This is a big one! The original draft of the manuscript had a massive baseball game as the big “set-piece” of the novel. My original intention was for Josh to recalculate stats and odds with every single at-bat for every single player, but I realized that this would end up being a novel in and of itself, so I settled for him recalculating his own stats with each at-bat. When I wrote these scenes, I didn’t realize that Maryland high school baseball games are only seven innings long, so I wrote a full nine-inning game. I also made lots of statistical and baseball-related errors (at one point, I think there are four outs!), but it was just an early draft. My father looked at the early draft and fixed my math and my baseball errors…
And then I decided to trim the scene dramatically! It was just too long. In trimming it, I ended up having to re-do the entire game, especially to fit the seven-inning reality of Maryland baseball and still keep the dramatic beats where I wanted them. So as you read this scene, remember that it is filled with baseball errors!
“Where do you think you’re going, Mendel?”
I’m halfway out to the field when Coach Kaltenbach stops me. I turn back to him in time to see Jerry Springfield trotting out to my “usual” position at shortstop.
I stomp over to Coach. Zik’s already behind the plate. “What the hell, Coach?”
“I don’t want you out there yet. You could get hurt playing defense – you’re back as DH.”
Well, that’s good news.
“But I’m not playing you for a couple of innings.
Which isn’t good news.
Before I can protest, Coach holds up a hand. “I want you to get a feel for this kid. Watch him from the sidelines for a little bit. Then we’ll put you in and let you kick his ass all over town.” Coach slaps a hand to my back and pulls me towards him like I’m a favorite nephew or something. “You’re gonna make that scout shit in his pants, Mendel.”
“Get off me or I’ll punch you again.”
He laughs – the bastard actually laughs at me – and releases me back to the bench.
I don’t pay attention to the top of the first – we’re in the field so there’s no Heat to watch. I check the stands instead. Michelle and Rachel are sitting together, though they’re not chattering away like they usually do. I can almost see the tension and the strain between them from here.
Dad is alone on the third base line. Mom must be running late.
We do pretty well in the top of the first; Canterstown scores a run, but leaves two men on. The guys come back to the bench and Zik strips off his catcher’s gear. He doesn’t look over at me.
I get my first glimpse of The Heat as he trots out to the mound. The kid’s a shrimp. I have to remind myself that he’s only a sophomore. If you saw him standing by the side of the road or huddled over a book in the library, you’d never in a million years think that this is the kid with the golden arm, the kid who makes hitters across the state piss themselves with anxiety.
The kid who single-handedly brought a Major League scout to Brookdale.
The Brookdale people in the crowd hush as The Heat warms up. The Canterstown folks cheer wildly, as if the pitches he’s throwing now somehow count.
I watch him, checking his poise, his pose, his movements. It seems almost impossible that a frame so small could generate such powerful pitches, but the evidence is right in front of me. I could swear I hear the catcher grunt each time the ball smacks into his glove.
Our lead-off man, Pat Franklin, watches the first pitch sail by at warp speed. At 90 miles an hour, it takes less than half a second for a ball to get from the mound to the plate. Your reaction time has to be shaved down to less than three-tenths of a second to have even the slightest chance of hitting the ball. That three-tenths has to comprise acquisition, assignment, adjustment, and action – the “quad A cocktail” as my Little League coach used to put it.
The second pitch is just as fast as the first. Pat gives it his all – his swing is timed correctly, but he mis-judged the position of the ball and the bat sails over it. Thwap! The ball smacks into the catcher’s mitt. It’s the absolute worst sound in the world when you’re standing in the batter’s box.
I don’t blame Pat for swinging at the pitch. Baseball is as much about psychology as it is about skill. Watching that first pitch blur by must have killed him – I know it would have killed me. So you get stupid because you don’t want to let another one whiff by you, so you swing at the second one just to show that you can.
It’s understandable, but it’s stupid. Restraint is the name of the game. Ted Williams was probably the best batter in the history of the game, when you break batting down into all of its component parts. No one understood the mechanics of a bat and a ball like Williams. But he also knew when not to swing. The result? Two-fold: Decades after he stopped playing the game and years after his death, Williams holds the record for bases on balls, with a .208 walk average. And his career on-base percentage is a brain-numbing .482 in the majors. No one else is even close; the next closest guy is John McGraw at .466. That’s not even in the same neighborhood as Williams.
