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.

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