Too Old for This: Remember to Cover First Base
Usually when someone says “no lead is safe,” the lead is actually pretty safe.
But in the over-40 hardball league, uh … no lead is safe.
Sunday was the league opener, two weeks late. Nobody complained too much the last two weeks when the text message came from the manager that the 20-degree temps had cancelled the game. Sunday, though, was perfect baseball weather. 70s and sunny.
I wasn’t supposed to pitch. I was penciled in for some innings at third base, where I misplayed the first grounder hit to me in 2016. I was positioned too deep and the speedy runner beat my throw. Early in the season, it’s hard to know how deep or shallow to play. I don’t trust myself to make a play to my right or left, so I play about 12 feet behind the infield grass, way deeper than the bag. I knew the batter was going to hit it my way. Everything in his swing said the right-handed hitter would yank one to third.
And that’s exactly what he did. He put the barrel on the ball and sent a two-hopper right at me. I squared up to gather in the grounder. But the ball hit me in the chest and fell to the ground. Usually in this league, you can recover from that and still make the play. But not this time. He beat my throw by plenty.
But back to the unsafe leads. We blew a seven-run lead in the eighth inning. Somehow the other team knocked our best pitchers all over the place. Everything they got a bat on fell in. Some were hit hard and sailed over our outfielders’ heads, some were little dinks that found a hole.
Losing by a run with two outs in the eighth, our manager walked out to the field to take the ball from the pitcher. He looked toward third and pointed in my direction. Me? Now?
I walked to the mound and accepted the ball from the manager, who said simply, “Throw strikes. Let your defense do some work.”
Right! Throw strikes! Why didn’t I think of that?
I took my warmup throws and felt pretty good on the flattened, dusty, worn-out pitcher’s mound. After my last warm-up pitch, the base umpire gave me the low-down: “You got two outs, based juiced and no count on the batter. Good luck.”
Since the bases were loaded, I chose to pitch from a windup, rather than a stretch. I squinted in at Mike the catcher’s sign. Straight fastball. Sounds good. Bam! Strike one. That set the mood for the at-bat. The right handed batter fouled off a pitch or two, but popped to third to end the inning.
I sat on the bench and put a sweatshirt over my right arm to keep it warm and loose. We scored a couple runs and took the lead. Sitting next to Mike the catcher, I turned to him and said “uh oh.” He knew what I meant. The lead was going to be mine to preserve in the ninth.
I’m not really a pitcher. I didn’t grow up with it. Everything I know about pitching I learned from my years of catching. I can throw pretty hard and I can generally throw strikes. But I don’t have an arsenal of pitches and I don’t have a long pitcher’s stride. I do have a pretty competitive attitude, though, and that’s the first thing you need as a pitcher.
With a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, I took the hill, threw a few warmups and was ready. The first batter of the inning – the sixth in their batting order – smacked a ball to third base that our guy Jimmy gobbled up and threw out. The next guy hit a fizzing liner right past me that Pier the shortstop handled easily. Two outs.
That’s when my thoughts got away from me. “This is gonna be a great win,” I was thinking. “Man, it’ll be nice to win the season opener.” “Wait, I’m in line to get the W. Cool!”
You and I both know that’s the wrong approach. As much as you don’t want to let up, there’s this little thing inside your head that wants to think the game’s in bag. It wasn’t.
With two outs in the ninth, I gave up a clean base hit and a stolen base, followed by a sort-of-intentional walk. I got two quick strikes on the next batter, who struggled to catch up with two high fastballs. I threw him a two-seamer that started out beautifully. But the ball drifted down and in and hit the batter square in the kidney. It made a loud, hollow thump upon impact, like a burping a Tupperware. Great. Bases loaded.
Next batter: a good contact hitter who’d already had a couple of knocks. The fans who’d come to see the other team were cheering and yelling, sensing their team had us on the ropes. Again, I went from the windup with the bases loaded. The batter smacked a 1-1 fastball to the right side of the infield where Cole the first baseman made a slick play to his right. I know it was a slick play because I stood stock still on the mound and admired it. That’s, of course, instead of breaking toward first base so that Cole could toss the ball to me and I could step on first for the game’s final out.
Fortunately, the ball was hit hard enough for Cole to have plenty of time to beat the runner to first base. I got the W, but Cole saved my ass. If that play had tied the game, I’d have been sick about it all week.
Instead, my screwup was a footnote to a really fun day.
2016 record: 1 win, no losses.