Pat digs in. I know what he’s going through. In his mind right now, he’s kicking his own ass, yelling at himself for swinging at that second pitch. At the same time, he’s glad that he didswing because it would have been a called strike anyway and at least this way he tried. He’s also thinking that it’s impossible for this skinny little sophomore to throw so goddamned hard and wondering what The Heat will throw next and praying to God that he doesn’t go down with three pitches.
The entire Brookdale bench is praying the same thing. Nothing kills team morale like your lead-off man going down 1-2-3.
The Heat winds up. Something’s a little different about it this time, but I’m not sure what. The ball spins like crazy. It takes more than half a second to get to the plate, but not by much. Pat swings, but the ball dodges out of the way – an absolutely beautiful sinker that seems to know when Pat is swinging and deliberately drop out of the line of fire. We’re treated to the sickening thwack! of the ball and the mitt again.
That pitch would have been a ball if Pat hadn’t swung at it. One more reason why Pat Franklin is not Ted Williams.
The Canterstown crowd goes wild as Pat slams his bat into the ground and then makes his way back to the bench. We all applaud him, but there’s not much to say. You can’t even say, “Good eye” because, well, it wasn’t.
“Freak isn’t even human,” Pat mutters as he walks past me.
Zik is up second. I want to yell out something helpful to him – just a little encouragement, a little confidence booster. But I figure that might do more harm than good at this point.
As he steps up to the plate, Zik’s 12 for 38 on the season, with a .395 slugging average and his godlike .558 IPA.
Zik spits into the dirt in front of home plate, his own little ritual. He digs in and grits his teeth, snarling at The Heat. Psychology.
Zik lets the first pitch go by. It’s a good move – the ball slides left, cutting inside for a ball. A little cheer goes up from the Brookdale side.
The Heat is nonplussed. He gets the ball back from the catcher and goes into his wind-up.
Zik swings at this one. In retrospect (retrospect for a batter happens in the second after contact), he probably wishes he hadn’t. He gets a piece of the ball, but that’s all. It would have been a strike, but right now it’s an out – the ball pops up and the first baseman jogs onto the grass to make an easy play.
Five pitches and two outs. Zik’s batting average drops to .308 and his slugging average falls to .385 from .395. IPA drops to .538. I know that hurts him, or it will once he calculates it. Zik’s IPA is his pride and joy.
The Heat rolls his shoulders as Zik comes back to the bench. Kyle Wallingford is the third victim offered up by Brookdale to The Heat. He goes down in three pitches and never swings at a one.
Three up, three down. Eight pitches. I look over at Zik, who isn’t looking my way. Coach catches my attention, though, and raises an eyebrow. I hate to admit it, but he was right to keep me out for now. I need to watch this kid.
I watch two more innings go by. Canterstown scores three more runs, two of them when one of their batters slams a home run off an egregious breaking ball from our pitcher. In the bottom of the second, The Heat once again shuts us down 1-2-3, though our guys do manage to eke out a couple of foul tips and pop-ups. At least they’re getting the bat on the ball.
I talk to the guys who come back from the plate and get their read on him. They echo Pat Franklin – the kid’s not human, apparently, and none of us have experience hitting against aliens or robots.
For the bottom of the third, I leave the bench and scoot behind the backstop to mingle with the crowd and watch from as close to a batter’s perspective as I can get. The Heat’s wind-up changes only minimally for his breaking ball as compared to his fastball. It’s tough to see the changes even when I can focus on nothing but that, never mind if you’re actually standing in the batter’s box, watching the little puke wind-up.
Here’s the thing that gets me, too – he shows absolutely no emotion. No sneer when he fans you. No raised eyebrow when you let a good pitch go by. No concern if you pop up. He isn’t human. It’s like he’s just a pitching machine. A flawless one.
We manage to get someone on-base in the bottom of the third, which is nice from a morale perspective, but ultimately is meaningless – Pat Franklin is up again and pops out to center left, leaving poor Jamie Terravozza stranded on first.
In the fourth, we manage to hold the Sledgehammers scoreless, though it’s a scary kind of scoreless – they get two men on base and it looks like they’re ready to drive one of them in when Jamie picks the guy off as he leads off from second. You can hear a sigh of relief go up from the Brookdale bleachers. And the bench.
Mom shows up around then. She looks around, confused, then spots me on the bench. I wave to her and point to Dad on the third base line, but she must misunderstand me because after another minute or so of looking around, she squeezes in with some other folks behind the plate.
