I had to throw less pitches."
"If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to beat our best," Darold Butler said of why he chose to start Jackson. "I'd tip my hat. He's a kid that touches 75 mph consistently."
Jackie Robinson made getting to the World Series look easy, outscoring opponents 212-28 in 14 games. The team is 4-1 in Williamsport and 18-1 in tournament play.
"They're incredibly fun to watch. I see a lot of them in us," Pennsylvania manager Alex Rice said. "You never like to lose, but it was terrific to play them."
With no games until Saturday, Jackie Robinson players said they will do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with Little League volunteers Friday.
Oh, and they'll be enjoying their victory too.
"Excited, happy, speechless," Darold Butler said of his feelings. "It's hard to take in right now, but we are one of the top two teams in the United States in Little League Baseball."