Tight games and tense moments

On Tuesday, we started the day against JR’s (John Russell) team. His teams are always good teams. I was going to list ways in which they’re usually good, but it’s in almost every aspect. Only a few players are good at most things, but each player he has can boast of one above average skill. That’s true of most of the players down here. One might wonder how someone who’s around 80 can compete with players 20-30 years younger. If you hit the ball hard or throw strikes or can play catcher, you don’t have to move fast or have another skill.

Every year at our spring training, we have a day on which we do “specialties” and the professional coaches do some skill training for the players. Most years, we haven’t had a catching session because the turnout would be pretty low. This year, they had one before the morning game, run by Stan Clyburn. Since I know I’m going to be catching a lot and probably not pitching at all, I had to miss Rick Knapp’s pitching session. One of the best aspects of coming to Ponce Spring Training is that these pro coaches add so much knowledge to the team – they give great instruction and they learn our quirks over the years. It’s what they do when they’re with their minor and major league clubs, so it should be no surprise. I’ve never heard of that kind of skill work when teams go to a tournament – you just play.

In our games, we always have run limits in all the innings except the last one. This avoids destroying the arms of the pitchers. When you have at least 58 innings you need to cover with pitchers and you start the week with only 4 pitchers, having those innings end mercifully is quite important. Each of our four pitchers has to pitch every day in order to cover 14 innings.

The games on Tuesday bounced back and forth. Holding a team scoreless for an inning is probably a bigger deal here than anywhere else. 3-run innings are not rare, but scoreless ones are. The game against JR got rough in Fred Jaffke’s second inning on the mound. His control started to deteriorate and I should have gone out on the mound to give him a chance to reset. Pitching can be a finicky thing and Fred will do fine in his next outing.

Sonny Hill kept racking up the RBIs. The hitters in front of him have done a good job of getting on base and it’s paid off. Not everyone runs fast or throws strikes, but they have a talent. Sonny’s is driving runs in.

We managed to squeeze out the morning win with some shutdown innings from Glenn Strachan. It’s been a delight catching for Glenn as his location is very good and the velocity exceeds the rest of the pitching staff. Sometimes, we get the pitch we watn, where we want it and they still hit it, but more often than not, we’re getting weak contact or swings and misses. Those misses are increasing as the week goes on.

Jerry Spitz started the second game and we weren’t great in the field behind him. The estimates of the number of outs we gave them with errors in the first innings were around 7-8 outs. That makes it hard to win. Jerry did get into an argument with the umpire when an opposing player stepped into the plate to avoid a curveball that hit him… over the plate. Jerry turned in 3 innings with the lead passing back and forth between the teams, with one or the other being one run up.

A late add to our team was Rick Kramer. He’s a little speedster and used to be a “vacuum cleaner” in the outfield. There might be a step lost that prevents him from getting to all the balls he used to, but he does well. His bat speed is exceptional and he’s been scooting around the bases for us, scoring critical runs. When the second game went into extra innings and Rick started the inning on second base, I knew we had that run.

In the extra innings, Glenn felt that his hand was doing well enough (recovering from a line drive off it last week) that he took his turn at bat. Mitch Orcutt was pitching the late innings and kept right on going in extra innings. Mitch sometimes comes inside and, sure enough, he hit Glenn on the first pitch. I went up next and got hit on the hand on the second or third pitch. It’s the hazard of pitching inside and, for me, the hazard of crowding the plate. As a result, we took the lead.

On a bloop that landed at the edge of the grass and bounced to Bill Murray, the opposing team’s runner on 2nd tried to score. Bill made a nice throw, which I caught a few feet up the line to beat the runner by a large margin. Those extra innings are a jumble in my head of what happened when and how.

With the heart of their lineup coming up in the bottom of the 9th, Glenn shut them down and I caught strike three to end the game. Hard-fought and nicely won.

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!

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.

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.