“You gotta let me go in,” I tell Coach as we manage to get our second defensive out of the fourth. There are Sledgehammers on second and third now and force-outs everywhere.
Coach agrees – three innings is enough time for me to watch. I usually bat as one of the first three in the rotation, but Coach has had to re-jigger the line-up to accommodate Jerry Springfield at shortstop, so the DH position is now batting clean-up.
Another sigh of relief from Brookdale as we get our third out. The fielders come in. Zik rips off his catcher’s gear – he’s up first in this inning. He takes to the batter’s box with blood in his eye.
The Heat brushes him back from the plate with a high, inside fastball. Zik might have been able to pull it and poke it out into right field, but his instinct for self-preservation kicks in instead and he steps back from the plate. Ball one, and the crowd boos The Heat. Zik shrugs his shoulders; when you crowd the plate like Zik does, you’re going to get brushed back sometimes.
The second pitch is a beautiful little slider that Zik just can’t resist. Hell, I can’t resist it and I’m on the bench! My shoulders tense in sympathy as Zik takes a swing. I can tell just before it happens that he’s done it – he’s hit the damn ball.
The ball shoots over the first baseman’s glove as he leaps into the air, trying to catch it or at least bat it down. But it’s just barely too high (or the guy at first is too short, depending on your perspective) and it sails into shallow right. Zik throws the bat aside to the applause of the Brookdale bleachers and busts his ass running to first. The right fielder was playing shallow because no one’s had a chance in hell of hitting deep today, so he’s right there to scoop up the ball on its second bounce.
Zik’s a madman, barreling down the base path, but it’s too late – the first baseman’s already got the ball from the right fielder and he steps on the bag just before Zik gets there. Zik’s momentum keeps him going for a few more seconds until he slows and turns in enough time for me to read his lips: Motherfucker! Wait until he realizes that he’s down to a flat .300 batting average, .375 slugging, and .525 IPA. Then he’ll really be pissed.
Third man in our batting rotation is Kyle Wallingford. He steps into the batter’s box like a man condemned. Zik comes back to the bench and sees me in the on-deck circle for the first time today, swinging my favorite piece of ash.
He comes over to me. “Watch his left leg,” he says, nodding towards The Heat, who’s just thrown strike one against Kyle.
I already noticed The Heat does a little, barely noticeable kick with his left foot just before throwing his slider, but I appreciate the advice anyway. “Thanks, man.”
Zik mumbles something incomprehensible and sits down on the bench.
Proving that The Heat is if not human at least fallible, Kyle pokes a little blooper into the hole between the shortstop and the left fielder. Kyle’s a demon on the ground – he races to first and almost beats the throw, but gets snagged at the last possible instant.
Two outs. My turn.
No reaction from The Heat as I step into the batter’s box. He’s just an impassive, immovable object. He doesn’t care that the line-up’s been shaken up a little bit. Doesn’t care that there’s an unknown factor standing in front of him. I’m just another target to him.
I go through my usual batting ritual—step out of the box, knock dirt off my left shoe with the bat, step forward, knock dirt off the other shoe, step into the box, turn my bat a quarter-turn in my hands. I tug my helmet’s brim once, then push it back up into position.
Is that a little smirk I see on The Heat’s underaged mug? I hope so. I don’t mind him laughing at me as long as I break through that smug casing.
I can hit the first pitch. I realize this in less time than it takes to think it, which is the only wayto realize it. It’s a fastball, emphasis on the fast, giving me less than a fifth of a second to
Acquire: recognize that the thing hurtling towards me at close to a hundred miles an hour is, in fact, a baseball and not a trick of the light.
Assign: determine the path the ball is taking and is most likely to continue taking.
Adjust: determine when, how, and whether to swing.
Act: I swing.
The bat vibrates in my hands and shakes my entire torso, shockwaves radiating up my arms to my shoulders and across my back. The sound of the ball contacting the bat is deafening, a solid, whining “THWACK!” that rings and stings my ears. The ball spins like mad and drills right over The Heat’s left shoulder, sending him dodging to the right and throwing up his glove in a belated attempt to shield himself. I don’t think anyone’s ever taken one of his pitches right back to the mound before – that icy exterior cracks in an instant and for a split second there’s just a terrified kid there.
