Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Story About Pace

  There’s a late-September chill in the air of the new outdoor stadium in Minnesota and the Twins are playing the Red Sox. The Twins are out of the pennant-race, as they have been since the Gardenhire glory days, but the Red Sox are clinging to a one-game lead for wildcard spot. The Sox have been on a bit of a slide recently, and they need this win over the lowly Twins. There’s one out in the bottom of the sixth, and the Red Sox’ starter, Wade Miley, is tiring. There’s double-barreled action in the bullpen, but John Farrell wants to see if his left-handed starter can hang around to get Joe Mauer out for the third time that afternoon. It’s the kind of moment in a baseball season that is small but holds a subtle significance. If the Sox let this one slip away, then the doubt might come creeping into the clubhouse and derail their postseason dreams.  
Mauer steps up to the plate with a man on first.

*****

     The pitcher, Miley, is feeling the late-season fatigue in his legs. He tells himself to take his time with each pitch to Mauer. Mauer’s reputation for putting his bat on everything is in the front of Miley’s mind as he gets himself in the stretch position and looks in to communicate with Christian Vazquez, his catcher. He and Christian work out a changeup low and away. Miley’s mind shifts to the man on first base, Danny Santana. His mind thinks back to the scouting report on Santana and he remembers the guy has an explosive first step. Miley holds the ball for an extra couple of beats, eyes boring into the baserunner across the diamond and upsetting his rhythm. 

  The catcher, Christian Vazquez, eyes Mauer striding to the plate, and contemplates how to approach the hitter. He knows Mauer has a great eye and doesn’t strike out. Vazquez and Miley are going to need contact pitches, but the right kind of contact: pound the bottom of the zone with hard cheese in and soft salad away. Vazquez takes in the veteran Mauer, watches how he stands, how he prepares for the at-bat, and tries to tell what the man is thinking. Vaz looks out and locks eyes with Miley for a beat. His fingers flash their language and they settle on a changeup away. Start with the salad away, then finish with the hard cheese inside.

The second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, looks around to make sure his teammates are in the correct defensive positioning. Pedroia had seen Brian Butterfield’s signals out to the defense when Mauer was coming to the plate. Pedroia and his men align according to the hitter’s spray chart, tendencies against left-handed pitchers such as Miley, and against various types of pitches that Miley and Vazquez are likely to throw to him in this situation. From the dugout, Butterfield scrutinizes the alignment of all seven field players and adjusts them as necessary. He doesn’t like HanRam’s alignment out there in left, and waves frantically out to him to get him to move over a few strides.

Joe Mauer walks to the plate amidst applause he doesn’t hear and stares down Miley. Mauer can tell that Miley is fatiguing - something about the way he is walking around the mound, gathering himself, sweating a little too much on his face. Mauer's numbers are down from his prime years in the twin cities. There is a constant low murmur about the size and length of his contract. He is completing his age 31 season. While it is late September and Mauer could have shut it down for the season, he wants to play it out and pile up some more counting stats to show the doubters. He has a chance here to hit a game-changer.  
Mauer thinks through his extensive research on Miley in his pre-game prep meetings with his coaches. He thinks about his previous two at-bats against Miley that day - a nasty two-seamer he pounded into the dirt, and a changeup he had scorched right at the center fielder. His mind clicks back through every pitch he had seen from Miley that day, deciding that sooner or later in this at-bat, Miley will try the nasty two-seamer again, only this time because of his fatigue, it will be a meatball two-seamer. All Mauer has to do is be patient.

Danny Santana takes an aggressive lead off of first and focuses hard on Miley’s front leg. Santana has the green light to go if he wants from his third-base coach, who goes through the signals for him twice. His team is way out of first place and Santana is itching to steal some bases. He wants to get to 30 for the season for the next time his contract negotiations come up. He sees that Miley is tiring and thinks maybe he’ll be a little slower to home plate. Santana also knows Miley will try to make up for his fatigue by varying the time between his pitches and throwing over to first multiple times. Santana decides that his teammate Joe Mauer will be patient and take a pitch or two here and he will too. He’ll try to get into a better running count and score from first if Mauer pokes one in a gap.

*****

Miley rocks and fires. A ball, outside. The battle with Mauer continues. It is a battle with many combatants involved - the hitter, the catcher, the baserunner, the coaches, the pitcher, the fielders - and they all have their own data and scouting reports to remember and their contracts to consider. Miley is also battling his own fatigue. He collects himself with every pitch to make sure it is the right one. He throws over to first base five or six times. He holds the ball until Mauer calls time, just to throw off everybody’s rhythms. The catcher considers all of his reports and is constantly considering the best courses to getting both the batter and the baserunner out, should he be so foolish as to test his arm. The catcher walks out to the mound twice, just to be absolutely sure he and the pitcher are on the same page with their pitch sequence. The batter badly wants to add to his RBI total and must have total comfort and focus on every single pitch or he will ask for time and re-adjust - there’s just too much riding on every pitch of his career at this point. The coaches in the dugout weigh data and options  and communicate their wishes to all nine players on the field, adjusting and shifting their defense and baserunner to maximize their potential to impact every play. There are games within games within games happening here. Russian cluster dolls of competitions and motivations. 
The time between pitches to the plate climbs. Twenty seconds. Twenty-seven if you count all the throws to first. Minutes go by when Mauer steps out a few times and Juan Nieves decides on a mount visit. 
There’s too much on the line for any of the competitors involved to want to rush any single precious pitch.

*****

  A man sits in the common room of his dorm at any number of post-secondary schools in the northeast. The Red Sox game is on NESN on the flat panel TV hanging on the wall. As the man watches, he sees the pitcher hold the ball until the batter decides to call time, step out of the box, and adjust his batting gloves. He watches the pitcher throw over to first three times in a row. He watches the catcher walk out and talk to the pitcher with his mitt over his masked face. He watches four pitches delivered to the plate in what seems like twenty minutes of real time to the man. He turns to the other people in the common room, scattered about talking or half-heartedly studying. 
“Baseball is so boring!” the man says to the person next to him, “it takes forever to get through just one batter and the players are just standing there, doing nothing!”
“I know,” comes the reply, “they should totally have a big clock at the stadium that hurries every pitch along like they did in the Arizona Fall League. The guys just stand around for like an hour between pitches doing nothing, then there’s four seconds of action.”
 

     A third man overhears the conversation from his position on the sofa. He gets up and walks over, needing to put his two cents in. The third man was raised on baseball and understands the games that are clustered deeper inside the Russian doll than the casual fan cares to see.
“Baseball has a dozen games within the game going on at any time between every pitch,” the third man offered, “yes, it takes some time to play the game well. But if we start imposing our twenty-first century ‘we need to be stimulated by something exciting every second of every day’ mentality on the sport of baseball, then the sport will be forever changed.” The third man is really rolling now. “If we force batters to hurry up their preparation for every pitch, defenses to shift less to take less time, and pitchers to hurry up and deliver the next pitch right now, then it will change the sport of baseball as it has been since our great-grandfathers were young men. Thinking and preparing less and seeing more pitches quickly will change the game. It may have a positive impact if it leads to a sport that is more popular among the American public. But it will have changed, gentlemen.”
“Yeah, but I still like football better. More action. They need to speed baseball up,” the two men in the chairs agree.
  The third man shakes his head, slowly.

1 comment:

  1. Great Job, Brandon. This was an interesting change of pace from our usual posts.

    ReplyDelete