Welcome back all you readers! I had an article already written, and then July 1st, 2009 happened. The most anxious, frustrating, and yet most fun and exciting game that I have ever pitched in my entire life. I have definitely never been a part of anything like this before, nor have I ever taken center stage in a drama such as this. I am going to attempt to describe you to my day from start to finish.
The 8:00am bus to Modesto was very rough. No matter what you are trying to get up and do, 8:00 am comes very early. When we got to Modesto after a 3.5-hour bus ride, we checked into our Clarion hotel room and got something to eat and just hung out for about 3-4 hours until it was time to go to the field.
The worst part about starting is that when everyone is stretching and getting ready for the game, you are kind of stuck alone in the clubhouse to get your mind right. There's only so much you can do to keep yourself entertained for those few hours and not get yourself too hyped up or too calm for the game. Pre-game was very normal for me, as I went through my routine and I went over the lineup with pitching coach Dave Chavarria about their runners and power hitters. Warming up, I didn't feel exceptional and I didn't feel bad, I just felt like I have every other start and I was ready to go.
Leadoff walk. First pitch of the game was paint on the outside corner of the plate called for ball one. If this is what the game is going to be like for me, it's going to be a long, drawn-out affair because I believe that first pitch was a strike. Leadoff guy decides he wants to steal and Jose "Chief" Felix throws him out on an absolute strike to second base. Lineout to Jake Kaase and fly ball to Timothy "T-Rod" Rodriguez ends the inning. I go back to the dugout thinking of where that first pitch was and how I need to get command of the corners of the plate to be successful today.
Strikeout swinging on a fastball, error on Kaase, strikeout swinging on a curveball, and a fly ball to right field. I have a little bit more confidence now because that previous corner that was once called a ball was now a strike and I have a good feel for my curveball. This might be an OK day after all.
Swinging bunt played by Felix, strikeout swinging, and groundout to Kaase make for a quick inning, and I head back to the dugout as we are dueling 0-0 going into the fourth inning. The opposing pitcher is throwing the ball well, and I know it's going to be a battle of who is going to blink first.
Hector Gomez flies out to T-Rod. Chief and I go inside on him and I don't quite get it in, and when the ball hits the bat it sounds so flush that I think it's going to go 600 feet, but when I look up T-Rod is camped underneath it in left field. Whew! One out. A walk, a flyout to Joey Butler, and a ground ball to Matt Lawson end the inning for me with a few complications.
In between innings, pitching coach Chavy reminds me that I am "forcing the ball" too much and that I need to stay fluid through my mechanics and keep my fingers on top of the ball and let it move. Don't try and overdo things, just let the ball work for you, he says.
Finally, I go out with a 1-0 lead and I know now it is my job to put up a zero anyway possible to get my team back into the dugout so they can hit again. This is frequently called the "hump inning" and for some reason it's the toughest inning for a pitcher because it often determines if you get a win or loss and it sets you up for the latter parts of the game. A groundball to Ian Gac at first base, a groundball to Kaase, and a strikeout swinging get me through the fifth with that 1-0 lead. I'm feeling good that I still have the lead for my team going into the sixth. I look back at the scoreboard and notice that they've got zero hits, yet it doesn't process completely with me.
I always like to joke in the dugout with my teammates to keep my mind off the game and relax a little bit. I find that this helps me because if I am thinking too much about the hitters and where in the lineup they are, I overstress myself and I don't trust myself as much. Elio Sarmiento and Eric Fry are my go-to guys at this point and we are talking about the differences between Dominican, Venezuelan and Spain-based Spanish dialects.
The first batter hits a shot off the mound and it hits a hole that catapults the ball in the air, and in a Top 10 SportsCenter-esque play, Matt Lawson jumps and snags the ball and when he hits the ground he throws a dart to get the runner by one step. WOW!!! A fly ball to left field and a fly ball to right field end the inning for me.
Yes, I am thinking about it at this point. I mean the scoreboard is huge and in left field and when I look to see the batting average of our hitters, that 0 in the opponents' hit column stares right back at me.
Now with the score 2-0, I go out. With a ground out to Kaase, a fisted pop-up to Lawson, and a groundout to Lawson, the inning ends with no hiccups. These balls weren't hit that hard, and there was never a reason to worry about anything. The balls were hit right at my infielders, and as they always have been they were in the right place for me and made the plays look routine.
