In the semi-final game, coach started Steve at pitcher. He was a year younger than me and I had thrown the entire game the day before. It just made sense. Steve was a good pitcher with a half-sidearm delivery that broke the ball into the hands of left handers and away from righties. He had plenty of experience and was arguably our number two pitcher. He’d thrown a great game but he was tiring. I knew it and I could sense the other team knew it too as I took my place at first base in front of their dugout.

They got a guy on right away. Steve was battling and working hard but struggling with his control. That’s what happens when you’re running out of gas. He walked the next guy and during that at-bat, the first guy stole all the way around to third which was pretty common in our league.

Steve was tough but his time was quickly ticking away. Another guy singled plating the leadoff and even though we’d had a three run lead coming into the inning, the tying run was now on first. Coach asked for time and we met at the mound, me from first, Kelly from third, Kim from second and Eric from short.

“You can do this. You feeling okay?” coach said.

Steve nodded but you could see he was beat. Sweat beaded up on his top lip and his hair was matted from the sides of his cap. There were a few encouraging words from us infielders and we broke the huddle and went back to our spots. Steve bore down and pitched to their fourth batter. He struck him out but not before the lead runner stole third. Men at the corners.

The next batter hit a first pitch ground ball to second and we got the force at the bag and we were able to hold the runner at third when we didn’t try and turn two, a smart move. We were probably the first or second seed in the tournament but we weren’t that good and double plays were a rarity in our league. I covered first just in case.

Again there were men on first and third but now with two outs. Steve looked physically smoked and the other team, seeing it like I did from first, turned up their chatter. Sometimes when you’re in a tough spot the fear and apprehension of failure is more draining than the physical strain you’re facing. I can’t tell you what Steve was thinking but I know he walked the next batter on four pitches. Bases loaded, two outs, tying run on second, go ahead run on first. Coach called time.

Steve, who always threw a lot of strikes, was clearly done for the day. Our other pitchers were inexperienced or had a habit of getting the ball up in the strike zone and maybe just didn’t have the velocity. The other dugout was screeching in anticipation of taking the lead. Coach gave the ball to me.

“All you need to do is get the batter. Don’t worry about the baserunners. Pitch from the full windup. Don’t worry about holding the guys on base.”

I knew all that stuff. I had been pitching for three or four years at that point. I’m sure coach just said that for the other guys’ benefit as much as mine.

“Just get an out” he told the guys in the field. “That’s all we need to do. Go to the easiest base.” He left me alone on the mound to take my warmup throws as did the others.

When you’re the pitcher it’s both exhilarating and terrifying. You need to respect the hitters and yet fear no one. You need to be smart and yet reckless. I loved that balancing act. I secretly loved the spotlight too.

Even though I was the shy, quiet one who wouldn’t say crap if he had a mouthful of it I loved being out in front of everyone with the game on the line. Who would have imagined? I knew what I could do and I so wanted to perform as if to say “Look at me” through my actions rather than words which just weren’t my strength.

My warm up tosses were good. I wasn’t known for having a lot of control and sometimes, because I threw hard, that made guys nervous. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to let one go wildly once in a while. I figured it might make the kid think there was a possibility that the thing might be coming at his head so I never really worried about where my warmups went. My purpose was more about getting loose on the mound and finding a good groove. The ump yelled “Play ball!” and it was on.

I didn’t really know much about the kid I was facing. We didn’t scout teams all that carefully, this was just Pee Wee baseball after all. Still, even if you’re in the field, as a pitcher you make mental notes about some guys at the plate. Some look like they’ve got ants in their pants and are ready to bail out at any moment and some step into the box like they’re Willie Mays. This kid was neither but I figured, with the way his teammates were whooping it up, he felt at least as much pressure as I did, maybe more. I breathed deep, stepped back and threw hard.

It was a good pitch, probably too good, right down the middle and he let it go by for a strike. Even though I had speed I felt a little lucky. “Better not do that again” I said to myself under my breath. I had a habit of talking to myself while I was on the mound, not like “The Bird” Mark Fidrych but I kept a running commentary especially when I needed to concentrate. I was always a little afraid that the people in the stands could see my lips move and would think I was weird. This was a big moment so I tried not to worry about that too much.

I knew he’d be ready for it the next time and I saw him dig in a little deeper in the box. The fact was, anything close to being down the middle he could just stick the bat out and it would go. I didn’t want that. Not that I didn’t think our guys in the field could back me up but when you are an introverted, tall, skinny, glasses-wearing farm kid and you have the chance to keep control of something and make it yours, you do whatever you need to in order to get the job done. With one strike on this guy I needed to move the ball in or out of the strike zone somewhere he’d have a hard time making good, solid contact. I chose inside on his hands figuring he might be leaning in to be ready.

I let pitch number two go and for once my control didn’t escape me. The pitch came in just a bit under belt high which was up a bit more than I wanted but right on the inside corner and at his hands. He swung through but really had no chance of getting good wood on it even if he had connected. Strike two.

Now like I said, I was a kid who hungered for attention but didn’t understand how to get it. Even at twelve though, I had come to the conclusion that it would be actions rather than words that would earn me respect and admiration and I knew that a dramatic three-pitch strikeout to end the game and send us into the finals would be huge. To have the honor of finishing both of our first two games on the mound where I would undoubtedly get the start in the finals was storybook.

I’d read way, way more than my share of sports novels during my six years in school. This was the kind of stuff that those kids did. I wanted this last strikeout but I knew that wanting it too bad wasn’t a good thing. My control, which had been known to desert me at times, sometimes for long stretches, could very well take a turn for the very worse. Nerves or overthrowing the ball would almost certainly ensure it. I told myself that a three pitch strikeout didn’t matter.

I was up in the count 0-2 and I knew that the batter was desperate to make contact. This pitch could be out of the strike zone but if it were close, he’d have to swing. I wanted the three-pitch strikeout. I wanted to end my second consecutive game. I wanted to move on to the finals where I would get a chance to pitch for the championship but I wanted this out more than all those things. This pitch couldn’t be good. I took a deep breath, stepped back and let it go.

I threw purposefully low but unfortunately not low enough and it was headed right down the middle. When I released it and saw where it was going I swore. Not out loud, not so that it was audible but within my head in a dark and exclamatory way. “Crap! Too good!!!” Somehow, someway, the ball, which started out just above the knees (too good and too high) just seemed to keep dropping though. By the time it crossed the plate with the batter whiffing helplessly it was halfway to his ankles. My catcher gloved it neatly. Strike three!

Our bench and fans erupted like we’d won the championship and my teammates pounded me on the back. Had I been anyone other than the kid I was I might have thrown a fist in the air or jumped up and down. I settled for grinning ear to ear and enjoying the moment.

We went on to win the championship that year. I pitched the whole game with a few ups and a few downs. My teammates saved me from some big innings with great plays in the field and at the end I did leap in the air to celebrate; a public display that felt a little awkward to be honest. I still didn’t move up in the social world. I was still the shy kid that much as I wanted to couldn’t figure out how to do anything but use his actions to be noticed. It was a great year and I still have the championship t-shirt to prove it. I suppose the accomplishment is recorded in some beat up, long forgotten scorebook somewhere. I don’t really know. What I do know is the memories all seem to pale in comparison, to those three pitches.