Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ups and Downs

Our Pirates' first game of the year packed a lot of intrigue and action into a swift six innings. Although we did not come out on top, the game bodes well for the season.

As the visiting team, we batted first, and immediately put our first two batters on base. We had runners on second and third with no outs and our three best hitters coming to the plate, which was a much as we could have hoped for to start the season. Unfortunately, those three hitters knew the other team's pitcher, a big kid and good player, and believed that he threw the ball much harder than he actually does. Falling victim to expectations of reputation, each of our three big hitters struck out, two of them on called third strikes. For his part, Michael, the last to strike out, swung the bat practically before the ball left the pitcher's hand, apparently believing he was facing the next incarnation of Nolan Ryan. Unfortunately, the rest of our hitters were afraid to swing the bat at all in their first turns at the plate. Adjusting to facing kid pitchers is a common difficulty for nine-year-olds entering the division, and one that will probably require about half the season to overcome. Over the course of three innings, however, we did manage to put three runs on the board, sparked by one of our weakest (but most spirited) players.

We managed to get solid pitching from our top three pitchers, including Michael. Our defense was shaky, however, as we give away outs and allowed the other team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to go ahead 5-3.

That was the score as we entered the top of the sixth (and last) inning. Our batting order was set up perfectly, rolling back to the top, but we were facing the other team's best player (by general acclaim, the best 10-year-old athlete in town by a wide margin). Our first two hitters could not get on base, leaving us two runs down with two outs. Then the fun started, in that delightfully unpredictable way that baseball games can shift momentum in an instant. Rex, our first big hitter, crushed a double to deep left field (retrieved by Rex’s younger brother, whom Rex struck out earlier in the game). Rex stole third and scored when Ryan, our next big batter and best player, delivered an infield hit. Still facing two outs and now down by a single run, Michael dug in at the plate. Ryan stole second, and on an 0-1 count, Michael stroked a solid single into center field, scoring Ryan from second to tie the game. It was as solid a hit as Michael has yet had in organized baseball. The fact that he got the hit off of the one athlete all the other kids in town acknowledges is their most athletically-gifted peer made it extra sweet, but also encouraged Michael that he is capable of competing against the best of his peers. The inning ended when Michael was forced out at second on a very close play on a ground ball by the next batter.

Due to pitch-count rules, we had to bring in a less experienced pitcher for the bottom of the sixth inning. The first batter walked on five pitches, and the second batter drove the second pitch he saw past our right fielder for a game-winning walk-off RBI double. We lost the game on that play, but it happened so quickly after our two-out rally in the top of the inning that we were still riding high in our team meeting after the game. The positive finish, coming back under pressure, outweighed the loss.

The game gave us a lot to work with as coaches, which we put into action the next day at practice. It also gave the boys good lessons about not giving up and understanding the scope of their own individual capabilities. Some nine and 10-year-old boys appear to be oblivious to what goes on around them, while others take every fractional success or failure deeply personally. We have both types on our team. Managing the players' psyches is as big a part of our job as teaching them how to field a ground ball. Our first game had all sorts of triumphs and defeats, gains and reversals. Overall, they came through it well, and it looks like we are going to have a fun, competitive year.

Now pitching, No. 8 ...

Friday, March 09, 2012

Play Ball!

After more than a month of practices, Michael's baseball team (the Pirates) kicks off its season schedule tomorrow. My co-coach and I are very happy with the team we selected this year. They have a lot of skill, determination and coachability.

We have played two practice games so far. We lost one game and tied the other, but we used players out of position and tried marginal pitchers just to see what everybody could do. That the unusual lineups hid the true talent of our team from the other teams is just a happy coincidence.

Michael is off to a solid start. He was the starting pitcher for both games and played well, particularly in the second game. He has started to put the bat on the ball consistently, and drove a textbook solid single up the middle in the second game.

Now batting ...

Cheryl took this great profile of Michael at the plate in the first game. The picture alerted me to some alignment problems in Michael's stance. Last Saturday, I reworked his batting stance to give him a more compact swing by lowering his hands substantially, and he has been pounding the ball ever since. To Michael's credit, he understands and put those adjustments into action immediately. Is not the biggest or strongest on the field, but he is a kind of player who can make a coach look good.

Cheryl also took a great sequence in which Michael was thrown out on a teammate's ground ball to short.

Off at the crack of the bat

In the next picture, you can see the shortstop fielding the ball as Michael is on his way to second.

In the last picture, Michael has entered his slide as the ball is visible in the air on its way to the second baseman. He was out, but only by a matter of inches.

Much of the time, when they miss catches or throw the ball away, the boys remind you that they are still just nine and ten years old. Every now and then, however, they will pull out a sparkling play that is pure baseball, regardless of level or age. I love helping the boys learn how to produce those sublime moments.