Marshal drops the sign, I shake it off. The batter almost sent my slider over the fence last at-bat. Luckily it veered foul. Following sign called for a fastball, high and inside.The wind-up. The pitch. The batter tried to check his swing but pulled the trigger anyway for strike two.
Marshal tossed the ball back. Wiping my brow, I tried not to think about the next pitch, or inning. There were no runners on base. I could play around, test the guy. But this is the first time in my career I’ve been in a position to throw a no-hitter. Normally my mind is a blank; let Marshal do the thinking for me. He’s good at that. With this being the final batter of the seventh inning he’s had to pull extra duty to make sure I retain the focus from the first.
Marshal drops the sign; high and outside fastball. The wind-up. The pitch. The batter swung aggressively, sending the ball skidding across the dirt to shortstop. The ball is scooped up, tossed to first. End of inning.
Heading for the dugout, a few teammates clap me on the back with less than enthusiastic cheers while others give genuine sounding praise; pretty much how the school day had been. The crowd seemed to at least be behind me. It’s still strange not hearing Charity’s loud applause. Can’t recall a time I didn’t enjoy seeing her cheer me on. Now, I don’t even want to look at her.
After a scoreless inning we take the field again. After a few warm-up tosses the first batter, a lefty, steps in. Marshal drops the sign; slider, low and away. The wind-up. The pitch. The tip of the bat connects, sending the ball towards first base where it’s cleanly fielded for out one. Next batter steps in as I watch the previous batter trot back to the visiting dugout cursing himself.
Marshal drops the sign; fastball low, no specific area. The wind-up. The pitch. “Striiiiiiiiike one!” Next sign is another fastball, this time middle and in. The wind-up. The pitch. Ball one, just barely missing the zone. My shoulder slightly twinges in pain. Marshal drops the sign for another fastball, same location. The wind-up. The pitch. “Striiiiiiiike two!” Next sign is a curve ball, middle and in. The wind-up. The pitch. The ball is hit but falls in front of Marshal who quickly scoops it up and tags the runner out for out number two.
Rotating my arm, Marshal tosses the ball to third who then tosses it to second, to first, and then finally back to me as the third batter steps in. Marshal drops the sign; slider, low and away. I shake it off. Drops the sign for a curve, same location. Shake that off too. Marshal gets up and begins a quick jog to the mound. I use the time to gently massage my shoulder which has developed a slight ache.
“What’s up?” Marshal asks through the face guard.
“How many times have I used the changeup?”
Marshal shrugs. “Think about a dozen.”
“Let’s toss some more. Don’t wanna burn my arm out.”
Marshal claps my shoulder then begins his trot back behind the plate. Squatting in position, he drops the sign for the changeup low and inside. The wind-up. The pitch. Ball one. Same pitch, only low and away. “Striiiiiike one!” Marshal drops the sign for a fastball, high and in. The wind-up. The pitch. Ball two. Next pitch is a fastball, low and in. “Striiiiiike two!” A changeup, low and away; the batter fouls it deep into left field territory.
The slight ache in my shoulder becomes a dull throb. Marshal drops the sign; slider, low and away. The wind-up. The pitch. Ball three. Only the second full count of the game. Last one resulted in a walk.
Marshal drops the sign for a changeup, low and in. The wind-up. The pitch. The batter swings through it for strike three. Inning over. Exhaling loudly, I trot back to the dugout to more faux and real cheers.
With another run added to our total I step on the mound for the final inning of Game Two of the first playoff round. First batter to step in struck out three times- a hat trick- swings at the first pitch, popping it to center field for the first out. The dull throb becomes more steady as the next batter steps in. Can’t remember the last time I pitched this deep into a game.
Marshal drops the sign; slider, low and in. The wind-up. The pitch. The ball is weakly hit towards second, picked up and, no. Is he…no. The second baseman slowly grounds his cleats into the dirt as he lobs the ball to first but not nearly in time to make the out.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The way he…it looked almost intentional. But, why would he do that? As I look around each of the fielders veered their gaze in every direction but my way. Shaking my head, I focused on the next batter. Marshal drops the sign for another slider low and in. Ball one.
Frustration begins to bubble as Marshal drops the sign for a changeup, low and in. Swung on and missed for strike one. Another changeup, middle and in. “Striiiiike two!” Fastball, high and outside. Ball two. Same pitch and location. The batter connects, sending the ball on a one-hop to third where it’s scooped up and turned into a game ending double play.
Walking off the mound I quickly made my way into the locker room where I showered and began changing. With my shirt half on Winters, the butterfingers second baseman, came over. “Hey, man, sorry about that play. Thought I had my footing.”
I finished dressing in silence, not even nodding to acknowledge his so-called apology. Recalling the expressions on everyone’s faces they knew he blundered purposely. Why would he do something that could potentially cost the game, despite how in control I was. A hush began to descend on the locker room.
As I brushed passed Winters he raised his voice while tailing me. “Look, man, I said I was sorry. I don’t know-”
“What’s the problem, Davenport? Are we still calling you Davenport? We all know that’s not your real name.”
“Get outta my face, Novak.”
“What’re you gonna do if I don’t?”
Our noses practically kissed. The room felt smaller as the players gradually wandered over to watch the exchange.
“You’ve had a bug up your ass all year with me. What the hell did I ever do to you besides pitch better?”
“You could never be a better pitcher than me. That’s why I’m the ace.”
With a half-grin I said “keep telling yourself that.”
As I walked away Novak said “surprising you even have the ability to pitch, what with all those drugs your real mother took.” Quickly spinning, I raced over with my arm cocked back. Before I could swing Marshal stood between us. “He’s not worth it, Chase.”
“Mind your business, Marshal. Had you not invited him over that night Denise wouldn’t be contemplating suicide.”
“Like Daddy’s Little Girl would ever kill herself. Stop being so blindly sympathetic. You haven’t even fucked her and she’s got you wrapped around her finger.”
“Watch who you side with, Marshal.” An unknown voice said.
Silence, until “what are you girls bickering about? Hit the showers.” The crowd trickled until it was just Novak, Marshal, and I. “That goes for you three, as well. Let’s go, stop standing around like you’re at a boy-girl dance.”
With a grin Novak backs away, turning in the direction of his locker. Before I could thank Marshal he made his way to the showers. I quickly grabbed my bag from the floor, not even remembering dropping it, and walked out suddenly feeling even more alone as the driver opened the back passenger door.