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The Season, Part 16
#28, Cory Daniels, closer
The bullpen is a much easier place to work without the tension of having to share space with Monty.
By the middle of June, most of the team has moved on from the concept of Monty as team pariah; with him pitching every fifth day in the place of the injured Micah, it does the team no good to do anything other than support him. Truth be told, Monty hasn’t even done a bad job of it—he hasn’t won every start, but he’s gone six innings in all of them. Most of the team has made peace with Monty’s newfound success—glad, at least, that he’s no longer a distraction for the team.
Cory Daniels, however, is not most of the team. Cory’s mind thinks first and foremost about the bullpen, especially now, as it is stretched to its utmost limit. There’s Jeff, and Eduardo, who are as dependable as ever, but other than that, the only option for the Spartans is for the starters to through a complete game. Good as Graeme and Willy are, however, they can’t throw complete games every time out, and Paul and Li simply don’t have the experience to be pushed much more than seven innings in a game. To their credit, Charlie and Brendan Haus have made a considerable attempt to shop Bran around for some bullpen help, but Bran’s having a bad month and the Spartans, as it stands now, are not likely to get much in return.
Still, without Monty in the bullpen, there’s not the tension that there was in the beginning of the season, and Eduardo, Jeff and Cory aren’t afraid to goof off a little bit when they’re not pitching. It’s a different feeling, when everyone in the bullpen wants to be there, it’s as if the air itself is lighter.
Today, however, the air is rather heavy. It’s not the weather—it’s a gorgeous June day, with just enough clouds to be appropriate for a postcard, and a temperature just a degree or two too cool for swimming. It’s not because the Spartans lost last night, one of Graeme’s starts, one they could ill afford to lose, either. It’s because right now the team sitting in the other dugout has the words “New York” embroidered in silver letters on the front of their powder blue jerseys.
Games against New York always have something extra added to them. It’s not just that New York always seems to treat Hope City as a lesser, minor league type city, both on the field and off, but it’s that the New York fans seem to take an unreasonable delight every time they beat Hope City, and they beat Hope City fairly often. The Knights play better against the Spartans than they do against nearly any other team, and the Spartans don’t have, some argue, the money and thus the talent, to compete on the same level. On the occasions that the Spartans do win, it’s a celebration that nearly rivals winning the championship, and a great shame for New York. It will be on the front page of the Hope City papers, but only page four or five in the New York sports sections.
The game now is close, with the Spartans nursing a one run lead, three to two, in the bottom of the eighth. There are two outs already, so Cory’s already done warming up in the bullpen. The game will end on his shoulders; it’s his responsibility to get three outs before the Knights can get one run, and Cory wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s where he thrives. When Richie makes the last out, Cory doesn’t even wait for Pete to signal him, but instead races to the mound, to the cheers of everyone in the stands. They know well enough that when Cory Daniels enters a game, the last three outs are really formality only.
Cory’s arm is getting to the point of the season where his arm takes a noticeable hit with every pitch. It’s early for this; it usually doesn’t happen until late July, but as the bullpen’s been so stretched, Cory is not surprised by it. Instead, he works through the pain. There’s still a lot of season left, so he doesn’t have a choice. New York’s two best hitters, Thomas Calvin and Jeff Pullman are leading off the inning. If Cory can get past these two, the Spartans (and their fans) will feel the air a lot lighter.
Calvin, a large, tall red-head, is well known in the league for crowding the plate, standing so close to home plate that it makes it nearly impossible to pitch him inside (his weakness) without it being called a ball. Cory’s great at locating pitches, but there is such a small area with which to pitch Calvin inside that it’s easier to try to overpower him with the best fastball Cory can throw—about 102 miles an hour. Cory’s not one to shy away from a challenge, but today it’s a tough decision, with the game so close. He waits for Ben to call the pitch, but Ben himself seems stuck, and soon enough, Ben’s on the mound, trying to talk it over with Cory.
“The fastball’s not got a whole lot on it today.” It’s usually taboo to tell a pitcher that a certain pitch isn’t working (unless you’re a coach, in which case it’s your duty), but Ben learned early on that with Cory, honesty is the only policy.
“I know. Try to get him inside, then?”
“Climb the ladder?”
“Works for me.”
It’s a simple, common concept used by relievers—make the first pitch an obvious strike, and each subsequent pitch a little higher, so that by the third or fourth pitch, the batter is swinging at a pitch way out of the strike zone. Any good reliever can do it; the best can do it on any hitter, even one as good as Calvin.
