Evening it up

Steve Liddle, who runs the camp, but is the bench coach for the Tigers during the season, always says that you see things at Ponce that you never see anywhere else. Our umpire in the second game (played in the stadium at Terry Park) got to see something he’d never seen. Teams are limited to 3 runs an inning in our spring training, but he’d never umpired an entire inning without recording a single out.

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Steve Liddle laying some wisdom down on the Ponce players as he gives the schedule for the day. Coaches Rick Knapp and both Stan and Stu Cliburn in the background.
The fortunate thing for us is that while we continued to max out every inning, we slowed the bleeding by only allowing a single run in the third and one other along the way. So, our margin of victory was quite pleasant.

My patience with my productivity at the plate paid off. I’ve shrugged the lack of hits off because I knew I was contributing defensively and in those not-in-the-stats kind of ways that players giving 100% do. After a walk in the second, it was nice to come up with runners in scoring position in later innings and… ground a couple of single through the infield. I think that I’ve been thinking a bit too much about hitting the other way, but those happened to work. I’m going to go back to just hitting the ball hard and seeing what happens.

As noted previously, we have a father-son combo on our team. Rich has pitched well for us and gotten the chance to pitch to his son, Mike, a couple of times now. If you think back to all those times having a catch with your Dad and son, could you be any happier than having the chance to be a battery mate with them? Fred Jaffke and his son, Andrew, did that one our team a couple of years ago and it was great to see. Today, Rich and Mike achieved a different milestone, both cranking the ball deep for extra base hits.

Dan Bechard took over for me behind the plate after Rich and I couldn’t stop the max-score innings early on. Dan hasn’t caught in about 5 years and worried that doing so again wasn’t a good idea. He was completely wrong. With Dan’s fans in the stands, he moved behind home plate and called a game that basically shut the opposition down. It’s like falling off a horse – once you do it, you never forget how.

I noticed long ago in team sports that are very “recreational”, it matters far more how much players improve than whether your good players play well. So, when I play coed softball down on the Mall, I’m always working with the folks who don’t play particularly well. Typically, no one has ever taught them anything about playing.

Now, this isn’t meant to ride “Big Game” Al Ferlo down, but last year, he struggled. Rick Knapp likes to joke that Al is the only playing who’s ever missed every pitch in a batting cage session. Well, that was last year. In today’s afternoon game, Al’s improvement really shone through. In his first at bat, he singled to drive in the third run. His second time at the plate resulted in another single. While at bat in his third plate appearance, he missed a pitch and turned to the bench to complain that “it’s not my bat”. None of us were quick enough on the uptake to realize Al had grabbed the wrong bat when he went up. Either Al or those of us on the bench should have called time and gotten the right bat into his hands. He ended the game 2 for 3 because he didn’t take his own bat up the third time.

We faced poor Joe Facenda, whose batting average I devastated last year (he hit it to me for an hour on every play I was on the field for, regardless of what position I was playing). Well, Joe came up to bat and was thinking about shading another step to my left off third. I didn’t move because it was too late, but he hit it right there. It was close enough that I stopped it, but too far for me to make a decent throw to first. So, perhaps Joe has broken the curse now, but perhaps not….

I believe I finished 3 for 4 on the day, with two walks and a few runs. There were likely some RBIs in there, but I’ll want to check the scoresheet on those. Better offensive day for a day when I struggled a bit behind the plate. With the win in the afternoon game, we moved to 2-2 for the week. It sound like there are 4 teams in the middle at 2-2, with one at 3-1 and the other at 1-3. So, we’re on track to challenge for the championship again.

Behind the dish for the first time since 1978

I have very vague memories of putting on the catching gear once in 1978. I was the best player on a terrible team and the coach thought it was worth a try. I’m guessing it didn’t go well because I don’t remember doing it a second time.

The first day of Ponce de Leon Spring Training 2019 was, however, quite a different experience. In our pre-game meeting, I mentioned to Rick Knapp that I’d like to try catching. Camp is a little short on both pitchers and catchers this year, so we only had one player who identified as a catcher. We all figured this meant several of us needed to put on the gear to ensure that he didn’t have to catch every inning and didn’t exhaust himself.

