Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Freshman Baseball Update, Games 3 and 4

In a year of historic rainfall, the boys' first doubleheader came on the sunniest, warmest day of the year so far.  They were matched up against one of their local rivals, Las Lomas, for the first time, so they would face off against players they will see for the next several years.  Knowing that Las Lomas had been blown out in consecutive games by Miramonte, our primary, Hatfields-and-McCoys-level rival, the boys were optimistic that they would come away with their first win of the season.

The first game got off to a bright start.  Our ace pitcher mowed through the Las Lomas lineup, giving up one harmless hit and striking out four through the first four innings, breaking our habit of  giving up sloppy runs in the first.  Even better, we scored three runs in the second inning, with Michael driving in his team's first run of the season.

It wasn't pretty –  a hard ground ball off the pitcher's glove – but it got the job done.

He later got a great read on a single to score from second (a talent he has displayed in a few games in recent seasons) to score the team's fifth run in the sixth inning.

Unfortunately, that is all we would get.  On the other side of the ball, Los Lomas chipped away in the late innings to tie the ballgame in the bottom of the sixth.  In the bottom of the seventh with the score still tied, the coaches brought Michael into pitch.  

He got the first hitter on a very long fly ball that our centerfielder did well to track down. The next batter got on with ground ball to the third baseman that was foul by foot in the eyes of everyone in the park except the home plate umpire.  A stolen base and an error put the runner on third, still with only one out.  After a meaningless walk, the next batter popped the ball into short left field.  An awkward catch and a late throw allowed the runner to tag up and score from third to end the game.

The boys were outraged that they lost, believing that although the top of the Las Lomas lineup included some high quality players, the balance of the roster was, in our boys' eyes, below our level.  The scoreboard said otherwise, of course.

The coaches changed things up in the second game, starting a few players who had not played as much over the first few games.  The boys started well again, putting a run on the board in the first inning with a couple of walks and an RBI single.  For the second game in a row, we got a great effort from our starting pitcher, who kept things under control over the first four innings by giving up only one run.

With the score 2-1 in our favor going into the fifth inning, things started to get interesting.  One of our players walked and proceeded to score on a series of balks called by the umpires that frustrated the pitcher and drew the ire of the Las Lomas coach.  We managed to score another run to go up by three.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, the first Las Lomas batter struck out.  However, because our catcher dropped the third strike, the better could attempt to advance to first.  The throw from the catcher went straight over the batter's head and arrived at first base at about the same time, resulting in a collision between the batter and our first baseman.  The Las Lomas coach, still steamed about balks called against his pitcher a few minutes earlier, argued with both umpires, apparently on the theory that our first baseman had impeded the batter's progress.  This is not the rule, as the fielder may go wherever he needs to go receive the ball.  As he returned to his dugout unsatisfied, the opposing coach appeared to me to animatedly exhort his team to play rough.  In the worst possible reinforcement of bad coaching sportsmanship, the next Las Lomas batter was rewarded for physical play.  The throw on his ground ball drew our first baseman off the bag and into the batter's path.  The batter aggressively ran into our first baseman, knocking the ball out of his glove.   The runner should have been called out for extending his arms rather than simply absorbing the collision, but the umpires apparently had had enough discussions with coaches.  The inning unraveled from there in a haze of walks, errors, hits and two pitching changes.  When the dust finally settled, we were behind 8-4.

In the top of the sixth inning, we put our first two runners on base.  Michael, who had entered the game two innings earlier, blasted a double to the left-centerfield gap, scoring one run.

Michael loves any picture that shows off his rippling muscles...
A sacrifice fly scored a second run, bringing us back to within two runs.  Unfortunately, we gave up a few hits in the bottom of the sixth, pushing the score back to a four-run deficit.  Down to our last at-bat, we loaded the bases with two outs.  Two walks (including one to Michael) pushed across two runs, but we could get no further, losing 10-8.   Michael was frustrated that he batted with the bases loaded with the game on the line and got nothing to hit.  He earned an RBI with his walk, but he was swinging the bat well (in addition to his double his last at-bat, he had also driven a ball  to deep centerfield in the first game) and would have preferred to have had the chance to knock in more runs with a hit.

