Thursday, April 27, 2017

Freshman Baseball Update, Games 6 and 7

Five games into the season, the Campolindo freshman had yet to win a game.  There was not a worse time to face off against their rivals at Miramonte.  Throughout their youth league years, it is not an overstatement to say the Miramonte boys of Orinda owned the Campolindo boys of Moraga.  Starting when they were all 11 years old, Orinda beat Moraga in 10 out of 11 regular-season, tournament and playoff games (the sole win came in Michael’s surprising first start as an 11-year-old).  

Every year in the youth leagues, the Orinda teams were both loaded with talent and well-versed in playing a particular brand of baseball.  They were annoyingly adept at scrappy, clever play, ready and eager to bunt and steal bases at any time.  Nearly all of the same players and coaches had moved on to the Miramonte the freshman team.  We knew they were licking their chops, fully aware that our boys had yet to win a game and ready to add their annual beating to our boys’ misery.

Unlike most of the games at the beginning of the season, the coaches had no intention of rotating through a series of pitchers unless they had to.  We started our ace in the first game of the doubleheader, hoping he could keep us close so that our modest bats do just enough damage.  The game stayed scoreless through three innings (Michael popped out to lead off the game and grounded out in the third). 
Doing the little things to keep it close: throwing out the other team's best player on a steal
In the fourth, we managed to push across a run in typical costly fashion, with a double and two groundouts.  In the bottom of the fourth, Miramonte pulled ahead the way they do: an infield single, a bunt that our pitcher mishandled, an infield ground ball where the runner beat the throw home, and a sacrifice bunt scoring another run.  One hit, one error, a fielder’s choice that did not generate an out, and not a single ball out of the infield, and yet they scored two runs.  After four years of this, it was as inevitable as it was obnoxious.

To their credit, the boys came right back in the next inning.  Our pitcher singled and stole second, and after two strikeouts, Michael drove the ball over the leftfielder’s head for a double, leveling the score.   
Deep to left ...
Unfortunately, even though the next two batters walked, we could not press the advantage any further.  Predictably, in the bottom of the same inning, Miramonte came back to put two more runs on the board.  It started the usual way: a single, followed by a bunt that our pitcher again mishandled, and those two runners immediately pulled off a double steal.  One batter later, a lazy bloop to right field scored both of them.

Perhaps heralding a new chapter the season, the Campolindo boys again came back in the next inning.  Two singles and a walk loaded the bases, and a sharp single from our catcher scored two to tie the score.  With two runners on and a 2-0 count, Miramonte changed pitchers in the middle of Michael’s at-bat.  Michael proceeded to strike out against the new pitcher.  Fortunately, the next batter came through with a single to score the go-ahead run.  The bottom of the inning played to the usual script: the first Miramonte batter singled, advanced to second, and was joined on the bases by a teammate who got on through an infield error.  After a pitching change and a hit batter, the bases were loaded.  Thankfully, Campolindo got out of the inning unscathed. 

Campo began seventh-inning with a single and a double, but was unable to push any runs across.  After years of facing the Orinda players, the notion of entering the final inning up by only one run did not inspire confidence.  It was practically a matter of holy writ, then, that Miramonte’s first batter would reach base on a walk, advance to second on a wild pitch, and arrive at third via sacrifice bunt, with only one out.  We had seen enough Orinda execute enough squeeze plays over the years to know that it would take something just this side of a miracle to keep that runner from scoring.  

On a 2-0 count to the next batter, the Campo coaches brought in a new pitcher to attempt to close the game out.  With the next three pitches, our closer dispatched that batter for the second out.  After a first pitch ball to the next batter, our closer struck him out on the next three pitches.  

Just like that, with the tying run poised to score from third base with less than two outs, the Campolindo boys broke through for their first win of the season against their fiercest rival under the most difficult conditions.  Our ace pitcher and catcher, in particular, called a great game, keeping the Miramonte batters off balance most of the time, tapping into our ace’s true potential.  The vague sense of gloom that surrounded the team before the game started disappeared immediately and, one hopes, permanently.  Taking your rival’s best shot and surviving will do that.

The second game started with a bang.  In the top of the second inning, one of our big hitters who has struggled but carries the potential of a lot of power, drove a ball over 400 feet for a three run home run.  Miramonte clawed back a couple of runs in the third inning, and picked up another run (with Michael on the mound) in the fourth.

Trying to keep it close
In the top of the fifth, Campolindo played the game the Miramonte way.  The first batter let off with an infield single, and advanced to third when the Miramonte third baseman mishandled a bunt.  Our runner was thrown out at home on the next play, a ground ball to shortstop, but Michael then doubled in two runs with a drive to left center field gap.

Second double of the day
Leading by two going into the bottom of the fifth inning and playing a feisty brand of baseball, things were looking up.  But, as always seems to be the case when playing the Orinda boys, things fell apart in interesting ways.  With Michael on the mound, the first Miramonte batter got on base by an error, and was then doubled off on a lineout to Campo’s centerfielder.  Fatefully, the third out proved to be elusive.  A single, stolen base, an error and a single plated a run, and two straight errors on ground balls scored another run to tie the game.  Our closer relieved Michael and managed to end the inning without any further scoring.