Chandler and I tried to convince all of the Team M players and anyone else we met, to come down for spring training. It’s always a lot of fun and I always get better as a result. Having coaches who coached in the majors and minors gives you access to so much knowledge if you just keep your ears open.

One example was related several times by our left fielder in the first game, Tom Sharkey. With a runner on third, I had been playing close to the bag, foolishly thinking that the catcher might be able to throw a back-pick. From Tom’s perspective, he had a great angle in to the batter, with no obstructions. Then, for no apparent reason, I moved off third base and right into his line of sight. When the ball was hit, it bounced right into my glove for an easy play at first. He thought it was my genius in positioning. Of course, it was not. Knappy saw where I was playing and moved me off the bag, into the perfect position.

It didn’t make a difference in that game, which we lost 3-1. In Ponce, if you hold the other team to 3 runs, you ought to win! Most of us were hitless, so we didn’t have many runners to drive in. In my first at bat, I walked and sprinted out of the box, just out of habit. When I got to first, I was waved to keep going. The ball had gone past the catcher and he lollygagged after it. So, I got a two-base walk. I advanced on Rick Powers sacrifice to the right side and scored when Tom hit a nice line drive to left.

I caught with Evan Katz on the mound in the third and fourth innings. It was a great experience. As a catcher, you’re involved in every play. I loved that about pitching in softball. Warming Evan up down in the bullpen, I was nervous. A few of his low pitches skipped right past me. That didn’t prove to be a problem in the game. I did let a few by early, when no one was on – and I think I did let one go with a runner on. While I didn’t get a chance to throw anyone out, when the bases were loaded, they hit a grounder to Evan which he tosses to me and I forwarded it to Chandler over the head of the batter. That got us out of the inning.

Our bats were far more lively in the second game. We scored the max (3) in the first two innings, giving us a cushion to work with.

I started the game catching, with Richard Brouillette on the mound. Rich brought his son, Michael down. Mike’s only 30 and is our one declared catcher. Rich told me he only throws fastballs and to just put my glove where I wanted it. He usually hit it, with occasional variations that worked out for us anyway. We were facing one of their better hitters and he’d battled, pushing the fastballs foul. With his quick swing and the fact that Rich had only thrown heat so far, I waggled three fingers down to call for a changeup, in case he might see it and throw it. He did and we got a nice infield fly out of it. Unfortunately, in Ponce, there are no routine flyballs, so it dropped just out of reach of the second baseman. Nonetheless, it worked and gave him confidence in that changeup. We’ll probably see that again this week.

Rich wears number 4 and we joked after that game that he lived up to his number by pitching 4 innings. With the shortage of pitchers, they extended the number of innings that they could throw to 4 for the starter, with a maximum of 7 innings a day.

I’ve been playing third the last few years and headed over there after my three innings behind the plate. I was hitless on the day, though I had a great drive to center that Craig Tasens ran under. It was frustrating to hit the ball so well finally, but watching him catch that on the run was a true joy. I love seeing a good play, even if it’s the other team.

Evan was bringing the heat again in the second game. The strike zone wasn’t always to his liking and our lead had narrowed to 7-4. After we got the first out, Evan walked a batter and Craig Tasens reached first on catcher’s interference. The ball had been dribbling down the third base line and I wondered why Craig hadn’t left the box. So I scooped it up and they called the play dead.

So, with runners on first and second, our reliable catcher from last year, Shaun Quill, stepped into the batter’s box. Somehow, his line drive moved in slow motion into my glove. It had me moving toward second, surprising the lead runner, who assumed (like everyone else) that the ball was going through and he was going to score. I realized after a step that I was way faster than him and throwing was a risk. So, I ran him down – nearly back to second – to close out the game.

After the game, I was told that it changed the week and that it made Evan’s night. Finishing the day 1-1 beats the heck out of losing two. We also woke up our bats and played some good defense. We’ve got a coach that has taken his team to the championship 4 times in a row, so I like our odds.

