In the spring and fall, I coach a Little League Baseball team. The players are mostly 10-12 years old: old enough to have been playing a while, but young enough to still be learning how to put it all together.
Last night, our team won its first game of the 2013 season. It’s been a rocky road, as we dropped our first 3 games with very narrow losses. Last night, though, the team was playing a different kind of baseball – the gritty and gutsy kind of baseball that rattles the other team and wins games.
In the 3rd inning (we usually only have time to play 5 innings), I got to experience one of my favorite coaching moments in 8 years of coaching Little League.
The Game Situation.
(Names have been changed.)
Our starting pitcher – who is a naturally gifted athlete and baseball protege – rarely has a rough outing. But, in baseball as in life, rain falls on everyone. My starter struggled to find the strike zone, hurling 7o pitches in 1 2/3 innings, walking 10 of the 15 batters he faced, and giving up 8 runs.
His teammates gave him support on offense, and kept us in the game. By the top of the 3rd, we were down by one run: 8-7.
My relief pitcher – who I will call Carlos – was on the mound. When he throws at his full potential, there isn’t a hitter in our league that can catch up to his fastball. But he’s a southpaw, and he faced some right handed batters that were able to get a good look at him. While he got the first 2 batters out, the next 2 hitters caught up to his 4-seamer, slamming line drives into the outfield.
With 2 outs, there were runners at 2nd and 3rd.
My starting catcher, who I’m going to call Daniel, was behind the plate. Daniel is one tough cookie: both of his parents were/are Marines, and Daniel doesn’t mind working hard, playing hard, or getting dirty. He can play every key position well: pitcher, catcher, shortstop and center-field.
Because of a shortage of players on the bench, Carlos was the only player I had left who was eligible to catch, and Daniel was the only player I had left who was eligible to pitch and who could keep the score close.
There is a rule in our league that if a pitcher throws 41 pitches, he can’t catch in the same game – the idea is to protect young arms from being worn out by the 2 toughest positions in the game. This put me in a bit of a predicament. To keep us in the game, I had to get Carlos off the mound before he threw 40 pitches, so that he could go and catch the next inning, freeing up Daniel to pitch.
I thought Carlos would get in and out of the inning in no time. After all, he threw 6 pitches to 2 batters in the 2nd and racked up 2 outs. But as I mentioned above, Carlos got into trouble, and found himself with 2 outs, and 2 runners in scoring position – on 2nd and 3rd.
He hit his 40 pitch limit, and I walked out to the mound to replace him.
2 outs. Runners on 2nd and 3rd. Down by 1 run. 2 innings left to play.
What Happened Next.
As I walked onto the field, I did not know who I was going to put on the mound next.
I couldn’t switch Daniel and Carlos in the middle of the inning – that would set both up for failure by making them switch to the other most demanding position on the field, in the middle of the inning, without a chance to catch their breath on the bench. Not to mention it would chew up time on the game clock. (Little League games have time limits).
I had 3 kids that could pitch – but none had pitched in a game yet that year, and none were ready to cut their teeth in such a close game. I decided to let the baseball gods guide my decision.
The baseball gods spoke, and the first player to the mound conference was my 3rd baseman – Harris. Harris is a tall drink of water…he’s only 11 years old, but almost as tall as me (and I’m 5’11”). Harris is a steady glove at 3rd base; though he’d pitched last season, I knew he didn’t like it.
When he came on the mound, I asked him: “Harris, can you pitch to this next batter and get him out?”
Harris thought about it for what seemed like an eternity.
His response was simple: “I will do that.” Harris has said maybe 15 words to me in the entire time he’s been on the team – these 4 included. Talking is not his strong suit.
I handed him the ball, and walked off the field wondering what I had just done. Harris threw his 8 warm-ups while I nervously scribbled some self-deprecatory remarks on my scorecard.
How it Went Down.
The batter at the plate was a smart hitter. In his 2 previous at-bats, he walked twice, but only after making our pitchers work the count full. This particular batter knew how to wear own a pitcher’s arm.
First pitch. Heater down the middle. “Steeeeee-rike One,” the ump bellowed.
The batter stepped out of the box, looked at the pitcher and adjusted his helmet. He turned back to the plate, and dug his feet into the batter’s box – back foot first, then the front foot. He crowded the plate, sending a message to Harris: I’m going to crush the next pitch.
Second pitch. Brushback pitch, inside. Harris’s pitch was a not-so-subtle message to the batter: ‘I’m not backing down – get off my plate.’
The battle continued – neither pitcher nor batter giving an inch of ground.
The third pitch – another fastball – rocketed towards the plate. The hitter had a bead on it early, and started his swing. I held my breath as he caught up to the ball and made contact.
Pop foul. They have a name for foul balls that are hit strong and hard: they call them “loud strikes”. Hit hard, hit high, but foul.
The batter’s message to the pitcher was clear: ‘I can catch up to your fastball, I dare you to throw it again.’
Harris set up in the stretch. He started his motion, reached back in his stride and threw hard. The ball came in low – at the knees. The batter was looking for it somewhere else: he swung and missed.
But Daniel uncharacteristically dropped the pitch – the dreaded dropped 3rd strike. (When there is no runner on 1st Base, or when there are 2 outs, if the catcher drops Strike Three, the batter can attempt to advance to 1st base).
The batter raced down the line to first base – if he made it, the run from third could score, or the bases would be loaded. Daniel found the ball, and whipped it – hard – to the first baseman. It was close – too close. The field umpire waited a second, and then his fist came up to signal an out.
Harris had pulled it off. He got his batter out, and trotted off the field, grinning ear-to-ear. We went on to win the game by 1 run (14-13) in the bottom of the 5th inning, with 1 out and game time expired.
The win was huge for the team.
But it paled in comparison to that one perfect coaching moment: watching a player make the decision to do something, and then executing that decision.by