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….

Sometimes the ball plays you!

I spent a few eventful innings at short and third, but the ball was eating me up. Fortunately, I still made a few throws to get guys out. That included throwing the last batter out on a falling, but full effort, throw. Fortunately, Rick Powers is really tall.

20180201_163147I managed to go 2 for 3, but drove on a couple of runs. My first hit didn’t go 14 feet, but it was in the right spot, driving in a run and not drawing a throw. I had a solid drive up the middle for my second hit. When we were tied after 6, we started a “shootout” inning. In the shootout, you come to the plate with 2 strikes. This particular umpire’s strike zone was gigantic, so I punched a grounder to first that drove in a run on a pitch high and outside.

We won by a run to make us the only undefeated team.

Easy afternoon victory

Our afternoon game stated very competitively, with us edging to a 3-2 lead that we extended to 4-2. Our pitching and defense got very solid after that and our hitting didn’t stop. So we ended up cruising to a 13-2 win.

My first at bat, I just failed to back away from the plate and took a soft pitch to my back leg. (Update on the following Monday: still bruised.)

Our coach, Rick Knapp, had rearranged our lineup from alphabetical to on be a little more strategic. So, I was hitting 4th. I’m sure it wasn’t that I had shown power, as all three guys hitting on front of me hit the ball just as hard, but I’ll take it. The lineup rolls continually after this game, so the leadoff hitter won’t be leading off the game after this.

20180201_163143Craig Tasens led off with a hit, and stole second easily. Jonathan Taylor singled to send Craig to third. When JT stole second they threw to second but Craig was caught flat-footed and didn’t advance. A passed ball while Shaun Quill was batting bright him on anyway. Shaun singled to plate JT. I was watching the first pitch to give Shaun a chance to steal, but it just kept coming further inside and hit me. I missed seeing Shaun break for third, so we didn’t double steal. I did go on the next pitch, though. When Shaun scored on Ed Confino’s single, we’d made our limit of three for the inning.

We turned to Richard Toikka for the third inning. It’s not often that you send out a 73-year-old pitcher, but Richard posted his first shutout inning of the week. After our morning game, Rick was talking to all of us, working on some tips for JT about pitching. Balance is such a key in pitching and Rick was focusing on the alignment of a pitcher’s hips in that balance and movement. It also applies in batting, so this lesson would be repeated in various ways throughout the week. As I mentioned last year, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks. The progress of specific players from how they played before lunch on this firsy day and how they played by the end of the week is truly due to great instruction.

My next at bat came with runners on 2nd and 3rd. My fly ball landed inches inside the left field line and stopped. That pushed in the third run that inning.

In the fourth, Russ Ryan began showing the power that would make him so critical to our success during the week. His double drove in two runs and he scored to give us another max inning.

Chandler Fox led off the 5th with a strikeout on which the ball skipped past the catcher, allowing him to reach first safely. He scored to tack on another run. My final at bat came when we were already up by a lot. As such, no need to take a pitch to let Shaun steal. I hit a solid line drive to shallow center that made the play at second close.

So, 3-5 on the day, with a double, 2 RBI and a run scored. I did overthrow first (Chandler Fox is tall, but not THAT tall!), but dutifully covered second to get the next out.

We’re 2-0 with wins of 5-4 and 13-2. I know at least one other team is 2-0, but I like our chances!

Starting with bang

First pitch that I saw from JR, I smacked to left center. When I saw the left fielder turn his back to chase it, I knew I had my goal of getting an extra base hit.

It’s great to be playing baseball. We’ve got a very good team. We beat JRs guys 5-4 in the bottom of the 6th. I contributed on both offense and defense.

One inning in right with a good catch and a good backup on a throw to first. Then multiple innings at third with a few plays. So, reasonable defense.

Had a double, scored a run and drove another in. On that double, I had to stay on a line drive just out of the shortstop’s reach. Then on the next hitter, I went to steal after 4 pitches and Shaun Quill hit a grounder behind me. I headed right home in case they had a double play. They only got the lead runner.

We were using a default lineup – just having everyone hit in alphabetical order while our coach, Rick Knapp, figured everything out.

Rick’s a lifetime baseball man, having served as a pitching coach for the Tigers and coordinated minor league pitching for the Twins, Royals and Dodgers. His last job was as the coordinator/consultant for MLB International, which had him trotting the globe to develop pitching worldwide. There’s a great interview with Rick about that job on Krush Performance. The entire coaching staff for the week is made up guys like Rick. Major league experience in managing, coaching and playing, while still loving the game enough to spare a week for a bunch of Old Men Playing Baseball.

20180201_163136In the third, our alphabetical lineup produced again. Jonathan “JT” Taylor led off the inning with a double and was driven in by Ed Confino after a walk to Bill Arnold. Al Ferlo, who struggled in the batting cage, drove in a run by hitting the ball hard. It may have been scored an error, but that run was important. My own hard-hit ball drove in the third run on an error.

So, we got to the 4th all tied up. JT came in to pitch and kept them off the board for the final two innings. A couple of hard hit balls and some good base running allowed Shaun Quill to score with Craig Tasens picking up the game-winning RBI.

