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.

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Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 11:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Part one of “Defending Champs”

Here goes – new story, installment one of two.

*****

            Joey Palowsky stood a little hunched over on the mound, the ball firm in his grip, Nicky Lopez, the first batter of this top half of the ninth glaring back at him from the batter’s box.  This is it, Joey thought, as he nodded at the catcher’s signal for a curve, inside, and started his wind-up.  He saw the batter relax for the briefest moment, confident that the pitch was too high, when at the last possible moment it snuck back into the strike zone.  The beanpole of an ump behind home let out a bellow, and Joey Palowsky was one step closer – one step closer to another strike-out (nine already in the game), one step closer to winning this final game of the season against the San Diego Padres, one stop closer to pitching every pitcher’s dream, a perfect game.

            Had this happened during the previous season, it might’ve been just what he needed to garner a few more votes and win the National League Cy Young award.  As it was, who was Palowsky to complain?  His team, the still-new expansion Miami Waves, won the World Series in just his fourth year in the majors, in no small part because of his 20-win season.  When he slid that World Series ring onto his finger and felt its weight that brisk October night one year before, he assumed it would just be the first of many.

            As he finished mowing down Nicky Lopez in four pitches, his arm tingled slightly – he hadn’t thrown a complete game since early June, but he wasn’t about to show his manager Teddy Ulrich any signs that he needed to be pulled.  No, this game was his.

            The next batter, Lane Taylor, gritted his teeth as Palowsky went through his customary drill.  Catcher’s signal, nod; left leg brought up to the body, left arm curling around like a slingshot; body hurtling forward, off the mound, ball released like a firecracker about to explode.  He’d struck out Taylor twice already tonight, but this time his catcher, recent Waves acquisition Ben Cropper, signaled change-up and Palowsky grinned ever so slightly.  Most of the game it had been all heat and he’d lunged after every pitch; with this one, not even breaking 80 m.p.h., Palowsky watched Taylor watch the pitch loll along and plop into Cropper’s mitt for a called strike.

            “What the – ?” Palowsky heard Taylor shout as Cropper tossed the ball back to the mound.  He couldn’t help but smile at this little game of chess, toying with the expectations of each batter and then trying to outwit each one a little bit differently.  That’s what he’d always loved about pitching, from as far back as Little League.  It’s what raised eyebrows the previous season when this unknown – still a young guy at 24 – broke away to lead his team in wins, leaving more than his share of batters staring at called third strikes or swinging at junk he’d convinced them was worth their time and attention.

            After they took home their World Series trophy, Palowsky’s agent angled for him to get a more lucrative contract – a no-brainer after winning two games in the Series, really, but the Waves’ front office didn’t tell them about the other negotiations they were conducting, negotiations that led to this championship team losing its two best hitters, sharpest right-hand starter, top reliever, and two of their utility players.  In short, the Waves had a fire sale, and before Christmas came, Joey Palowsky discovered that he was a member of a team of strangers, journeymen, minor-league hopefuls, and, overall, the least expensive crew an organization could field.  No warning, no hints – and no way out of his recently renegotiated and much sweeter contract.  It was a long winter in Miami leading up to spring training.

            Palowsky repeated his first pitch, surprising the batter yet again: change-ups in the ninth inning were not what Lane Taylor was looking for, and before he knew it he was behind in the count 0 and 2 without having moved the bat off of his shoulder. 

            Now Cropper signaled for a sinker, a pitch Palowsky rarely threw and hadn’t thrown at all tonight.  He was about to shrug it off but then thought better of it.  Cropper’s taken me this far, he figured, as he curled his long fingers around the ball and began his wind-up.  The ball flew through the air just as the two change-ups had, barely maintaining a clear arc.  Palowsky saw Taylor’s eyes go wide, as if perhaps he thought that now he knew what to do with the bat and the ball, and that poor man swung with all the might his 220 lb. frame allowed.  A third of the way into what Taylor surely hoped would be a game-tying home run swing, the ball seemed to disregard laws of gravity and basic common sense, dipping a full six inches and squirming like a snake into Cropper’s mitt.  Taylor did all he could to remain standing; he couldn’t maintain his grip on the bat, which found its way to the first base line, stopping a few feet short of the Padres’ base coach.

            Cropper stood, threw the ball to the third baseman for a circuit, calling out, “Two down, boy, two down.  Let’s take her through, Big Paw.”

            Palowsky smiled at this nickname, Cropper’s invention of just a couple weeks ago.  Anytime during the previous season, he would’ve lumped Cropper in with a long list of good players he’d had the privilege to play with.  This year, though, talented as Cropper was, Palowsky saw this catcher as more of a reminder of all of those good players, of which there were so few in this inauspicious season of defending their championship.

            He didn’t blame his teammates; probably close to half of them never should’ve been sent up to the majors this soon.  The team’s farm system was a shambles, but it sure was easy calling up these young, untested guys and paying them the league minimum.

            Meanwhile, the Miami sportswriters went after Palowsky – for them he symbolized the arrogance and the greed of the Waves’ organization.  He was an easy target as the primary holdover from that championship season and he became more and more of one as he began this new season seemingly much less brilliant.  (Truth be told, anyone who looked closely could see that his ERA was about the same – but this new Waves team only scored about half as often as they had as champions.)  Palowsky crawled his way to a 10-12 record, still the team’s best, but for the money he was being paid?  The writers cried foul and Palowsky sometimes agreed with them.  Everybody loves a winner, he thought as he sat by his locker after more than a couple of 1-0 losses.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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