When Ben gets to the plate, he sets up slightly outside, to fool Calvin—when Cory kicks his leg, Ben will move at the last minute a full step closer to Calvin, but too late for Calvin to adjust. It’s something Ben and Cory have worked on endlessly since they’ve been on the Spartans together; Ben has to get Cory’s cadence just right so he isn’t late (and it becomes a passed ball), or early (where Calvin or whoever’s hitting figures it out and adjusts accordingly).
The first pitch Cory throws is inside, just as Cory wants when he releases it, but instead of tailing back over the plate at the last moment, it tails inside, and Cory’s put just enough speed on it that Calvin doesn’t have time to move out of the way. Calvin’s grimace makes the obvious truth hurt; the pitch has hit him square on his elbow guard. It’s a good ten minutes before Calvin manages to trudge to first base. He doesn’t even look at Cory; he knows well enough that standing inside like he does is going to get him hit, it’s just a question of when.
Cory gets no reprieve with the next batter up, Jeff Pullman, a lanky dark-haired outfielder that looks more like a boy than a man. Pullman doesn’t crowd the plate, but he has a much better eye than Calvin. If there’s even a momentary question of whether or not it’s a strike, he won’t swing. Climbing the ladder won’t work on him—Cory will be able to pull off strikes one and two, but the third, out of the strike zone, won’t get Pullman to swing. The only real way to pitch to Pullman is to fool him with off-speed pitches, but as Cory relies on two pitches (and not four like a starter), it would be near impossible to fool him. Cory’s only option is to locate just right (either high corner, but not low) and throw it hard.
When Cory’s arm is right and rested, he can break the triple digits on the speed gun, but on a day like today, he’ll be sitting on 94 or 95. It’s a dangerous game, and hitting Calvin hasn’t done anything to help. There’s no conference with Ben this time; it’s either going to be a fastball on the outside corner or the inside corner, and Cory leaves the decision (literally) in Ben’s hand. He calls for the fastball outside.
Cory puts everything he has into his legs, propelling him forward. It does no good to put all the power in his harm; it would ruin Cory’s location, but with his legs, Cory can force his body to put something extra into the pitch. It’s an effort, but it works—the pitch manages to register at 97 and Pullman swings long after the pitch is already in Ben’s mitt. It’s thrown so well that Calvin, closely watched at first, doesn’t even have time to decide whether or not he wants to steal second.
Ben calls for the same pitch again, and Cory obliges, same exact motion, same exact result, even though this time the pitch is a hair slower, at 96 on the gun. With two strikes, Calvin takes the little lead he can at first; a large lead would attract notice and the last thing he wants is to get picked off with no one out. There is a noticeable tension in the crowd with two strikes on the guy who is arguably the best hitter on the Knights, and the crowd starts to applaud in anticipation of the third strike.
For the third pitch, Ben calls for it inside, somewhat predictable but better than trying to pitch Pullman for the outside strike a third time—a hitter as good as him will have already figured out how to hit it by the third go.
Again, Cory puts all the power he has into his legs, but when he brings his arm around, there is a sharp pain—momentarily, only, but just long enough to alter Cory’s release point, and thus the trajectory of the pitch. Instead of being thrown on the high, inside corner of the strike zone, the pitch, still just over the inside of the plate, stays just low enough for Pullman to stay on it, and not underneath it.
The crack of bat on ball gives off the one sound that means that Cory doesn’t have to look at where the ball’s going; it’s obvious. Pullman’s just smashed a two run home run, and Cory’s blown a save that the Spartans needed.
It’s only the top of the ninth, though, and Cory still has three outs to get before his team gets last licks. He doesn’t have time to think about what has happened; instead his only choice is to get back to work, hoping maybe his team might bail him out, and not the other way around, for once.
#5, Steven King, pitching coach
For Steven, the first few weeks after the Accident are pure hell. There’s no other way to describe it—Pete won’t speak to him under normal circumstances, instead, he uses Dennis as the middle man to get the pitching change or to tell Steven to work with Paul on his mechanics. Of the pitching staff itself, only Monty bothers to give Steve the time of day, which is not a terribly encouraging thought, even with Monty pitching well.
What perplexes Steven most, however, is that there seems to be no blame given to Liam, and yet it’s in Liam’s job description, not Steven’s, to cater to a player’s injury. Liam is cognizant of this—he has apologized profusely time and again, on TV, in print, and every time, forgiveness is readily given. Liam is an integral part of the Spartans’ staff, Steven is not. Liam is Pete’s best friend, Steven is not.