The two losses to what the boys considered an inferior team were supremely frustrating to them.   On the positive side, their bats finally awakened, and they showed a little fight in coming back in the second game.  Unlike the first couple of games of the season, though,  the pitching and defense showed significant weaknesses.  We are still looking forward to seeing the boys play well in all  phases of the game at the same time.  The ability is certainly there.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Freshman Baseball Update, Game 2

The second game of the freshman baseball season continued a worrisome trend.  The boys suffered a shut out again, generating only one hit.  In the 2-0 loss to Redwood of Marin County, we once again got a solid pitching effort from three players, who held the game at 1-0 until the bottom of the sixth inning when Redwood managed to push across an insurance run.  In the meantime, our boys received a lot of walks, but were unable to put a bat on the ball when we needed it most.  We also had two runners thrown out attempting to steal, and another runner picked off first base by the catcher.  We also had five errors in the field (four by one player who had a particularly rough day, but who also  made three good defensive plays, and pitched a very effective inning at the end of the game).

Michael had a very quiet day, with two strikeouts and a fly ball to center field.   He came up with runners on second and third and one out midway through the game, a prime opportunity for him to put some runs on the board.  Unfortunately, the first pitch skimmed off his helmet.  He wasn't hurt, and he got on base, but it took the bat out of his hands.  The next batter grounded to the pitcher, who got the force at home for the second out.  The catcher threw wildly to first to attempt the double-play, but the right fielder made a perfect throw back to home plate to get our next runner who was attempting to score from second on the play.  Just like that, our best chance to score evaporated.

Redwood's starting pitcher was a teammate of Michael's over the summer on a team designed around clients of a pitching coach.   This pitcher was one of them.  He and the teammate who relieved him both threw very hard.  Other than Michael, who played against JV and varsity pitchers over the summer, it is likely that none of the other boys on the team had ever faced velocity so consistently high.  Although they would never admit it, they appeared intimidated, taking called strikes throughout the game, including called third strikes.   Taking a called third strike, an almost unforgivable sin, has also been an odd hallmark of this group of boys for years. Somehow, in their first days of facing kid pitchers when they were nine years old, it became imprinted on them that it was preferable to wait for a walk then to attack a pitch.  The aggressive players will continue to move up; the passive players will eventually find themselves on the sidelines.

Michael had no better luck with Redwood's pitchers than anybody else (and he went down swinging on his strikeouts).  He did make solid contact with one ball when he flew out to the center fielder, which was probably the hardest any of our guys bit a ball in the game.  His strikeouts were quick and surgical, showing that as effective as he can be against some of his peers, he is still not quite ready to face next-level pitching.  He kept his head in the game on the defensive side, though, and handled the one ground ball that came his way cleanly.  It was a slow roller that he had to charge to field on the infield grass; it took his strong arm to beat the batter by half a step.

It is fair to say that the rust should be off by now.  The boys have had several weeks of practice and a couple of games.  This weekend they have a doubleheader against one of their nearby rival high schools, which will have a roster full of players they will face for the next four years.   If our pitchers continue their excellent performance and our gloves settle down a little, all we need to do is start putting the ball in play to start seeing some success.   We know we have some talented hitters, and we will be getting one of our best hitters back after he missed the first two games.

By tradition, the boys wore their uniform caps at school on game day, which gave them all a nice little boost of recognition and status in the halls.  Win or lose, it is a joy seeing these boys band together to compete for their school. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Freshman Baseball Begins With Bangs

High school baseball has officially begun.  There was a time when I didn’t entertain any thought that this could happen; didn’t even consider the possibility.  Eventually, the possibility of high school baseball became something that seemed like an outside possibility leavened with plenty of doubt.  As more time passed, and especially when it became clear that a freshman team would be available, it seemed increasingly likely, if not inevitable that Michael would play at least a year on the freshman team.  Now?  The future seems wide open.

The boys looked terrific in their new uniforms, facing off against the same team they had scrimmaged two weeks earlier.  In that game, against an assortment of pitchers, our boys collected 11 hits.  This time, the best we could manage was three hits, and Michael had two of those.  The boys played well, but made a couple of costly mistakes early in the game to give their opponent a 3-0 advantage that held up for the rest of the game.  The other guys, having already played half a dozen games this season, were just a little bit sharper, especially at the plate.  I don’t think I’ve seen a game in which our boys hit more flyballs, just missing hittable pitches all over the place.  Given another couple of weeks of practice against live pitching, we should be hitting the ball harder.

