Last-inning Drama

Hot Corner, by Paul Reynolds

It is the bottom of the last inning and the scores are tied. The visiting team’s closer records two quick strikeouts. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but is just good enough with his location to have the hitters swinging at pitches outside the strike zone once he gets ahead of them in the count.

Two outs, bases empty and back to the top of the order. The leadoff hitter draws a walk and the home fans move forward to the edges of their seats at the first signs of life in the offense for a couple of innings. The team’s best baserunner is now on and best hitters are due up.

Like Vladimir Guerrero, the next batter has never seen a pitch he doesn’t like. Put it in the dirt or aim at his eyes, he’ll either make you look like Cy Young with his swings and misses, or like a fool for throwing the ball anywhere in his postcode as he sends the ball hurtling back past you towards the fence.

A quality pitch near the strike zone is swung at and fouled off. A pitch well out of the strike zone induces an awkward-looking swinging strike. Pitch three is also up and out of the strike zone, so naturally the hitter takes a big hack…and hits it hard.

The runner on first takes off, and as the ball shoots past the shortstop, the crowd is thinking walkoff double. Six feet to the left and it would have been, but the centre fielder reached and snared the ball in time to keep it to a single and hold the lead runner at third.

With two outs and runners on the corners you might now be looking at the pitcher who is hoping to keep the game tied. More likely you’re looking at the hitter, low in his stance, carefully and slowly twirling the bat over his head. Or the runner on third, arms dangling, fingers going like he’s playing Rachmaninov, swaying back and forth just above the crouch position.

Ball one, low and away. A good take by the catcher has the adrenaline-drunk runner on third still planted to the base with the third baseman playing close to the bag.

Strike one, swing and a miss.

The third pitch is just off the outside corner for ball two…probably…no-one really knows as no-one sees the umpire call it, because the ball got past the catcher and the runner on third immediately broke for home.

Freeze the frame. The catcher is running to the wall behind home plate to retrieve the ball, the pitcher is running to the plate to get the throw from the pitcher, and the runner is hurtling towards home plate trying to score the winning run.

When the runner started, it looked like a good decision, as the ball could have gone anywhere. By the time he’s gone a few yards it looks like a terrible decision as the fielding team catch a lucky break – the ball caroms back off the wall and straight into the welcoming glove of the catcher. He pivots and throws to the pitcher who is standing on home plate.

The throw is a little high but the pitcher has the ball with the runner still eight feet from the plate. The runner doesn’t break stride, and a moment later launches himself into a feet-first slide. As the pitcher brings his arm down to apply the tag, he has his legs taken out from under him and is flipped into the air. A pause then, for seemingly five minutes but probably half a second, with runner and pitcher flat on their back in a cloud of dust and the umpire standing over them.

“SAFE!!” The run scores, the game is over.

As the players charged out of the dugout to celebrate, the home supporters went nuts. All 15 of them…at the Field of Dreams, watching their team of 8-10 year olds come through with a win as exciting as you’ll see at any level of baseball.