It’s not any better at Steven’s home, either. His family maintains their distance, but worst of all are the letters and emails he receives from fans, who, just like most of the Spartans, are fiercely loyal to Pete. If Pete has an issue with a member of staff, like he’s having with Steven, then the rest of the fan base has the same issue, as well. Steven’s not sure how his addresses, both normal post and email, are public, but with the wonders of the internet, he’s not surprised that those who really wanted to have been able to find it. There’s one email, in particular that hurts Steven, which takes the hell he’s been living in and multiplies it by an unknown factor:
Subj: How Could You Let This Happen?!?!
When we met in a Florida hotel, I think the reaction of my son, Brett, says all that need be said in terms of how honored we were that you would grace our presence.
Now, though, I’m not sure what to tell my son. You taught him how to throw better, so he doesn’t injure himself (or so you said), but now he’s asking me if what you taught him is the same that you taught Micah Garcia to cause his arm injury. I am at a loss as to what to tell him.
I don’t blame you for the car accident, but if it was just the accident at fault, there wouldn’t be an issue as to whether or not Micah will ever pitch again. This was only Micah’s third season!!
I will always be a Spartans fan, but I am disappointed in the harm that you seem to have caused a young pitcher, and I’m worried if the arms of Paul, Li Ming, and most importantly, my son, are just as damaged as well.
The memory of that February afternoon is crystal clear in Steven’s mind, which might be part of the reason he is so heartbroken by the email. There has never been much that has given Steven a greater thrill than teaching a fan, especially a young boy, how to pitch. A while ago Steven had decided that when he gets tired of the league, that he’d retire and see if he couldn’t coach for the nearest youth league or middle school team. Unlike with the Spartans, it wouldn’t be about being competitive, it would simply be about getting some exercise, having some fun, teaching those that wanted to learn the mechanics they’d need to make it in high school, college and beyond. Now, however, Steven’s not sure any middle school or youth league team would want to take him on staff, at least in the Hope City area.
Losing to New York yesterday was a dagger. The Spartans had a one run lead, a game that Willy had pitched well, and it should have been just a formality, giving the ball to Cory to get the final three outs. Of course, closers are human, just like any other baseball player, and they can and do err, but Willy had asked specifically to stay in, so that Cory could rest his arm a little bit. Pete didn’t want to take the chance, and said as much in the press conference afterwards, that bringing Cory in was his responsibility alone, but the state of Cory’s arm, and Cory’s inability to get enough speed on his pitches or locate well yesterday…that was Steven’s fault.
As has become fairly usual, Monty didn’t seem to hold Steven accountable for Cory’s failure, and, in a nice surprise, Cory doesn’t blame Steven, either. Cory only blames himself, which isn’t really all that encouraging either, but Steven enjoys the fact that after the game he could at least talk to Cory about it without being the subject of a cold, distant, stiff and formal attitude.
Driving to the Stadium before the game, Steven’s shortcut takes him pasty the scene of the Accident, and it takes everything he has to steel himself for it. He keeps telling himself to learn another route to the Stadium, but something keeps him from doing it, like a sense of penance, a sense of needing to atone for a sin he’s not even sure he committed. There’s no sign of the Accident, of course; the clean up crew did an excellent job of that, but sitting at the traffic light, it’s not hard for Steven to imagine how the Accident occurred. It’s harder for Steven to imagine how Micah, in his tiny sports car, could have possibly survived the onslaught of an SUV, so he gives up trying.
It’s the worst on days like today when Steven comes to the intersection and the light is yellow, so he has enough time waiting for the light to change that he can imagine the Accident in rather vivid detail. He doesn’t think about how the Accident itself wasn’t why everyone was so mad at him, but without it, Micah’s arm injury would have likely gone unnoticed until his arm was destroyed beyond repair.
It never enters Steven’s mind that Micah is probably, in some respect, at least partly responsible for the damage of his arm, likely from not stretching right before the game or not knowing how to say when he’s thrown more than his arm can handle. Steven’s born the brunt of so much of the blame that he believes it (to a point) himself. It’s his fault he didn’t catch Micah’s injury, not Liam’s, and it’s certainly not Micah’s fault that he didn’t go to Liam when his arm started to hurt him. Steven doesn’t allow himself that option as an escape.
Eventually, Pete will come around, and thus the rest of the team, but for now, there’s no end in sight. For now, he is Steven King, the world’s most hated Spartan.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
So if you're still keeping up with the reading of this, you totally rock my world.