If you were a shortstop, you always wanted the ball hit at you.
Whether the game was on the line or not.
Keith Hutchinson, known to his friends as Hutch, had always thought of himself as the captain of any infield he'd ever been a part of, all the way back to his first year of Little League. Even back then, he could see that other kids were scared to have the ball hit at them in a big spot. Not Hutch. It was the shortstop in him. If the ball was in play, he always wanted it to be his play.
Because the game was on the line now.
And it wasn't just any old game; it was the biggest of the summer so far.
Hutch's American Legion team, the Boynton Beach Post 226 Cardinals, still had the lead against the Palm Beach Post 12 Braves in the finals of their 17-and-under league, even though this year's Cardinals didn't have a single 17–year-old on the team. But their lead was down to a single run now, 7–6. They were in the bottom of the ninth at the Santaluces Athletic Complex in Lantana, bases loaded for the Braves. One out to go.
If the Cardinals got the out and won the game, they moved on to the South Florida regionals next weekend, one round closer to the state finals.
If they lost, they went home.
Hutch walked over and stood behind second base, almost on the outfield grass, and waited there while their coach, Mr. Cullen, talked things over on the mound with Paul Garner, whom Mr. Cullen had just brought in to pitch.
Hutch knew what everybody on their team knew, that Paul was going to be the last Cardinals pitcher of the night, win or lose. He was going to get an out here and their season would continue, or the Braves' cleanup hitter, Billy Ray Manning, known as Man-Up Manning, was going to hit one hard someplace and it would be the Braves who'd be playing the next round.
Hutch and his teammates would be done for the summer. Done like dinner.
No more baseball, just like that.
He didn't even want to think about it.
Paul was one of his favorite guys on the team, normally their starting left fielder, but he was only the fourth best pitcher they had. Yet Mr. Cullen had been forced to pull their closer, Pedro Mota, after Pedro had suddenly forgotten how to pitch with two outs and nobody on and the Cardinals still ahead, 7–4. First he'd given up three straight hits to load the bases. He'd wild-pitched one run home after that, before walking the next hitter to reload the bases. Finally, he hit the next batter and just like that, it was 7–6, and Mr. Cullen had seen enough.
Now the one guy in the world they didn't want to see at the plate, Man-Up Manning–a seventeen-year-old lefty who actually did look like a man to Hutch–was standing next to the plate, waiting to get his swings.
No place to put him. No way to pitch around him.
Paul didn't throw hard, but he threw strikes, kept the ball down, got a lot of ground balls when he was pitching at his best.
One stinking ground ball now and they were in the regionals.
More important, they got to keep playing.
Hit it to me, he thought.
Mr. Cullen patted Paul on the shoulder, left him to throw his warm-up pitches. Hutch thought about going over to talk to Darryl Williams while he did. But they never talked much during the game, not even during pitching changes. When they did, it was usually only about which one of them would cover second if they thought a guy might be stealing.
Nobody was stealing now. Hutch wasn't paying much attention to the guy on first. Nobody was. He was a lot more worried about the runners on second and third, the potential tying and winning runs. Darryl? As usual, he didn't look worried about anything. He was staring off, lost in his own thoughts or lost in space. Darryl never seemed to look tense or worried or anxious. He knew he was the best hitter on their team–the best player, period. And yet...
And yet baseball seemed to bore him sometimes.
Paul threw his last warm-up pitch. Brett Connors, their catcher, came out to have one quick word with him. As he ran back, the neighborhood people sitting on the other side of the screen behind home plate began to applaud, understanding the importance of the moment, as if they were all suddenly sensing the magic of what baseball could do to a summer's night.
Hutch watched them and thought: If we lose, some of these same people will be here tomorrow night watching the older kids play the 19-and-under game. Their season wouldn't end. Mine would.
Hit it to me.
He walked away from the bag, got into his ready position, watched Brett go through a bunch of signals behind the plate, all of which Hutch knew were totally bogus. Paul had one pitch: A dinky fastball with a late break to it that guys usually couldn't lay off of, even on balls that were about to end up in the dirt.
Paul threw one in the dirt now, but Man-Up Manning didn't bite.
"Be patient!" the Braves coach yelled from their bench. "He's trying to make you chase."
Paul threw a strike that Man-Up was taking all the way, then missed just outside.
"Still a hitter's count," the Braves coach said.
Is it ever, Hutch thought.
He could feel his heart in his chest, feeling the thump-thump-thump of it the way you could feel the thump of rap music from the car next to you at a stoplight sometimes.
Knowing that this was when he loved playing baseball so much, he thought his heart might actually explode. He loved it all the time, Hutch knew, loved it more than anybody he knew, on this team or any team he'd ever played on, loved the history of it, loved the stats and the numbers and the way they connected the old days to right now.
Most of all Hutch loved it when you were playing to keep playing, when you were at the plate the way Man-Up was, or standing in the middle of a diamond like this and -hoping–begging–for the ground ball that would get you and your teammates the heck out of here with a win.
Paul Garner took a deep breath to settle himself, let it out, shook his pitching hand before he got back on the -rubber. Because of the way Paul snapped his wrist, his ball broke more like a screwball, which meant away from lefties.
He threw his very best pitch now, on the outside corner, at the knees, right where Brett Connors had set his glove.
And as mighty a swing as Man-Up tried to put on the ball, swinging for the fences all the way, going for the grand slam hero swing, the best he could do was get the end of his bat on it. It would have been a weak grounder for anybody else. But Man-Up truly was a beast, even when he got beat on a pitch this way.
He hit it hard the other way, toward the shortstop hole, between second and third.
Instinctively, as soon as he saw the ball come off the end of the bat, Hutch was moving to his right, knowing that the only chance they were going to have, if the ball didn't end up in left field, was a force at second.
The shortstop in Hutch processed all that in an instant.
Only he wasn't the shortstop.