Two teams, mortal enemies. Sworn enemies. Bad blood and a long history, late in the season, the pennant race. Every pitch is an agony of suspense.
It's the 7th
inning. Our boys are down by two. They have one out and two on: one hit a blooper into short left; the other reached on an error (2B booted a grounder). Then the pitcher, growing tired, gets mad at himself and his error-committing teammate. Overthrows - pitches too hard. One ball high. Another high. One strike called. A foul. Then a ball low - a bad call - then the payoff pitch is way outside. The batter, number six in the lineup, walks to load the bases.
Who feels the greater pressure? The pitcher? He has control of the ball, but how much control? It's late; he's tired, his control is weakening, his fastball is losing its "pop" ...
The batter? He can be the hero or the goat. He's in a dry spell, 4 for his last 28, two weeks since his last RBI, and his average is slipping close to the .240 mark. The crowd groans as his name is announced, and then yell encouragement, and hope. He's already struck out and grounded out tonight; if he grounds into a double play it would end the inning. He's grounded into sixteen double plays this season. But one hit, even a single, can tie the game. A double would clear the bases and give his team the lead. A grand slam... he shakes his head, then removes his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow.
Before he steps in the pitching coach trudges out to the mound to discuss the situation, and the infielders and catcher join him. Up to this point the pitcher has been sharp, allowing a handful of hits and no runners past second. Two relievers are up in the bullpen, warming up as fast as they can.
The organist plays a little tune to pass the time, and the batter takes a few practice swings. The umpire takes a few steps toward the mound and the meeting breaks up. The crowd cheers as the batter returns to the box.
The pitcher bounces the resin bag in his hand and drops it, then walks to the rubber. The batter steps in, paws the ground, waggles the bat and takes his stance. The pitcher stares in at the catcher. The catcher flashes the signs; the pitcher shakes off the first two and accepts the third with a nod. The catcher sets up; the umpire crouches. The pitcher sets, strides, delivers-
A swing, a big cut. Ball is clipped foul, strike one. The batter steps out, muttering to himself. His teammates chew their nails.
Pitch. A ball, just outside. The pitcher disagrees, the catcher glances back at the ump as if to say, "Who are you trying to kid?"
The crowd is getting loud now, the noise swelling just before each pitch.
Pitch, a splitter that gets away, in the dirt. Ball two. No questioning that one.
Pitch. A change-up; the batter, fooled, swings a good ten inches over the ball, almost before it reaches the plate. Strike two. The wave of crowd-noise breaks and diminishes, like surf, to immediately rise again.
Pitch. Fastball, hit long and deep, but foul. Crowd gasps. The batter steps out, swearing at himself. The pitcher gets a new ball and rubs it. His manager blows out a held breath. A kid in the stands bounces up, clutching the ball, now a keepsake.
Everyone takes a breath; the batter steps in with one foot and adjusts his gloves; the catcher flashes the signs to the pitcher; third base coach gives a flurry of signals to the runners, who hover a few feet to the right of their respective bases. The catcher tilts his mask and spits. The pitcher steps to the rubber; the batter steps in; catcher sets up, ump crouches, crowd begins to yell.
Pitcher stares in. Sets. Strides and throws- the batter raises his arms and arches backwards, and the catcher holds the ball where he caught it. The ump lifts his left hand - ball, inside.
Full count. The pitching coach trots out, joined at the mound by 1B, catcher and shortstop. The crowd, on its feet now, yells, cheers, waves banners and signs. The batter walks around, and then the ump goes out to break up the meeting. The coach retreats, the infielders trot back to their positions, and the pitcher stands alone on the mound.
The payoff pitch is too high; the batter thinks he can handle it, then checks his swing, but fouls the ball to the left. The crowd noise doesn't falter, but grows.
A long look-in from the pitcher, and then the pitch.
A good one, a high, humming fastball. He's gotten six strikeouts with it today, including this batter, a good low-ball hitter. The pitcher knows it's a dangerous pitch. The batter knows it's his bread and butter.
Stride, swing - CRACK!
The crowd gasps, then as one being begins to yell, to encourage the ball to further flight. The home team surges as one up the dugout steps to watch. The ball sails high over the pitcher, higher over the infield, arcing and starting back down. Everybody projects the line of the ball and realizes that it will not be a homer - but what will happen?
LF goes back, back, tracking the ball - then realizes that he'll have to play it off the wall.
The ball hits two feet below the top - CLONK! - the wall resounds with the impact, and the ball drops, then bounces up to the charging fielder. The batter sprints - LF barehands the ball and throws back in so hard that he falls down-
One runner reaches home as the crowd screams its approval. Another crosses the plate as the ball nears the infield. Shortstop cuts off the throw and pivots to relay to home. The third runner charges in and dives, an instant before the ball bangs into the catcher's mitt in a cloud of dust. The ump's hands flash out. SAFE!
The batter (now the hero) sees his chance and pours it on after hesitating at second. The catcher jumps up and throws toward third. The ball, runner and baseman converge in a pile of outstretched limbs, dust, flying helmet and scattered dirt. The crowd watches as the ump waits a second, then curls a fist and punches the empty air - OUT at third. The cheers turn to a resounding "Booooooooo......"
The defenders got their revenge on the man with three RBI. The offense and home crowd cheer as the hero picks himself up and shakes the dirt from his belt. He jogs across the diamond to the dugout, getting high-fives from his teammates.
There are only two out...