The inning starts with a 100 mph grounder to Kaase that he makes look so routine. He throws the runner out easily. Next batter, curve, curve, curve, strike three. Now with two quick outs in the inning, my heart is racing to get back into the dugout as fast as I can, and here comes walk number three. (Insert all four-letters words here). Next batter hits a worm-burner of a grounder on a 1-1 fastball to Kaase to get the force at second for out number 3.
Coming into the dugout my mind starts to race about what is going on, and now all of the sudden the people I was talking to to keep things light-hearted now want nothing to do with me. I try for anybody. Sarmiento? Fry? Chavy? Everyone is on the opposite end of the dugout and I am sitting, alone next to the trainer's kit, trying not to psyche myself out, withy that 0 still staring at me in the face. I begin to think that already this is the best professional outing that I have ever thrown and how I am so blessed to even be in this position right now.
Double play turned and now it's time for me to go out for the ninth.
I go through my normal pre-pitch routine: three fastballs, two curveballs, one change, and another fastball with the throw down to second, and now I'm ready.
First batter is the leadoff man, a lefty. Curve, fastball, fastball, and curve lead me to a 1-2 count. Chief calls a fastball and I rear back and give it what I have and paint the outside corner for strike three. One out.
Holy cow, this might happen.
Up steps Hector Gomez, who has hit me hard the entire game but just found my fielder's glove every time. Three straight fastballs bring me to a 2-1 count. If he is going to beat me, it's my best against his.
Fastball away and the ball gets a little too much of the plate. He makes a great swing on the ball and drives it right back at my face for the first hit.
The crowd stands and applauds the hit, then continues for my effort. It was only 900+ people but to me it sounds like tens of thousands.
Next batter is the three-hole. Now I've got a lot of work to do. The no-hitter is gone and there have been plenty of pitchers that have gone from no-hitter to no-decision because they lost focus, mad that they lost the no-hitter.
The three-hole hitter hits a pretty sharp ground ball to Lawson, who flips it to Kaase for the force and the double turn is just a tad late and the batter is safe. Two outs, runner on first, and here comes manager Steve Buechele. Here is the gist of our conversation:
Me as Boo is walking toward me: "Boo, don't do this to me."
Boo: "Tuskee, look me in the eyes, and tell me you got this guy."
Me: "He hasn't hit me all day. I got this (insert four-letter word). No one else is finishing this but me."
Boo: "Alright kid, empty your tank. Go get 'em."
Me: "Ok, Chief, first pitch curve here."
Chief: "OK, let's go. Come on, kid. We got this."
As everyone leaves the mound, I know this is the most important batter that I will face all night, and yet for some reason I am the most calm I have ever been the entire game. I've thrown this guy eight curveballs so far and he hasn't come within three feet of one. I don't think he could hit one tonight with a boat oar.
Back-to-back curves put me at 0-2.
A quick step-off the mound lets me gather my nerves and energy to make sure I don't make a mistake. A curve in the dirt, and he swings for strike three.
The game is over and I feel all the pressure lifted off me. The first person to get to me is Jose Felix, followed by the bullpen. They jogged in from left field to make sure they were among the first to greet me and congratulate me. Every person from my fielders to my bullpen to the coaches not only shakes my hand but gives me a hug and a job well done.
Having a game like this, it isn't just the pitching but the fielding and the support behind you that makes it all possible. With only seven strikeouts that means 20 balls were put in play that my defense made outs on, which is amazing!
After the game, I get to step back and look at the scoreboard and nothing but excitement and satisfaction come over me and I finally comprehend what I did. Am I mad that I gave up a hit? Honestly not a single bit, I couldn't care less, my job is to give my team a chance to win and that's exactly what I did. Any pitcher who gets mad at giving up one hit is crazy; I will take that all day, every day.
But now it's done, and it's over. Just like bad outings, you can't dwell on it because your next opponent is going to see what you did and they are going to be gunning for me more than ever.
The true test is what I do with my next start. Anyone can have a quality outing, but can you back it up with another?
Special thanks to Jamey Newberg and The Newberg Report and to Mr. Tatusko himself.