Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Change…

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Fastball, curveball, slider, change; a prototypical pitching arsenal that pitchers who take the mound have been utilizing for more than a century in an attempt to keep hitters off balance. It’s no secret to the baseball world that the most successful pitchers are those who can affectively throw multiple pitch types for strikes on a consistent basis (unless your Mariano Rivera or Aroldis Chapman, then you only need one pitch). Pitchers like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Noah Syndergaard are great examples of professional athletes that contain this ability. Every fifth day of the week, these perennial all-stars dish out deceptive pitch sequences that cause opposing batters to cringe as they hopelessly attempt to make contact with the baseball. There is a certain ambience that fills the stadium when these guys toe the rubber. A certain emotion that is felt inside every spectator, coach, and teammate. So effortless, so fluent, they make it look so easy.

However, each of these individuals has spent countless years, months, weeks, days, and hours working towards perfecting their craft. To obtain this unique talent requires numerous throws and constant practice repetitions but it also demands an abundance of trial and error scenarios. It’s one thing to be able to throw multiple pitch types and make them move efficiently through the air as they travel towards home plate. It’s another thing to be able to repeat this ability on a consistent basis. To top things off, nothing I mentioned above matters unless the athlete is able to throw each pitch inside an extremely small strike zone which happens to be 60 feet 6 inches away, 17 inches wide, & roughly 36 inches high. Simple enough right?

At this point, you might be wondering where I’m going with such a detailed introduction. I promise there is a funny story behind all this. Well, I think it’s funny at least…

It all started on the afternoon of Monday, February 26th, 2018.

  • Location: Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida.
  • Matchup: Justin Verlander (every decent-looking, middle-aged man in America’s hero for obvious reasons) & the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros verse Noah Syndergaard [a.k.a. Thor (a.k.a. the man who looks like he could be the son of the Greek God Zeus & during adolescence got struck by one of father’s lightning bolts in his right arm)] and the New York Mets.syndergaardthorcrop
  • The current time: 12pm, approximately one hour ’til game time.
  • The scenario: It’s my first week of spring training with the Houston Astros. I’ve been asked to suit up for the big league team along with a couple of fellow mini-camp invites. Last spring training I had the opportunity to suit up for two big league games when I was still a part of the Oakland Athletics organization but I never came close to actually pitching in the game.

As you can imagine I was extremely nervous with this whole situation. Here I am, the new guy on the block, trying to get acclimated with all the changes that come after being traded from one professional baseball organization to another. Everything is new.  The spring training complex, coaches, strength coaches, trainers, mental skills coordinators, human resource contacts, player development philosophies, player expectations, and finally, new teammates. It’s a lot to process and it can take time to adjust. But I’m a professional. I have to expect the unexpected. I have to be able to adapt because the game isn’t going to slow down for anyone. So when I was assigned to backup the defending world champions just five days into camp, I would say that fell into the realm of the unexpected. Would I be able to adapt?

This was one of the greatest, most nerve racking days of my life. Not only had I just reported to spring training a few days earlier, but prior to this game, the last time I had faced hitters was a week before in Woodward, Oklahoma. My younger cousin Kaity was able to help set up a live batting practice session with her former high school varsity baseball team. Let me say that again because I don’t think I properly emphasized the severity of the situation… THE LAST TIME I PITCHED AGAINST HITTERS WAS A WEEK EARLIER AGAINST THE WOODWARD HIGH SCHOOL VARSITY BASEBALL TEAM!!! AND NOW, JUST ONE WEEK LATER, I COULD POTENTIALLY BE FACING SOME OF THE BEST HITTERS IN THE WORLD!