My batting stats aren’t good, but I understand how it can affect catchers. I was tired when I stepping into the box a few times. So, 0-4 with a walk and a run scored. I think taking second on that walk counts as a steal.

On defense, 5 innings catching and two double plays (one at third, one catching). There was a nice throw to the plate that made for an easy out in the second game. Two passed balls, since the ones with no one on don’t count.

Photos and scorecards will be added here later.

42 is the key

Heading into the afternoon matchups, three teams had a shot at two championship game. One team sported a 6-1 record and the other two carried 5-2 records. With the 6-1 team playing the other 5-2 team, all three teams COULD finish with the same record. That would mean we’d check the head-to-head records. Interestingly, each head-to-head matchup had resulted in a win and a loss for three teams. So, the next tie-breaker would be total runs allowed.

2018 Game 8
Bad photo of the scorecard…

We didn’t worry about any of that, since none of it mattered unless we won. We faced Mitch, who is one of the harder throwers in the league. Since they’d allowed all pitchers to go 4 innings on Thursday instead of the normal max of 3 innings, we had a tough row to hoe. The bottom half of our order would face him to start the game. They set the tone for the game by hitting him hard, with Bill, Richard and Russ all scoring to get max runs for the inning. “Game Time Al” Ferlo drove in two runs with a timely single to right. Al didn’t have a lot of hits during the week, but this was incredibly timely!

Ric Power headed out for bottom of the inning and shut them down. One of the keys to our success has been good pitching, backed by solid defense. Ric held them scoreless in the first, gave up 3 to allow a tie in the second, but landed wrong on a pitch in the third. JT stepped up to the mound and their scoring was over.

I didn’t have much success against Mitch, but it didn’t matter, as most of our team did. I put the ball in play the second time around and we maxed out that inning as well. Evan, who had pitched 4 innings in the morning came on in the 5th, stymieing our bats. So, we entered the top of the 6th ahead 6-3.

I’d hit him really well last year, so I was being my usual positive verbal influence on the team, telling them we could hit him. We also had fans for the first time, with Craig’s family showing up to cheer on old #51. Evan must have been tired, but I think that our fans and my encouraging words helped.

Craig's FansWhatever the reason, we just kept getting on base, piling on the runs. I put one in a challenging spot in the infield (only challenging in Ponce!) and reached on a 75-foot, weak liner. We racked up 8 runs, giving us 14 for the game. I think everyone scored, but this was my one really bad photo of the scoresheet.

The other game resulted in all three teams finishing with 6-2 records, and 1-1 records against each other. When they totaled the runs given up, we had 42, Team F had 44 and JR’s Team A had 46. So, we made the championship game!

Age is just a number

In our morning game, our starting battery was 139 years old. Richard Toikka was consistently throwing strikes at 73 years old, while catcher, Bill Arnold, is a spry 66 years old. When Dave Wheeler stepped to the plate at 79 years old, we were watching 218 years of experience.

Rich pitched three fantastic innings and JT finished it off. We had some great defense by Russ Ryan and Craig Tasens among others. With double plays and deft catches on shallow flies, we tightened up our defense.Richard throwing bullets

I also got to see my favorite part of an outfielder’s uniform – the back! My second at bat forced him to turn and run for the ball, giving me my second double. I’m at 9 for 18 now!

Russ Ryan smashed a pair of doubles and really had a fantastic game. The whole team is contributing and the potential for a championship remains.

End of wood bat Wednesday

Chandler Fox hitting batting practice from Rick Knapp

I love Wood Bat Wednesday, because then everyone is playing MY game. Contact is about the same, but players who normally get hits from the aluminum of their bat instead of the quality of their swing become… unproductive. As we noticed in the morning game, this makes throwing strikes even more important.

In our 6th game, we played JR’s team. They’re all over 60 (except one) and live for wood bat play. Bob Duff started on the mound for them and frustrated us in the first. In the second, we managed to string together some hits, but this was another encounter with a big strike zone. I drove in JT with a ground out to first on a ball that may have been high and outside — I couldn’t afford to take a chance, but knew I could knock it down in the direction of first base. I drove in another (great hustle by Craig Tasens, as usual) on a sky high single too deep for third and too close to the line for the left fielder.