I run like hell for first base, kicking up dust. No time to watch the ball; that’s the mistake rookies make. You don’t watch the ball. Not when you’re heading to first. There’s no point. You either make it or you don’t. My Little League coach used to say that getting to first was like winning the 100-foot dash…only ten feet shorter and with a sniper drawing a bead on you. You just keep your head down and run for first and your coach will send you on if you can make it to second.
The ball should have been caught. The Heat should have gotten his glove up in time and snatched it out of the air and I should be out right now, but I’m not so I’m running running running and how can 90 feet take so long the ball where’s the ball don’t look oh my God I’m about to touch the bag the first baseman is off to one side does he have the ball no way he’d be tagging the bag holy shit am I gonna make it I still can’t believe I swung at that pitch
And then I’m on the bag and then I’m off the bag, tearing out into right from sheer momentum, waiting to hear the ump cry, “Out!” but the cry doesn’t come.
I made it.
I turn around, breathing hard, and jog back to the bag. The first baseman has the ball, but it doesn’t matter – I hit the bag before he could get to me. The ump is making the “Safe!” gesture and the Brookdale crowd is going insanely wild, as if I’ve just hit a grand slam in the World Series or something. It’s just a base hit, people. It means nothing unless we put a string of them together.
The Heat gives me a dirty look over his shoulder as Chris Weintraub steps into the batter’s box. Just a dart of You prick, but it’s there and I love it. I rattled him. Psychology.
I look back to the bench, where the whole Brookdale team is cheering wildly, Zik included. Coach is pumping his fist in the air. With one hit, my season average goes from .464 to a godly .538! My on-base percentage goes to .359, my slugging average to .974, and my IPA to .436, the closest I’ve ever been to Zik in high school.
Coach signals “steal” to me. Is he nuts? I know he wants to put me in scoring position, but I’m not a stealer. I’ve made fifteen total attempts in my high school career and succeeded exactly twice. That’s a success percentage of… I don’t want to figure it. Too depressing. I shake my head at him.
He signals back the steal sign again, this time with his lips pressed tightly together and his whole body getting into it, shoulders and arms, chest swaying, as if signing somethingstronger is going to make me change my mind. I can read his mind: He’s thinking Goddamnit, Mendel! Steal that base! There’s a scout in the crowd and we have to put runs on the scoreboard!
But I’m not getting tagged out just so that Coach can try to seduce a big league scout. That’s stupid. I shrug my shoulders as if there’s nothing I can do about it and just then Chris – who’s got one ball and one strike already – hits the damn ball.
It pops up and arcs over the infield. I take a couple of big steps away from first, but this one’s in the bag—
–until the center fielder slips on something and loses his balance. He doesn’t go down, but he wobbles and throws his arms out for balance.
I take off. Yeah, there’s a chance he could regain his balance in time to catch the ball, but I don’t think so. It’s a risk worth taking.
I keep one eye on the ball and one on the base path. The ball drops to the ground just to the fielder’s left. I pour on the speed and launch myself into the air, doing a kick-ass head-first slide into second just ahead of the throw.
“Safe!” says the ump, just in case anyone missed it.
I stand up and dust off. Chris has got himself a stand-up single. He gives me the thumbs-up. Whatever.
OK, The Heat’s gotta be rattled now. Back-to-back singles. Maybe he’s not all he’s cracked up to be.
His catcher walks out to the mound and they talk for a couple of seconds. Back on the bench, Coach is either apoplectic or orgasmic – I can’t tell which from here. Someone in the Brookdale bleachers waves a sign that says, “Freeze the Heat!” God, I hate stuff like that. You can’t even freeze heat, not really. It’s just meaningless juxtaposition of—
Jerry Springfield steps up to the plate and takes two strikes and a ball before swinging at an absolutely beautiful slider. It should be strike three, but someone is looking out for Jerry and he nicks a piece of the ball with the top of the bat and pops it up to deep left. No one’s there because we haven’t hit deep all day. I’m a couple of steps towards third, but I tag up to be safe. The left fielder is running backwards, doing a damn good job keeping his balance. At the last possible second, he jumps sideways, his arm extended. The ball drops into his glove and he crashes to the ground….
And the ball pops out.
He has to get up, get his bearings, grab the ball from the ground, and get it to the third baseman. Plus, Chris is heading for second right behind me, so the fielder has to waste another tenth of a second on an important decision – throw for second and the easier out, or get the man who’s headed to third?
