The pitch was high and outside despite Marshal calling for middle-in. Same as last pitch. If I walk this runner the bases will be loaded.
Marshal dropped the sign for a changeup, low and away. I nodded. The windup. The pitch. The ball sailed inside but too low, one-hopping in the dirt around the plate. Bases loaded.
Marshal threw the ball back while calling for a time out. He then trotted over to the mound. “Everything alright, Chase?”
“Yea. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because your pitches don’t have the usual velocity. And your missing your marks.”
He looked at the runners on second and third base. “With one out we need to induce a double play and get you outta this mess. Let’s pitch the next guy inside. He’s a sucker for inside pitches.”
I nodded and watched Marshal trot back behind the plate, squat down, and call the sign. Checking the runner on third, I got into a wind-up. The ball flew from my fingertips and sailed downwards towards the plate. Just as Marshal predicted he swung, but missed. The crowd seemed back in the game with the first pitch strike.
I took a breath, got into a wind-up, threw another fastball low. This time the batter connected, sending it to third base. Only he didn’t grab it- the ball bounced under his legs while skirting the foul line into right field for a base hit that sent two runners home, decreasing our lead to just one.
I audibly cursed. It was only the fourth inning. Coach Tilden came out of the dugout and made his way to the mound, but not before signaling to the bullpen that a righty would be coming out to replace me. Reaching for the ball Coach Tilden padded me on the back saying “don’t worry about it, Davenport. Can’t beat em all. Hit the showers.”
I trotted off the mound, head down, to the dugout to the tune of scattered cheers. Charity wasn’t there. She had yet another doctor’s appointment that she didn’t want me attending. Perhaps that’s where my focus was rather than here. Whatever the case may be this game was one of my worst yet.
Desilva finished his warm-up tosses and stared in at Marshal for the sign. He got what he wanted. The batter connected with the ball, sending it to shortstop who scooped it up and tossed it to second who then relayed it to first for the double play.
I audibly cursed again.
The team trotted back into the dugout preparing to bat in the bottom half if the inning. Before heading into the clubhouse I called out to Marshal who followed me towards the door to the locker room.
“Do you have any plans for after the game?” I asked him.
“Just to study. You need me for something?”
“Yea. Would you mind catching some of my pitches?”
Just before walking away he said, “you sure you’re alright, Chase?”
I nodded with a faint smile hoping it would convince him. But I knew he knew otherwise.
The game ended an hour later with the decision going to Desilva, walking away with his second W of the season. Everyone showered and went about their after school activities while Marshal squat down behind home plate with me back on the mound.
“What do you wanna start with first?” Marshal asked.
“Let me get loose with ten fastballs. Then I’ll throw some changeups, followed by sliders.”
The slider is what felt out of whack today, but overall the changeup and slider have both been failing to hit their marks. I needed to feel both pitches’ electricity again, like when I first began using them.
Each fastball sailed smoothly off my fingertips and into Marshal’s glove. “Your fastball looks good. It’s got a sharp break to it at the end. Are you trying to throw a splitter?” He asked.
“No, just putting a bit more pressure on my middle finger than usual. Should I keep doing that?”
“Have you used it in any games this season?”
“I tried today. Felt like my fastballs were flat though.”
“Some were. I was worried maybe you were going to exhaust your shoulder much sooner than usual so I tried loosening it up with changeups.”
It’s true that a changeup can add zip to the fastball, and vice versa. Dad taught me that. When I’m on the mound I tend to not think about what to throw; Marshal knows how to set each batter up. I follow his lead.
“I’ll throw some changeups now.”
Each pitch went either low and into the dirt or a bit wide.
“Your control of the changeup was erratic. Had this been a game you would have given up a run by now. Do you wanna throw a few more before moving on?”
I nodded. Marshal knew I was gaining more confidence in the slider but at the same time, since giving up a homerun with it recently, I’ve been shaking it off more each start. In fact, with the bases loaded, I should have thrown it to induce the double play; it’s been the go-to pitch for exactly that situation.
“Alright, enough changeups. They look okay. Nice break to them. Gimme some sliders. Then your curveball.”
I nodded, sending the first pitch tightly into the corner of the plate to which he framed as if it were a real game. That’s where we sent the pitch, or to the opposite corner- the next pitch location. I alternated sides, making sure to keep the ball low to secure the double play. On the last pitch Marshal quickly stood up and tossed the ball back to me.
“Let me see your curveball now.”
He squat down and I hesitated, but only for a second. The ball came out of my hand and into Marshal’s glove too high. Instead of it giving the illusion of falling off a table, each pitch hung too long over the middle of the plate.
After the fifth pitch Marshal stood up. “You’re putting too much pressure on the ball, that’s why it’s hanging over the plate. Loosen your grip and try again.”
He squat back down. Taking his advice I relieved some of the tension in my fingers, then released it. I noticed a significant difference in trajectory; the ball tightly wound around the corner of the inside part of the left side of the plate to which Marshal framed it perfectly and would have been called a strike. I repeated the process five more time before he got up and tossed the ball back.
“Give me five more sliders using the same method. You need to make the pitch a bit tighter. You’ll get more ground balls that way. That’s your strength; you get strikeouts but give the fielders a workout.”
“I’d like to avoid that. I get jittery when the batter connects.”
Marshal removed his mask and trotted over to the mound. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this because it might seem like I’m talking badly about a teammate but when the guys and I get together and shop talk comes up, we all agree on one thing- the game is more enjoyable when you’re on the mound. Novak may be the ace on paper but we all think you are. He has a heavy fastball and a wicked changeup which is why his strikeout total is high. And, yea, games tend to end quicker. But whenever he’s on the mound it’s like we’re not there, or that he doesn’t need us. Who wants to be on a team with a guy like that?”
I had no idea they all felt that way.
“So I’ll ask you again- is something bothering you?”
I looked him in the eye and felt like I could trust him. I reached into my back pocket and handed him a folded paper and watched as he unfolded it, stared down at it, then widened his eyes back at me.
“You and Charity?”
Handing the sonogram picture back he said, “you’re trusting me with this secret- and I will keep it. In return, trust me each start. Have faith in your pitches, and me. Use each pitch to let a bit of what you’re feeling inside go but at the same time try not to think so much. Got it?”
I nodded as we shook hands.
“Want to throw a few more?”
Before I could answer Marshal trotted back behind the plate and squat down. “Give me a fastball and then a slider, followed by a changeup and then curveball.”
I threw until my shoulder ached.
Marshal removed his mask and trotted over to the mound. “That’s it for today. Your pitches got better in the end. Try to remember how you felt now the next time you’re on the mound.”
I nodded as we walked back into the dugout towards the locker room. “Do you have the notes for yesterday’s AP History class?”
“Yea, back home. Want me to being them for you tomorrow?”
“Yea. Gotta catch up on studying for mid-terms.”
“Tell you what. Come by my place day after tomorrow. A bunch of people are coming over for a study group.”
“Alright, sure. You live on 76th right?”
“78th. I’ll leave your name with the doorman. He’ll let you right up.”
We slapped palms while entering the locker room where we showered, changed, and went in opposite directions towards homeward bound.