For his part, Michael had a great game.  He let off the game with a single and stole second.  He singled again on a hard line drive later in the game, and again stole second.  His singles a fly ball for an out to deep left field.  He said after the game he loves it when he comes to bat, as he did before his second single, and the other team starts yelling “back up!”  He said that the other team was also calling out to play him to pull the ball to left field based on his prior fly ball.  That left a big hole in right-center field.  So where did he put his second hit?  Right-center field.  Defensively, as the starting shortstop, he was on the receiving end of three throws from our catcher to throw out runners attempting to advance to second.  He also caught a hard line drive and made a play on a slow grounder.  

Leading off second after a single and stolen base
This was one of the few games he came out of wishing he could have played a doubleheader.  After spending last summer competing against much older players, he was not intimidated by the freshman pitchers and wanted to keep hitting.  As it was, he was the on-deck hitter when the game ended with runners on base.  He intended to swing for the fences to tie the game if the batter ahead of him had gotten on base safely.  His confidence and performance bodes well for the season.

Michael’s performance was particularly notable because going into the game, he completely lost focus, missing ground balls and overthrowing bases during warm-ups.  His mind was elsewhere.  Specifically, he was thinking about me, because he beaned me in the face during a warm-up drill 20 minutes before the game started.  Because of an unusual configuration of the field, the spectator teachers are closer to the baselines than the dugouts.  One of the team’s standard warm-ups is to take ground balls in front of the dugout.  The spectator area was directly behind the coach receiving throws from the players and separated only by a waist-high fence.  During the warm-up, I was standing at that fence talking with a friend.  In the middle of our conversation, I took a quick glance at the field, dimly noting that I was directly in line with the coach receiving the players’ throws.   A little voice inside my head said, “you know, if there is an overthrow – and you know there always is – you are the next thing the ball is going to hit.”  Through many difficult experiences, I know to ignore that small voice at my peril.  Sure enough, the peril came as it usually does.  If I saw the ball that hit me, I only did so in the millisecond before it made contact with my face at my upper lip and nose.  With a loud exclamation that may not have been completely PG, I went down in a heap and proceeded to bleed like a sheared off fire extinguisher.

I find that at least within my own head, I become incredibly lucid and systematic in moments of extreme distress.  I immediately felt my nose and teeth to make sure nothing was broken (thankfully, all seemed in order; I probably would have passed out if I felt something askew).  Once that critical self-assessment was complete, my brain kicked into high gear with all of the really important things.  First: I made sure to scoot back a little from where I lay prone on the turf to make sure I didn’t bleed all over my brand new hat.  Second:  if I go down, who’s going to score this game?  The important thoughts kept coming: I’m supposed to sing and play guitar in church services tomorrow; how am I going to look?  It’s also going to be terribly embarrassing at the office this week to be hideously disfigured.  All very important stuff.

Before I got up off the ground to wash myself off, I was vaguely aware that Michael was one of the people crowded around me.  I told him to go back and play and that I would be fine.  I was touched that he had come over, and did not yet know that he was the one who had thrown the ball that hit me.  After battling through some light dizziness and nausea, within a few minutes I was on my feet and assuring the coaches that I was fine.  Thanks to some Advil provided by one of the moms, I felt okay, relatively speaking – as well as one can feel when one has taken a baseball to the face.

Someone then let me know that Michael had thrown the ball that hit me (I learned later from him that he had thrown the ball in more of lob than his usual cannon shot, thank God).  That was right about the time our boys were taking infield warm-up on the field, where Michael looked uncharacteristically awful.  When they were done, I called him over to tell him that I was fine, I was not hurt, and that he should go out and simply play the game the way he knows how without worrying about me.  A few moments later, one of the coaches came over to me and asked me if I had spoken to Michael, clearly concerned that Michael was rattled.  I assured him that I was following the same train of thought as he was and that I had been spoken with him.  Michael admitted after the game that he did lose focus during warm-ups because of what happened to me.  He was worried that the coaches would pull him from the game if he could not get his focus back.  That made his single leading off the game all the more sweet.  It settled him down, and he went on to have a terrific game.  For my part, my nose did stop bleeding by dinnertime, which is all you can really ask of a birthday, isn’t it?

Michael was the target of most of their gibes. I assured them all that Michael would be walking home from the game. The coaches also called all the other dads over and let them know that sign-ups for the next game’s dad beaning would be up on the team’s website shortly. The weekly team e-mail also made sure to take note of my little bleeding incident.  I have a feeling this is one of those little events that will remain a part of the program’s lore for the small group of us who were there.