Ahead of me, the third baseman has stepped right into the base path, waving his glove, shouting for the ball. I shoulder-check him out of the way and throw myself down on the ground, my hand slapping the bag.
At almost the same moment, I hear the slap of the ball in the third baseman’s glove. He tags me, but I’ve got my hand on the bag.
“Nice try,” I tell him.
“You’re a lucky son-of-a-bitch,” he says.
“That must be it.”
He holds onto the ball and watches me as I stand up. I’m careful to move my foot onto the bag before letting go with my hand. I don’t even look over at the bench; I have no intention of trying to steal home with two outs, and I know that’s what Coach wants me to do. Anything to get a run on the board. Anything to impress the scout. Screw you, Coach. I started a rally. Bases are loaded. What more do you want?
I check out the stands. Rachel is on her feet, applauding and cheering. I wave to her, then turn around to see Dad, who’s leaning forward on his knees, watching the game like it’s a spreadsheet.
Chris is safe back on second, Jerry on first, and I’m trying to figure out the odds of someone actually sending me home with two outs and The Heat on the mound.
Now it’s Ash Heggelman in the batter’s box. He takes a strike, gets a piece of a breaking ball for strike two, then exercises rare good judgment and lets the next ball go by high and outside.
Ash isn’t a particularly good hitter, which is why he’s buried right towards the bottom of the line-up. But he manages to get a chunk of the next pitch and knock it down onto the ground in the absolutely weakest bunt I’ve ever seen in my life.
And then Ash does something sort of amazing in its stupidity and even more amazing in the fact that it seems to work: He takes two steps towards first and stops.
He just stops right there and looks at the ball, which has rolled close to the foul line on the third base side.
I doubt it’s intentional, but it’s a great little piece of psychological trickery. The catcher, who had been headed for the ball, pauses for just a second. After all, Ash isn’t moving, right? Maybe there was a call from the ump. Maybe the ball’s still moving and could roll foul. Maybe—
Maybe a lot of things, but it doesn’t matter because I’m running pell-mell from third and I need that extra second. While the catcher’s distracted looking over at Ash (who now is taking an additional, doubtful step towards first), I’m halfway home.
The catcher looks up just in time to see me coming. He dives for the ball and I deliberately run right into him, knocking him down. I keep going and I cross the plate and that’s it. That’s it. I’m home.
A second later, the catcher spins up on one knee and rifles the ball to first, where Ash has no chance and is called out five feet from the bag. Inning’s over, but we scored.
Coach bawls me out when I get back to the bench. “Jesus Christ, Mendel! When I signal a steal, I want that goddamn base stolen!”
When I head to my spot on the bench without saying anything to him, he grabs my shoulder and spins me around to face him. “Did you hear me, Mendel? You might want to think about keeping me happy right now.”
“Hey, Coach. See that ‘1’ under the Home sign up on the scoreboard? That’s there because of me. Now back off.” I shake off his shoulder and sit down. Chris and Jerry and Ash sort of give me a look, as if to say, We drove you in, asshole, which is true, but if I hadn’t disobeyed Coach in the first place I wouldn’t have been in that position because sure as hell I’d’ve been thrown out.
Somehow, our defense keeps the Sledgehammers from scoring in the top of the fifth. It’s not easy, though – they rock our pitcher from start to finish, taking him deep every time. They get three men on and strand them all.
Bottom of the fifth, The Heat’s back in fine form. He takes out our guys 1-2-3. Not a single Bobcat gets the chance even to look at first base. It’s all fastballs and sliders and curves that move like greased snakes.
Top of the sixth goes pretty well for us, all things considered. We keep them to two men on base and while the last out is a tough one, we eventually get it. Coach paces back and forth in front of the bench and says something about how we’re wearing down their batters. Um, right. Sure.
Zik’s up first in the bottom of the sixth and he walks past me kind of stiffly. Like he wants to relax, but can’t let himself, so he’s making himself be tough instead.
He stands in the batter’s box and he does something amazing. He takes The Heat’s first pitch of the inning and he hits a home run.
I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. I keep blinking, as if there’s something wrong with my eyesight and the ball will re-appear if I just keep blinking.
But it’s not re-appearing. Because it’s gone. The bench has gone absolutely insane, hooting, hollering, stomping, shouting. The Brookdale crowd’s berserk. And Zik takes a leisurely jog around the bases, blowing kisses to the fans as he goes.
