Zip! The baseball left the pitcher’s hand and whizzed through the air toward home plate. The batter shifted slightly but didn’t swing. The ball hit the pocket of Manny Griffin’s mitt. He froze, waiting to hear the umpire’s call.
Rats, Manny thought. That was ball four. The batter tossed his bat aside and jogged down the base path to first.
Manny plucked the baseball from his mitt, threw it back to Abraham Healy on the mound, and settled back into his squatting position.
C’mon, Abe, he thought. We’re just three outs away from the win. Don’t give up now!
It was the bottom of the sixth and the last inning of the game between the Grizzlies and the Wolverines. The Grizzlies were up by one run. But the Wolverines weren’t beaten yet. There were no outs, and now they had a runner edging off of first base. Abe was looking nervous—and with good reason, for whichever team emerged victorious would advance to be in the championship game later in the week. The losing squad, on the other hand, would end its season then and there.
The next Wolverine batter stepped up to the plate. Before he got into the box, he knocked the dirt from his cleats. Three taps to the right foot, three to the left, and then one more to each.
Manny watched him closely. This Wolverine had been up a few times in the game. He’d tapped his cleats like this one of those times, just before he’d laid down a bunt. That bunt had taken Manny by surprise and landed the batter on base. Now the elaborate cleat-tapping routine had him wondering if the Wolverine was hoping to repeat that effort, or, at the very least, advance the runner to second with a sacrifice.
If so, I’ll be ready for you! Manny thought. When the Wolverine took up his stance, Manny rose out of his crouch just a little bit. If the bunt came, he’d be set to spring into action.
Abe leaned forward, gloved hand on knee, and twirled the ball behind his back. Manny held up his mitt to give him a target. Abe straightened, reared back, and threw.
At that second, the Wolverine squared off toward the mound and slid his hands apart on the barrel of the bat.
I knew it! He’s bunting! Manny thought. Adrenaline rushed through his veins. Manny was halfway up when the ball met the fat part of the bat; he was already lunging forward when it hit the ground. Because Manny was in motion, he reached the ball before either Abe or Luis, the first baseman, did.
“You got it, Manny!” Luis yelled. “Now send it to first! Quick!”
Manny scooped up the ball and glanced toward first. Second baseman Stu Fletcher was already there, covering the bag for Luis. Manny heaved the ball. The throw was right on the mark.
“Yer out!” the umpire called.
Some players might have stopped there, but not Stu. He pivoted toward second, ball cocked and ready to throw, clearly hoping to make a double play.
Manny looked at second base—and groaned. No one was covering the bag!
“Get to second, Sean!” Manny heard Stu yell.
Sean Wilson was a lanky beanpole of a kid and playing ball for the first time that season. He usually rode the pine, but that afternoon he was subbing for the regular Grizzlies shortstop, Jason Romano, who was out sick.
Manny held his breath. Would Sean get to the bag in time, or would he ruin their chance for a second out?
Luckily, Sean’s long legs helped him cover the ground quickly. He held out his glove for the ball just as Stu unleashed a rocket of a throw. At that same moment, the runner stumbled in the base path!
Manny nearly let out a whoop. All Sean had to do was get the ball in his mitt, and they’d have two outs!
Sean almost bobbled the catch. Yet somehow, he controlled the ball, swept his glove down, and tagged the runner, who was sliding beneath him.
But did he make the tag in time, or had the runner beaten the throw? Everyone froze, waiting for the call.
“Out!” the umpire cried, jerking his thumb over his head.
“Woo-hoo! Way to go, Stu! Awesome catch, Sean!” Manny yelled.
Sean shot him a happy grin as he tossed the ball back to Abe. An instant later, however, that grin vanished.
A thickset man carrying a clipboard hurried out of the Grizzlies dugout and headed right for Sean. It was Tug Flaherty, the Grizzlies coach, and he looked angry.
“That was not an awesome catch. It was lucky,” he growled loud enough for Manny and the rest of the infield to hear. “And you’re lucky that the batter isn’t thumbing his nose at you from second or even third base!”
“Sorry, Coach,” Sean mumbled.
Coach Flaherty went on as if he hadn’t heard. “That should’ve been an easy catch. Know why it wasn’t? Because you didn’t look the ball all the way into your glove! If you can’t even do that, you’ll never be any kind of ballplayer but a lousy one!”
The shortstop hung his head. “Sorry, Coach,” he said again.
Coach Flaherty slapped the clipboard against his thigh. “I don’t need your apologies,” he said. “I need your heads-up play. Think you can give me that so we can win this game?”
Manny bit his lip. He could see a deep red flush creeping up Sean’s neck. Fortunately, the umpire called time-in then, sparing Sean any more humiliation.
Manny sank back into his catching stance. Even though Coach Flaherty hadn’t been chewing him out, his insides were churning. Sean made the out. So why couldn’t you just leave him alone?
He knew better than to hope that would ever happen. Coach Flaherty was a “screamer”; if he had a problem with your playing, he let you know it, loud and clear and in front of whoever happened to be near.
Manny wished he had the guts to ask Coach Flaherty to tone it down. But doing so would risk having the coach turn his anger on him. In the end, it was just easier to keep his mouth shut.