Monday, October 31, 2011

22 Strikeouts in 9 Innings

The Major League record for strikeouts in nine innings is twenty. In his last nine innings Will struck out 22 batters, including 13 in six innings this past Saturday.

But after facing the first four batters of the game, Will gave no indication that he was embarking on perhaps the finest pitching performance of his life. Friday morning he was out the door at 7 am, and worked all day clearing yards with George Ewing. After sitting through a movie in a cramped theater seat, Will arrived home at 8:30 pm hardly able to walk. As Game Seven of the World Series began, Will came in the door with an aching back and collapsed on the sofa. He tried to watch, but nodded off instead.

Crown’s Saturday morning opponent was the undefeated Bulls, the Mike Tamucci-coached team comprised of local high-school and East Cobb Baseball players. Will played on this team last fall, and with most of the Bulls for the past two summers. Mike’s son Ryan started on the mound for the Bulls. He and Will have discussed rooming together in college. Before the game I was able to have a nice long chat with Mike.

This fall the Bulls’ potent offense run-ruled most of their opponents. Last month the Crown-Bulls game had been cancelled, making this the League Championship game.

The beginning of the game could not have gone worse for Will. His first pitch hit his former Ray’s teammate Kyle square in the back. His buddy Parker stepped in and worked out count full. The Lassiter senior swung at the payoff pitch, but his bat wasn’t long enough to reach the pitch that was clearly outside. Despite the shaky out Will walked the next two batters, both on full counts. Bases loaded and one out, with slugging lefty Tyler at the plate. Now a senior, Tyler had made state-champion Lassiter’s varsity as a freshman. Still struggling, Will walked his former teammate on four pitches. But with the bases still loaded Will finally settled down. He struck out the next two batters on eight pitches, to end the Bull’s rally.

Down a run, Will had some work to do on offense. Leadoff hitter Nathan walked, then advanced to second on Ryan’s sacrifice bunt. After working the count full, Will then smoked an RBI single through the hole into leftfield. When the throw from left went home, Will scampered on to second. He took third on a wild pitch. After Tanner struck out, Will scored the go-ahead run on a two-out wild pitch…just before Silas struck out to end the inning.

After throwing 32 pitches in the first, Will only needed 13 to retire the side in the second. He fooled his buddy Ryan with an 0-2 curveball. After a pop to second, Will got the next five outs with strikeouts, including the first four batters in the Bulls’ order in a row…all ECB players.

Crown staged a two-out rally in the third. Protecting the plate, Nathan reached out and slapped a 2-2 single to center. Ryan was hit with a pitch, and a passed ball placed runners at second and third. Will stroked a hard grounder that completely ate up second-baseman Durham, his former Prowlers teammate. Both runners scored on the play. When the rightfielder ever-so-slightly fumbled picking up the ball, Will raced to second, sliding in just ahead of the throw.

But after the fourth-inning leadoff hitter whiffed at a curve on the outside corner, three Crown fielders stood by and watched Tyler’s high pop fall between them. Shortstop Andrew had tried to make the catch, but either the leftfielder or centerfielder should’ve made the play. I was standing next to Mr. Shelter and Mr. Vollenweider. Both are experienced scorekeepers, and both ruled it an error. Then Kell High’s Michael Lattizori hit a fly to right-center that landed in Charlie’s glove…and popped out for the second-straight error. The next batter hit a fly ball the centerfielder couldn’t catch, driving in an unearned run. It would be the only hit Will would give up all day.

With runners on second and third, a pitch skipped past the catcher. Lattizori broke for home as Nathan chased down the ball at the backstop. I didn’t think they had the chance to get the runner, but at the very last second Nathan grabbed the ball and fired the 30 feet to Will, arriving to cover the plate at the same time as the runner. The throw was perfect. Will caught the ball with his glove arm outstretched and immediately tagged out the sliding Lattizori, with less than an inch to spare. Play of the game. Then Will struck out Ryan again to end the inning, this time on a fastball.

The fifth was another 13 pitch strikeout-popout-strikeout inning. In the sixth Kyle grounded out, then Parker whiffed on another 3-2 curve. After Durham walked the Bulls’ cleanup hitter hit a routine fly ball to right. What should have been the third out of the inning turned into another dropped fly ball, and unearned run. Tiring, Will again walked Tyler on four pitches, before inducing Lattizori into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

Going to the bottom of the sixth Crown held a slim 4-3 lead. Will was done pitching, but needed some insurance runs to help protect the lead. In a repeat of the third inning, Nathan again expertly slapped another single, this time to left. Again Ryan was hit with the first pitch. I urged Will to be patient, but he jumped on the first pitch: another single to left, loading the bases. Tanner was 0-2 for the day, but this time cranked the 1-0 pitch over the centerfielder’s head for a bases-clearing double. Rounding the bases Will almost caught Ryan, before sliding into home headfirst. He made a satisfying slap of the plate with his outstretched left hand. Crown would win by that 7-3 score.

Will finished the day with 13 strikeouts in six innings. He struck out every batter in the Bulls’ lineup at least once, and allowed only one hit. Tyler was the Bull to not strike out (he went 0-1 with two walks). This ranks with his near no-hitter as a 14 year-old high school freshman for the varsity (in Chattanooga’s historic Engel Stadium, no less), and his 11 strikeouts in 4-2/3 innings, also in 2008.

All seven Crown runs were scored by the first three batters in the order: Nathan, Ryan, and Will. The last six batters in the order went a combined 1-13, with no walks.

After the game moms snapped photos of the boys, and Will posed with his old teammates.

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