I don’t move from my seat. I watch The Heat. He doesn’t seem too upset. It’s a one-run game now and he doesn’t seem upset. Maybe it’s because he’s never lost. Maybe he can’t even imagine such a possibility. I used to be like that, a long time ago, when I first started to get my batting chops and I was playing against pitchers who just weren’t ready for a hitter of my caliber. Every time I stepped up to the plate, I hit the damn ball. Every freakin’ time. It waseasy. And when one day I didn’t hit the ball, I figured it was a fluke, an accident, a goof. It never occurred to me that the pitchers were catching up, getting better. Not until I started getting struck out. Then it hit home.
Zik pauses in front of home plate, turning to observe his worshipful public. The crowd obliges his showmanship by going even wilder, a thunderous, endless stomp of feet on the bleachers that rattles my bones. Just step on the goddamn base, Zik. Stop showing off.
Batting average: .317. Slugging average shoots up to .463. And the Zik Lorenz IPA towers over the world at .585, higher than when he started the game. All on one pitch.
With a flourish and a bow, Zik finally goes home – he jumps up in the air and lands on the plate with both feet, as if crushing a huge rat.
The Heat stretches a little bit, then proceeds to strike out Kyle with three pitches that get progressively faster as he delivers them. The crowd shuts the hell up and you could hear a mouse fart in the sudden silence. Even the Canterstown people are quiet, as if in awe at church. It’s like The Heat let Zik get that home run, just for the drama of it. Just so that he could shut us down again. For the challenge. Like a right-handed hitter batting left-handed for the hell of it.
I’m up. I get into the batter’s box and go through my routine. The Heat’s impassive. If he’s nervous about facing me, it doesn’t show.
I let two pitches go by. One’s just too damn fast to even think about hitting. Strike one. The second is just a little bit outside and the ump, bless him, calls it as such. I’m one and one. The Heat’s checking my eye, checking my range.
The next pitch just barely cuts the corner of the plate. It’s a toss-up. I know it’s a ball, but the ump calls it a strike. I argue with him a little bit, but not too much. No sense getting thrown out of the game.
Fourth pitch is definitely outside, but for some reason I decide that I can take it. I step on top of the plate and swing and there’s that beautiful crack! as the ball goes into deep right.
The right fielder, though, is playing deep. I just barely beat out the throw to first. I stand there, hunched over, my hands on my knees as I catch my breath.
Coach is going insane on the sidelines. I’m the only guy to hit twice against The Heat today.
Chris pops up to center. I tag up and make a mad dash for second, but get thrown out. At least my average is now .550, though my IPA has dropped to .425.
I head back to the bench.
It’s not a one-run game for long – the Sledgehammers score a run in the top of the seventh and at one point have the bases loaded with their best batter coming up. We get lucky and he drills a line drive to Jerry at short, who plucks it out of the air lightning fast.
The Heat re-takes the mound for the bottom of the seventh and proceeds to embarrass Brookdale for all eternity by striking out Jerry in three straight pitches, then forcing Ash to hit right to first base, then striking out the next guy in four pitches. It’s so fast that our guys have barely had a chance to suck down some Gatorade before they have to head out into the field again.
As he walks off the field, The Heat detours by the plate first. He pauses, just to make sure he has everyone’s attention, and then he jumps onto the bag with both feet, like Zik.
A chorus of boos rises up from the Brookdale bench. Coach Kaltenbach, an exemplar of good taste and good sportsmanship, does nothing to stem it.
I don’t blame The Heat, in a way. Zik was showboating. Tit for tat.
Right now, the only thing we’ve got going for us is that, as home team, we have last at-bat. No matter what, we’ll get a chance in the bottom of the ninth. But The Heat – though he’s made a couple of bad moves – has managed to get better throughout the game, as if his shoulder gets stronger the more he abuses it.
Top of the eighth goes well for us. It’s still a two-run game, not entirely out of reach for us. It’s actually the best we’ve ever played against the Sledgehammers. That’s a victory of sorts right there.
Coach swaps out pitchers, giving us a fresh arm on the mound. Surely Canterstown will do the same.
We give up some hits, but we manage to keep them scoreless one more time.
Jamie’s up first for Brookdale. The Heat, inexplicably, has not been replaced. Is he going to pitch the whole damn game?
