Blowout Victory

Hand-painted baseball courtesy of Sophie Bryan

Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League Week #5.

The Cyclones were playing the High Rollers. My team against Mark’s team. Both teams needed a win. I wanted a win for Coach Nasby, who was sick at home with a stomach bug on his birthday. I wanted a win for the team, who had lost two extra-inning games and deserved the opportunity to exchange celebratory high fives on the field. I wanted a win for me, because I had watched enough losing this baseball season.

Fall was here, at least for the day. This was the day the Lord had made. I was ready to rejoice and play ball on it. Skies were cloud-covered and temperatures were nowhere near 100 degrees. Rainy forecast threats increased throughout the afternoon, so those in charge made modifications to the schedule. Each game was moved up an hour and all games were only 7 innings in length.

I was running sprints in the outfield, feeling fast and light on my feet. Barry Allen would have been proud of the fleet-footedness of this 45 year old. I felt it as soon as it happened and stopped running. I looked down and my right shoe was completely torn across the toe box. A blowout. I ran faster than my shoes would allow, I thought and chuckled. Having purchased the pair used at Play It Again Sports, I initially thought I’d only need them through tryouts. I briefly considered putting my tennis shoes on, but figured these shoes could at least get me through the game.

The wind blew steadily toward left field as the clouds swirled overhead. I started the game in left field and did nothing to draw attention to myself defensively. The speed of the turf at U.S. Baseball Park continues to amaze me. Solid hits just don’t slow down and almost seem to pick up speed as they skip across the surface. The few balls hit my direction, I fielded cleanly, thankfully, and threw back to the infield without runners advancing extra bases. No fly balls, which was probably good as the ball itself blended in quite well with the skies and bleachers.

Hitting ninth, I was first to the plate in the top of the third inning and my heart was pounding. With the game tied at zeros, I wanted to get the scoring started. I wanted to feel the sweet nothingness of barreling a ball, sending a line drive screaming to the gap that their center fielder wouldn’t catch. (He caught everything.) But I simply couldn’t take a breath deep enough to calm myself down. I wasn’t afraid but I definitely wasn’t “in the zone,” living completely in the moment, trusting training and instincts to do their job. I was in that absurd state of will-someone-please-turn-off-my-brain-so-I-can-hit-the-ball.

After four pitches, the count was two balls and two strikes and I had yet to take a swing. My first swing earned me a membership in Cole Roark’s not-so-exclusive K Club. Over the four innings he pitched, Cole accrued 5 strike outs. At least I was in good company. (Skylar, our starting pitcher, recorded 7 strikeouts in his four innings. It was that kind of day.)

The High Rollers tallied one in the bottom of each the third and fourth innings, taking a 2 – 0 lead heading into the final three innings. Per league rules, only one pitcher per team can throw four innings, unless a game goes in to extra innings. With Cole having reached his max, Mark entered the game in the top of the fifth. I was the fourth hitter scheduled.

But Mark only needed 6 pitches to record three outs.

Loren flied out to left field on the first pitch. Two pitches later, Brandon flied out to the shortstop in short center field. Zach grounded out to the shortstop who is also his brother. My playing day was done. Skylar was headed to left field as my replacement in the lineup. Pitchers are hitters, too.

Jake matched Mark’s 1-2-3 inning and kept our deficit at two. We desperately needed to score two runs or all postseason dreams were vanished.

Skylar walked to start the sixth and Rob singled him to second. We finally had a good scoring opportunity. After throwing two balls to Jared, Mark was pulled and replaced by High Rollers’ side-arming reliever Chris Matlock, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2009. Jared walked and loaded the bases as the rain started to fall.

And then Matlock went to work, striking out Tyler on a wicked slider for the first out.

On the first pitch he saw, R.J. hit a bomb straight into the teeth of the wind to center field. Of course, the center fielder caught it, but it was deep enough to break the shutout and cut the deficit to 1.

Matlock then threw a few more wiffle balls to strike out Layn and end the inning.

The rain picked up and Jake went back to work. Fly out. Ground out. Strike out. On to the seventh. Three outs to score 1 run.

Two lefties were to lead off the inning, Nick followed by Loren. I was “coaching” first in case a pinch runner was needed.

Nick was successful against the sidewinder, with a grounder just inside the first base line. The ball was fielded by the High Rollers’ first baseman who couldn’t successfully connect with the covering pitcher. And, just like that, I was on first as the tying run.

Rule number one: Don’t get picked off of first. My leads were uber-conservative and I was aware of any possibility the catcher might throw behind me.

Loren took the first pitch for a strike. As the rain continued to fall, the second pitch sailed far outside to even the count. Another off-speed pitch outside and Loren was ahead in the count. Loren pulled the 2 – 1 offering between first and second.

Don’t get hit by the ball!

I stopped, threw up my hands, and sucked in my gut to dodge the high-hopper and tore off toward second.

On the very next step, I had my own Forrest Gump moment: Something bit my calf muscle.

I didn’t know where the ball was and had to make it to second. I couldn’t stand the thought of being thrown out. I didn’t know that the ball was in shallow right field, barely snagged by the High Rollers second baseman. I didn’t know that there wasn’t any play anywhere.

I reached second base safely and Coach Ryan Wolfe called out to me, “You okay?”

I shook my head. No, I’m not.

Ryan took over as a pinch runner for the pinch runner and I hopped toward the dugout.

Teammates greeted me with fist bumps and high fives as I navigated the four steps into the concrete bunker, overcome with frustration. I wanted to contribute something other than a K in the score book.

But baseball, like life, is not a game that is all about me.

On the next pitch, texting-friend Brandon hit a line drive to shortstop and Ryan barely got back to second, avoiding the double play. If that had been me on second, I probably would’ve been doubled up. What a serendipitous turn of events.  

Zach came up with the perfect hit, one the center fielder couldn’t catch, and Ryan scored the tying run. There was still a glimmer of hope.

Rob, our back-up catcher, got the go-ahead RBI in extra innings on a hit by pitch that barely brushed his jersey. In the bottom of the inning, he saved a tying run by stopping a wild slider, bouncing in front of the plate and hitting him in the throat. He wanted the win as much as anyone.  

The CY Sports Cyclones finally won their first game, in extra innings, 3 – 2.

It’s so easy to get caught up in ego and numbers and dreaming up back of baseball card stats. But the only way one wins a baseball game is through team effort. I’m grateful for friends and teammates who gave their all to the very end and earned the W.

The only way anyone makes it through this quixotic quest of collecting trips around the sun is with the help of friends. I can only hope your friends are as fun to be around as my teammates.

Icing and heating and ibuprofen-ing a strained calf is much easier to do after a win.

Let’s do it again next week.