Part two of “Defending Champs”

And the other half of the story:


            Palowsky kicked his cleat at a stubborn clod of dirt on the pitcher’s mound as he waited for the Padres’ manager to make his decision. He figured this would happen – why send up a batter Palowsky had struck out once and got to ground out the other time? All that remained was which pinch hitter would step up.

            Cropper tossed the ball his way and encouraged him to keep his arm warm with a few pitches in the interim. Palowsky took long, slow strides, exaggerated really, trying in vain to put the thoughts of this potential perfect game out of his mind.

            Here they stood, the Waves and the Padres, one the previous year’s World Series winner turned last-place team, the other falling short of playing .500 ball on account of a rash of injuries to key players. And the crowd in the Miami stands? Certainly no distraction to Palowsky as they were clumped here and there with long swaths of seats in between – some of them appeared to be otherwise occupied, as if the game were mere background noise to a book club discussion or chess match. And Palowsky watched Jose Pullman, a rugged former DH traded to the Padres a few months back from the White Sox, walk out of the dugout and tap his cleats menacingly with his sepia-toned bat.

            He’d never pitched against Pullman – he’d need to rely on Cropper even more than before, Cropper with his five years in the American League with the Mariners. He stared in at his catcher, felt a brush of cool air sweep across the infield, and caught Cropper’s first signal. – curveball, inside. Palowsky nodded and started his wind-up, retaining the long strides from just moments before. Was it tiredness setting in? Or anxiety at facing the unfamiliar?

            He curled the ball as it left his fingers and watched as Pullman prepared to swing, cracking the ball hard and high – and foul, so foul that Palowsky guessed the guy hit it out of the park, right by the opening gates.

            A thin film of sweat rose to a sheen on Palowsky’s forehead and upper lip, but he avoided wiping it off and caught Cropper’s toss-back without looking. Pullman dug in and seemed to crowd a few inches closer to the plate. Cropper signaled curveball, but Palowsky shook him off. Frustrated, Cropper signaled for a change-up, though he seemed reluctant, almost shrugging as if to say, ‘Can’t you trust me here?’ With barely a hint of a nod, Palowsky wound up again, nice and slow, but bearing down at the end of his pitch as if he were bringing the heat from earlier.

            Pullman didn’t seem to buy it; he started his swing, his eyes fixed towards the outfield where he presumed the ball would go in just a moment. The pitch looped in slow and sneaky, though, and in a few short seconds, Cropper was getting a new ball from the ump and Pullman’s count stood at 0 and 2, courtesy of a pair of booming foul balls.

            Instead of tossing him the ball like usual, Cropper trotted out to the mound, mask up and off his face for a moment.

            “So,” he started, massaging the ball with one thumb.

            “So,” Palowsky returned, a thin grin forming on his face.

            “This guy wants to eat you alive. He’s breathing fire up there.”

            “Good to know.” Palowsky paused, licking his lips. “’Cause I don’t think I can strike him out. Maybe next time I pitch him, but not tonight.”

            Cropper looked his ace level in the eyes and nodded. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I figured you must be getting tired.” He gestured with the ball for a moment as the head ump began clamoring for them to get back to the matter at hand. Both men nodded again and Copper pivoted, re-masked and shot back to his spot behind home plate.

            As Palowsky gazed 66 and a half feet away and took Cropper’s second signal of the inning and the night, he recalled being on this same mound about a year before, winning the deciding game of the Series and being carried off the field by his teammates. Ridiculous, really, like a cheesy made-for-TV movie or something. Here he was, a year later, pitching what would be the best game of his career, and would it make the news? Nothing more than a 30-second blurb on Miami local; maybe another 30 seconds on Sports Center, but all couched in terms of a disappointing and frustrating season.

            He wound up, his arm feeling like it had extended half a foot – maybe more – as he slung the ball in much the same way that he’d thrown his change-up. As before, Pullman readied his swing almost immediately; as it had done earlier in the inning, the ball sank, sank, sank, then met the tip of the bat and launched high in the air over the infield.

            Palowsky turned and watched his shortstop, some new kid fresh out of high school, call for it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cropper at home plate, his mask thrown off, his face expectant. It was over. It was all over.

Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 11:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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