He sends Jamie back to the bench with a slider, a fastball, and a fasterball. Jamie gets a piece of the fastball, but all he does is foul it back.
This brings up the top of the order for us: Pat Franklin. Pat lets the first strike go by, then swings at the second one and pops it straight up. The Heat lopes down off the mound, moving like a skeleton on a string, and gloves the ball with no problem.
Zik’s up next. He swaggers to the plate. Someone (probably Michelle) starts up a chant and soon “Zik! Zik! Zik!” echoes over the field. Zik waves to his public and settles into the batter’s box, pure murder in his eyes, even as he grins.
What happens next is just embarrassing. I want to cry for Zik. It’s just three pitches and Zik never comes close to any of them. I know his stats – his final stats because this is probably his last at-bat in high school – but I just can’t say anything more.
Top of the ninth and we almost lose it then and there. We can’t let them score any more runs – a two-run gap is bad enough going into the bottom of the ninth. They have men in scoring position twice, but our defense manages to shut them down. It’s tight, though.
Kyle Wallingford leads off for Brookdale in the bottom of the ninth. Unbelievably, he getswalked. The Heat’s first and only walk of the game. Even machinery breaks down every now and then, I guess. The Heat looks at his pitching hand like it’s broken or something. I could swear I see his lips move, as if he’s scolding it.
Coach comes out to the on-deck circle. “This is it, Mendel. You’re the only one who’s got this kid’s range. You can do it. You need to move Kyle to third, got it?”
“Is that how you play the game?” I ask.
Coach grabs me and now our faces are inches apart. His eyes are wide with anger, desperation, fear. I can smell his sweat – stale, anxious. “Do not fuck with me, Mendel. This isit, you understand? You’re a guaranteed hit. You’re the tying run.” He licks his lips and looks over his shoulder into the stands. That must be where the scout is sitting. I look, too, though I wouldn’t recognize the scout if he bit me.
I shake Coach off of me. The ump’s going to call us for delay of game any second now. “I know how to fucking play baseball, Coach. OK?”
He snarls. “Pick it up, Mendel,” he says, his voice low. Pick it up. It’s his favorite phrase. The one he uses when he’s serious, when he wants you to pay attention, when he figures you’re not bothering to listen.
Pick it up, Mendel. You never slept with me, so I ain’t about to take it easy on you!
I hustle to the batter’s box. The ump gives me a look that says, About time.
“Batter up!” he cries.
Out of the box. Knock dirt off my left shoe with the bat. Forward. Knock my right shoe. Back into the box. Turn my bat a quarter-turn. Tug helmet brim down. Push it back up.
The Heat shoots me a nasty grin. It says, I’ve got a little something I’ve been saving for you, asshat.
And he does. The first pitch isn’t just fast – it’s invisible. Even my eyes, trained to watch for the fastball, can’t track it. There’s just a white blur, a blink, and then the horrible sound of the ball slapping the catcher’s glove leather. The catcher mutters, “Ow! Damn!” under his breath. I don’t think anyone here has a radar gun, but if they do, I know that ball had to be traveling over a hundred miles an hour. It’s not impossible – a bunch of guys have thrown heat over a hundred miles an hour: Wohlers, Benitez, Jenks, Johnson…
In case you were wondering, once you’re up in that territory, you’re throwing at 1.521024*10-7 the speed of light.
The ump calls strike one. Glad he was able to see that thing move. On the mound, The Heat grins at me. He wants to punish me for starting the rally. Punish me like he punished Zik, 1-2-3.
The ball goes back to the mound. I dig in.
The Heat goes into his wind-up. Breaking ball this time, I’m sure.
I’m right. He cuts the corner of the plate. I resist the urge to swing, reminding myself that Ted Williams was a great hitter and a great not-hitter.
The ump calls it a ball. I’m one and one.
The Heat brings his fastball again. Not sure what fraction of the speed of light this one is, but it’s definitely slower than the first – not that that’s saying much. But I think he did his shoulder in with that first one. That’s why he went to the breaking ball for the second pitch.
I let this one go by. It looks a little outside to me, and I’m right – the ump calls it ball two.
The Heat winds up and hurls a burner at me. This time I know he’s slowing down. I can see this one. I swing at it and foul it off for strike two. On the mound, The Heat looks a little worried for the first time.