Great start for the week.

On the road

In the middle of North Carolina, we’re bound for Fort Meyers. I’m more ready for Spring Training than I was last year, so my attitude is excellent.

Through Melissa’s diligent efforts, we’re three weeks into Weight Watchers and I’m down 10 pounds. Last year, I was 215 at the start of camp. This year, I’m 207 (hoping to drop 2 more by Monday), so I may be a step faster. At the least, my legs won’t be carrying so much and I might not have lead in my legs on Thursday.

Chandler Fox and I have be at the cage three times in the last few weeks. It’s made a big difference again.

Since we’re going to have 10 or 11 on a team, I expect to have to pitch a few innings again. A big part of our sessions has been throwing in the pitching lane. I’m a lot better than last year. There is apparently some curve on my curveball and my fastball is far more accurate.

At the beginning of the month, I cold hardly make contact in the fast (85mph) cage. On Tuesday, I was hitting with authority. Line drives were exploding off my bat. Since no one down there throws 85, I’ll have plenty of time to adjust. I’d love some extra base hits.

With the confidence that no one can blow past me, I’ll be using some tips from CoachUp http://www.coachup.com/articles/hitting-tips-the-spin-of-the-ball

I’ll let you know if I can pick up the spin with these old eyes.

Readying for Spring Training

After a season that I mostly missed due to two separate injuries, I’m getting myself ready for Ponce de Leon spring training. While the posted registration date is the 15th of December, Jr will likely be accepting more players for the next month or so, as long as it’s not a flood. If you haven’t signed up already, follow the link and sign up! New players pay only $995, while returning players pay $1,195. I noted some ‘fantasy camp’ comparisons last year, with prices four to five times as much, so this is a bargain. I personally don’t enjoy going to the gym without a goal in mind, so focusing my efforts year-round on playing baseball gets me out the door and exercising.

This year’s regular season was cut short in the second game when I managed to break my collarbone in two places. I was playing left field and there was a shallow hit ball, so I raced in to catch it. I slid down to get under it, but must have hit the ground shoulder first. It should go without saying that I caught the ball (mostly with my belly rather than my glove!) and tossed it to the cutoff man before standing up and noticing something wasn’t right. There was a slight protrusion in my left chest where no such entity existed on the right. Our shortstop, Dr Mark Tanenbaum,  is a cardiologist, so I walked to him and he checked the same way I did, agreeeing, “That ain’t right.” (He may have been less colloquial.) Though unable to raise my arm, I walked off the field and drove myself to the hospital.

The initial prognosis from the x-ray was that there was one break and the separation was only about 3mm. When the separation is greater than 20mm, they do surgery, so I was not expected to need that. Two weeks later, Dr Cary Schwartzbach had a look at a new x-ray, which clearly showed a small piece from in between the two parts of my collarbone and that small piece was dangling below the separation of the two. So, surgery was scheduled. The surgery went off without a hitch and I can highly recommend him. (He did also stay at a Holiday Inn Express the night before… well, he joked that he had!)

The physical therapy went well and, if the insurance had been willing to pay, I’d have gladly kept going to work out twice a week indefinitely. However, I’d reached the recovery goals and any further gains would have to be at my own expense. So, I started hitting the batting cage. I managed to do that for a few weeks and got back onto the field for our fall scrimmages at Yorktown High School.

Then, a minor injury and stubbornness combined to take me off the field after two weeks again. I’ve had some minor issues with plantar fasciitis, and my heel was hurting while I ran. It made me change the way I was running, but I forced myself to run and to run in an approximation of ‘normal’ rather than favoring it. So, I went from an irritation to having a challenge walking off the field three hours later. The double that I legged out won’t get me into the Hall of Fame (not even a notional Ponce de Leon Hall), but it felt good for a little while. Unfortunately, that meant I lost a month on the field. I understand Ryan Zimmerman’s problem when he had it so much better!

The good news is that I’ve been back in the cage, seemingly none the worse for wear. I even had a business meeting at the batting cage. Some sales people take their clients golfing. David Franco, who’s our IBM contact and who’s playing baseball again due to my urgings, met me at the batting cage. We threw for a little while to warm up in the pitching lane at The Strike Zone. Then, I went back in the 85 mph lane to flail a little before I got my groove on. I’m hoping David’s on the field down in Florida for Ponce de Leon spring training and the good news is… no one there pitches 85 mph. We both did a few rounds in the 55 mph cage and, for this early, looked passable.

I need to do some running – getting to the point of 5k every day for a week – in order to be ready. I’d used a fitbit in some games a few years ago and one nine-inning game with me in the outfield and a few hits requires about 5 miles of running and walking. Last year, my legs were like lead by the end of the week. I’d like to avoid that this year. I think my hitting and my arm strength will be far better, but having the legs will be critical.

Remember, if you’re thinking about whether to sign up for spring training, DO IT! It’s the best investment in your health and best way to enjoy exercising. Softball was never exercise, but baseball most certainly is.