They had gotten to us, though, pushing across 7 runs in the first three innings. JT came in to try shutting them down, but they managed to add two after we added two in the 5th. They ended up edged us, 9-5. Well, it seemed like a tight game all afternoon.

We’re 4-2 and close enough to retain those championship hopes.

Down to earth

I stepped on the mound to pitch and my brain worked overtime. I somehow managed to strike one guy out, but walked three others and gave up one long hit. Fortunately, we can only give up three runs in an inning until the last inning, which is unlimited. We lost by four.

Fortunately, I played good defense and had two hits. Almost had three, but Shaun was called out. I’m 8 for 12, so that part is still good.

Back out to the field for our afternoon game…

I paid to hit

Our afternoon game was also very close and very exciting. They had a fireballer on the mound to start the game, so we struggled. When I came up for the first time, I got knocked down by a pitch. It was right at me, and I feel to the ground to avoid it. Bad luck for me, it hit my bat anyway. I hung in there fouling off a few pitches and taking a few balls. I struck out though, stranding Shaun after his RBI double.

Going into the top of the last inning, I was up first with our team ahead 5-3. The first pitch was inside, just under my chin. I joked with the catcher, asking if they didn’t like me. The next pitch was low and away. A 2-0 count is a hitter’s count. He needs to throw a strike and will often give you a pitch that ends up easy to hit. It wasn’t. Our grazed my belt. The umpire asked if it hit me. I told him it grazed me and he asked if I wanted to take it. I hesitated.

In our morning game, we’d had the same umpire. His strike zone was very big. Gigantic even. Shaun got called out on a pitch up at eye level. Every close play was an out. Nonetheless, I liked this umpire. He appreciated that I only use a wood bat and he’d chat with me.

I knew that if I didn’t take first base on this “hit by pitch”, I might not get on base. I knew that the count would be 3-0 if I stayed at bat. He’d have to throw me a strike.

I looked at the umpire and said “I paid to hit”. I wanted a chance to hit the ball, so I stepped back into the box. The next pitch was low and away again, so I took my walk.

Ed Confino was hitting behind me and he’s been gracious enough to let first pitches go by so that I could steal. Before my at bat, he’d said to me, “I might swing at the first pitch.” I told him, “I might run anyway, let’s not worry about it.” I took off and he hit the ball. They did get him at first, but had no chance at the double play.

I was dancing off second, thinking about stealing. I didn’t think the odds were good. He wad throwing hard and the catcher was good. I just got s good secondary lead and was able to advance when a ball scooted past the catcher.

On the next pitch, it was a grounder to third. He scooped the ball and we stared at each other. As soon as he threw to first, broke for home.

Earlier in the game, I’d seen someone tumble as a means of sliding, and commented on how odd the slides had been all week.

The throw was coming in hot. The catcher was in the right spot. I knew that I should drop to the ground and slide. I didn’t. I stretched with my last step as something like a slide. I’m told it was “poetic” and that I should give classes – for comedy’s sake!

I was safe!

We didn’t manage another run, so lead 6-3 headed into the bottom of the final inning.

JT was pitching, throwing hard and throwing some curve balls to catch them off balance. The first batter managed to hit one of those curve balls. So he was on first with his team down 3 runs. He wasn’t going to steal when needing 3 runs and wasn’t fleet of foot anyway.

Steve Liddle, who runs the camp and will be back coaching in the majors again with the Tigers, often says that he sees things in Ponce he’s never seen in baseball. This was one of them.

On the third strike, Russ Ryan fired to first. The runner was way off, having taken a big secondary lead. Turning to go back, he fell down. Strikeout, throw out.

JT got the next batter out and we notched our fourth victory, 6-3.

I’m now 6 for 9, with a double, a walk, one hit-by-pitch, multiple steals with some runs and RBIs. I’ll have to find the exact numbers….