Yeah, that’s right. You better panic, you little piss-ant. Thought you could psych me out with that first pitch, huh? Get me freaked out and scared? Doesn’t work, pal. I’ve been threatened by cops and judges. I’ve had insane husbands hold me down and beat the shit out of me. I’m not scared of some skinny kid from Texas, even if his arm does come straight from God himself.
I foul off the next pitch, too. Staying alive. I’ve got his range now. It’s only a matter of time. And he knows it. He shakes off the first two pitches his catcher suggests before nodding to the third one.
Curveball. A beautiful thing, snapping left at the last possible instant. I should let it go. I should let it be ball three, but I can’t resist. I poke it over the third baseman’s head and into foul territory. The count’s still two and two.
On first base, Kyle’s dancing about six or seven feet away from the bag, ready to dart either way depending on what I do. How long can I string along The Heat until he delivers the pitch I want, the pitch I need? The pitch I can take over the fences, like Zik did, the pitch that ties the game.
Another pitch. This makes seven, the most pitches he’s thrown to any single hitter today. There’s anger and frustration in it, and his shoulder’s gonna regret it later, but it’s a hot, fast one. I have no choice – I swing and get a piece of it, sending the ball spinning down the first base line on the foul side.
The Heat stomps his foot like a little kid who’s been told to go to bed.
Kyle cups his hands over his mouth: “That’s it, Josh, baby! You got him! You got him! Send me home!”
Josh, baby? Kyle barely even talks to me. Who the hell is he to call me “Josh, baby?”
Another pitch, and this one’s almost too easy. It’s a strike, but nothing I can take to the cleaners. Still, I have to swing at it, so I manage to foul it off behind the plate. Still alive.
“Bring me home, Josh!”
The crowd starts chanting “Bring him home! Bring him home!” Over on the Brookdale bench, the team’s stomping in rhythm on the ground. Zik’s on his feet, his eyes alight with joy. He’s clapping his hands in time to everyone else, chanting along with them.
New pitch. I foul it into the stands near third base, where a mad scramble ensues to grab it as it rolls around on the bleachers. He’s slowing down, but he’s not throwing anything I can shoot into a hole or over the wall. I have to be patient. Have to remember Ted Williams. You don’t swing at any pitch. You swing at the ones you can hit.
Coach is practically peeing in his pants. He’s hopping up and down, ecstatic. Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows, at this point, that I’ve got The Heat’s number. That it’s just a matter of time. Now it’s me and The Heat. One of us will blink. One of us will screw up because we’re both human (yes, even The Heat) and when that happens, the other one will be forgotten. It’s just a matter of odds as to which one of us breaks first. It’s a matter of math.
I take a quick time-out to step out of the batter’s box and catch my breath. Coach gestures frantically for me to stop stalling and get back in the box.
Pick it up, Mendel.
And I realize: it wasn’t just desperation and anxiety in Coach’s eyes and sweat – it was greed and lust, too. His whole life changes when I hit this ball, when we tie it up. The scout came to see The Heat blow us away and instead – even if we lose in extra innings – he sees a team that made The Heat work harder than he should have. A team run by Coach Kaltenbach. A team he’ll watch from now on, including visits and dinners for the Coach and press attention and—
I foul away another pitch.
–and I’m starting to wonder why the hell am I going to give him everything he wants? This guy has tormented me for my entire high school ball career. Why am I going to make his life easy?
Another pitch. Another foul ball. Coach is going insane. The entire bench is up and cheering for me, something they’ve never done at any other moment in my life. Zik, who is supposed to be pissed at me, is screaming himself hoarse, veins standing out in his neck. The whole field is alive, a single living, sonic thing that wraps around me.
At first base, Kyle dances back and forth, ready to dash for second.
The Heat’s lips purse. He shakes off the catcher, then nods. I dig in. Turn my bat a quarter-turn in my grip.
The wind-up. Watching that left leg. It’s straight as a base line. No breaking ball this time.
It’s a perfect strike, or it will be, when it reaches the plate. A laser doesn’t move in a line this straight.
It’s going to cross right over the center of plate and right at my letters. Irresistible. Impossible not to swing at it.
And it’s slow. Relatively speaking, of course. Slower than his other fastballs.
You have two-tenths of a second to react. Two-tenths of a second for the quad A cocktail.
I do what I’ve trained my whole life to do. I watch the ball. I keep my eye on the ball. I never stop watching.
I watch it as it sails past me and lands in the catcher’s mitt, a perfect and glorious strike three.