A Little League Coaching Story:
My son, Jacob, is 12. He plays in 3 different youth baseball leagues. I coach in 2 of them. I'm the head coach of the town Little League team he's on, The Twins.
Today is our first Playoff game. These are the games that count. And this one is against The Pirates, the team that I have believed all season is most competitive with ours. They beat us 2 out of 3 during the regular season.
On the mound today, they have their best pitcher. He throws harder than anyone on our team. We have my son's good friend, Gregory on the mound. Gregory pitches an excellent first inning, but because of an error by our first baseman and a wonky short-hop on a grounder to the shortstop, they are able to score 1 in the first. (Jacob is catching.)
We load the bases in the first, but their flamethrower shuts us down and we come away scoreless.
The second and third innings are scoreless as well. Both pitchers mow down the bottom halves of the orders without incident.
In the top of the fourth they get to Gregory, hitting a couple of balls hard and deep to the outfield. We give up 2 runs and go into the bottom of the 4th trailing and feeling a bit helpless. Gregory is done, on pitch-count. Their ace is approaching his limit and is tiring. I tell the boys this: work the count, I say. But we come up empty in our turn at bat.
For the top of the 5th (the games are 6 innings) I bring in a terrific kid, Aidan, who throws like a 37-yr-old Dizzy Dean with a bad toe and a bum arm. He'd have trouble breaking a pane of glass with his fastball, but, boy can he make the ball dance. He's aces against the bottom half of the lineup, but the last time we played The Pirates, the top half hit him hard. He flummoxes the bottom half of the order as per the plan and we come up in the bottom of the 5th.
Their ace walks the first kid, our # 9 hitter. And he's done on pitch count. Now they bring in their coach's son. A good kid who throws pretty hard, but not as hard as their ace. Our #10 hitter strikes out, so we have 1 out, a man on first and the top of the order up to bat. It's all a blur to me now. There are a couple of seeing-eye-grounders, a solid liner to right, some havoc on the base-paths, and then another low liner through the infield...and suddenly we're up 6-3. The bases are still jammed when we make our 3rd out, and now it's top of the 5th.
I leave Aidan in for their #11 hitter. Uncharacteristically, Aidan walks the kid. Their # 1 hitter comes up (the other coach's son, who's now pitching). He hits a weak ground ball to second. Our first baseman muffs the throw from second, and suddenly the tying run is at the plate with no outs.
It's time to bring in my son, Jacob. It's the right move. This spring his pitching has jumped in quality. He's gained presence, confidence, and control. And he throws as hard or harder than anyone on our team. And I've saved him this evening for this. Just this. Their #2 hitter is a great kid and a helluva hitter (they play on the same Travel team). Jacob strikes him out swinging on a fastball at the knees.
Now their # 3 hitter is up. He also plays Travel with Jacob. When I'd called Jacob to the mound and handed him the ball, I'd told him, When you face their # 3, here's how to pitch him (in and out, up and down...secret stuff I can't say in a public forum in case it somehow gets back to him). Jacob'd asked a question about what I was telling him. He was really listening. I'd answered. He'd nodded and started throwing his warmups pitches.
He works into the count against their #3. It's 1-and-1. Now the kid skies a ball high into the dusk. Our center fielder runs in. The ball is up there forever and it's got a ton of work on it. Our center-fielder's mitt goes up. The ball whizzes down ...and drops, fumpf on the turf. The look on his face! He's horrified at what he's done. He sees the runner from first, who'd only gone half-way. He picks up the ball. Guns it to 2nd. Could be a force. But no go. Everyone's safe all around. Bases loaded, one out. The winning run comes to the plate.
Jacob works the count against their #4 hitter. He pops one high to the right side of the infield. Our first-baseman (the one who'd muffed the throw from 2nd) moves under it. He's getting tangled up with the kid on first. The ball drops from the sky...and it lands in his mitt.
Whew. Two outs. Their # 5 hitter is up. He's their ace. The flamethrower.
Jacob whizzes a fastball by him at the knees for a strike. Ball one is just a little low. The next fastball is belt high, but the kid is late, swings under it and the count is 1-and-2.
Bases juiced, 2 outs, 1-2 count on a kid who has the power to knock one over the fence. Jacob goes into the stretch, kicks, drops down the mound, and the ball comes out of his hand slow. It's headed high and inside. The kid freezes, then flinches. The pitch drops, falls off a table, moving 1-to-7 on the clock face, and lands with a dull thud in the catcher's mitt. Called strike three on a wicked nasty curve. . The one we've been working on in the front yard just a little bit at a time for the last 2 years.
There's whooping. There's a gleeful roar! Oh, crap. That's me making all that noise.
"Line 'em up! Line 'em up! Let's go. Tell 'em nice game! Nice game!"
We're on to the second round.
They say baseball is a game of failure. Fail to get a hit only 7 out of 10 times and you end up in The Hall of Fame. The best baseball teams win, what, a hundred games a season? Losing sixty-two. There'll be more tough days. There'll be losses. There'll be raging and tears. But today...today is a very good day.