Sometimes you just have to laugh it off
All photos: S. Linden

In the top of the sixth inning, Campolindo managed to load the bases with one out, but two strikeouts ended Campo’s chances.  The game remained quiet until the bottom of the seventh, when all Miramonte had to do was push across one run to win the game.  If you have been reading carefully, you know how this works by now.  The first batter singled, and advanced to second on a wild pitch.  The next batter bunted – because of course he did – and when our pitcher threw the ball away (the second baseman had not finished rotating around to cover first), the runner on second came all the way home to win the game.

Fortunately, the glow of winning the first game was enough to ease the sting of losing the second game.  The loss was typical of the way we often lost to that team over the years, and for that reason it was almost comical.  Of course, the seven errors the Campo boys committed were a major factor in handing the game over to their Miramonte rivals.  

For his part, over the two games Michael went 2-for-6 with three runs batted in, and pitched an inning and two thirds without giving up an earned run.  The three unearned runs he gave up were costly, but he got the ground balls he wanted.

Over the course of the two games, the boys started to play more like the team we had grown accustomed to seeing.  There were still some ragged edges, but against a smart and clever opponent, they appeared to be rediscovering their identity just in time.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Freshman Baseball Update, Game 5

Following the ignominious doubleheader sweep at Las Lomas, the freshman boys headed back up to Marin County to face off against Redwood again.  Now that their bats had awakened a bit, team was hopeful that it could put up a better fight than in the previous shutout.

We had been told that the coaches of the two teams had agreed informally to run the game more like a practice game, with no extended endings for pictures and more playing time for some of the bench players.  We started our ace, but only intended to pitch him for a single inning.  Redwood had other ideas, notwithstanding whatever discussions the coaches may have had, and stuck with a couple of their better pitchers (who we had seen in the prior game) for extended outings.

Regardless of how pre-game arrangements may have crumbled, it was up to the boys to play hard and well.  The game did not start particularly well, with our boys hitting into three quick outs at the plate, and then allowing an unearned run on a walk, a hit batter, and an error by Michael at shortstop.  Thankfully, he made the next play without incident to cap the first-inning scoring at a single run. 
Redwood put up a couple more runs in the next inning, but in the top of the third, the Campolindo boys finally broke out of their batting slump against Redwood.  With a walk, a series of singles (including one from Michael) and a key two-run double, Campo pulled ahead 5-3, one of the few leads they had enjoyed up to that point in the season.  Unfortunately, the boys gave the two-run lead back in the bottom of the inning when we took our ace pitcher out of the game.  The next couple of innings sought Redwood pull ahead by one and Campo claw that run back to re-establish a tie score at six runs apiece.

The season debut of the red uniform.
Things unraveled for good in the bottom of the fifth.  With Michael on the mound, he gave up a single and two walks.  He would tell you the umpire was squeezing him.  For once, I would have to agree with him.  He was not throwing wildly; he was consistently hitting spots on low corners of the zone, but he could not draw strike from the Empire.  Other parents openly (but respectfully quietly) also questioned some of the calls, and our catcher twice turned around the umpire to ask where particular pitches had missed.  As they all have to learn, however, they have to play within the constraints the umpire gives them.  Michael was unable to adapt, and ended up facing one of Redwood’s best players with the bases loaded and nobody out.  The batter had been a teammate of Michael’s over the summer on a team mostly made up of upperclassman, so we all knew he was a quality player.  He did not disappoint, driving a double just over our leftfielder’s head to score two runs.  After a groundout, a single and another walk, Michael was done on the mound without getting through the inning.  He went back to shortstop, where, ironically, he made the next out on the ground ball.  When all was said and done, Redwood had pulled ahead, 10-6.

He looked the part on the mound, even if the results didn't follow. 
Photo credit:  C. Maher

To their credit, the boys did not give up, scoring two in the top of the next inning.  For his part, Michael led off with a walk, stole second, took third on a groundout and scored on another groundout. 

On second, waiting to be driven home.
In the end, that is as close as the boys could get.  In the top of the last inning, one of our players singled, but with two outs, Michael lined out hard to the first baseman to end the game.
The boys were disappointed with another loss, particularly when both their bats and their defense improved.  It was the pitching that let them down this time, and Michael in particular had an uncharacteristically bad outing. 

They were happy to prove, though, that they could score runs against a high-quality team.  If they ever put together a complete game with quality hitting, pitching and defense, they should be competitive against anybody.  The surprise at this point is that, for a team made up primarily of players who have spent the last several years together, they are playing as if they don’t know each other.  A mysteriously consistent tendency toward physical and mental mistakes that they did not exhibit in the previous season explains most of the results so far. 

With loose ends still needing to be tightened up, a doubleheader against their archrival Miramonte, dominant early going, loomed as the next opponent on the schedule.