 

Needless to say, my heart rate was on a steady incline from the moment I stepped foot into the Astro’s locker room. My first responsibility: find the clubby and get my jersey. I was given number 99… quaint. Nothing says “I’m not actually a big leaguer, I’m just here for damage control if s*it hits the fan,” quite like number 99. As I left the clubhouse manager’s office I tried brainstorming pitchers in the big leagues who had the cajones to rock such a majestic number. Bpuz1e-IYAA0bECThe only guy I could think of was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn of the Cleveland Indians but that was a movie for crying out loud! And despite popular belief, I didn’t show up to spring training this year throwing 101 mph fuzzballs in a sleeveless, cutoff t-shirt! Maybe next year…

 

Assignment number two: introduce myself to AJ Hinch, the manager of the Houston Astros. Immediately upon stepping into Hinch’s office, I felt my throat start to swell up and my body start to numb. Just four months earlier, I was watching this guy rally his troops in the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now, even if it was just for a day, I was one of his soldiers reporting for duty (literally). Hinch didn’t have much to say to fellow mini-camp right-handed pitcher Andrew Thome and I, but what he did say definitely caught my attention. He opened with an ice breaker that gave praise to mini-camp position player Ryne Birk, who had suited up for the big league team the day before. Birk, a left-handed hitting second baseman from Texas A&M University, went 3 for 3 in his first big league game of the spring, making it look like the “the show” was nothing but a thing. We all had a quick laugh about the irony of Birk’s stellar performance before the skipper moved on to a more serious subject matter. He told us that it was likely either Thome or myself would be getting into the game but he wasn’t sure when that might be. He encouraged us to attack the strike zone and to be ready if our name was called. We shook his hand, thanked him for having us, and I exhaled deeply on the way out.

From there, Thome and I decided it would be a good idea to also introduce ourselves to the Astro’s pitching coach Brent Strom. We found him in the coaches lounge which happened to be one door over from Hinch’s office. It was a quick interaction, with Strom basically reiterating what Hinch had already said about being ready to go and to attack the strike zone. After introductions were finished, Thome and I made our way back towards the players locker room, stopping at the bulletin board in the hallway which had todays lineup card posted. I don’t think I’ve ever been so starstruck in my entire life. George Springer leading off, Josh Reddick hitting second, Jose Altuve third, Carlos Correa fourth, Brian McCann DH’ing, and Justin Verlander on the bump. After staring at the same piece of paper for probably 5 minutes, I turned to walk back in the locker room when to my surprise, I came face to face with Brian McCann, former all-star and current catcher for the Astros. I was so focused on trying to get out of McCann’s way that I almost left him hanging on a fist bump as he walked by. Luckily, I reacted quickly; squeezing my fingers together with my thumb as McCann knocked the living bejesus out of my right knuckles. He followed up his fist bump from hell with an enthusiastic “Lets get ’em today!” I tried not to tear up but my eyes got watery. I’m not sure if it was because I was so overjoyed that a big leaguer actually acknowledged me as a teammate or if it was because I was 90% sure he broke my hand. Regardless, it was a great yet painful moment.

After examining my fist for a few seconds, I took a seat in one of the chairs in the middle of the clubhouse, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible. In all sports, not just baseball, it’s an unwritten rule for rookies to keep their head down and stay out of the way of veteran players when they are first called up to the big team. It can take weeks, sometimes months before a rookie proves themselves worthy of being officially welcomed into the team’s brotherhood. Given the circumstances that I was a one-day-fill-in player, I decided it was best if I just kept my head down and minded my own business. However, it wasn’t long before something caught my attention. Josh Reddick, the starting right fielder, who seemed to have a very outgoing personality, made a grand entrance just moments after I got situated in my chair. Reddick had brought in two french bulldog puppies and placed them in front of his locker, just a few feet away from where I was sitting. I don’t care where you are, big league clubhouse or not, any time there are puppies present, you have to get a closer look. Naturally, I decided to fake going to the bathroom just so I could pass by and casually pet each one of the bundles of fur.

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After being distracted by a cuteness overload for twenty minutes, it was time to head out to the bullpen. I put on my uniform, laced my cleats, and checked myself out in the mirror before exiting the clubhouse. Look good, feel good, play good, am I right? I grabbed my glove and walked out towards the tunnel that led to the field with my former college teammate Taylor Jones. This was a pretty cool moment for me because Jonesy and I have been good friends ever since we met on Gonzaga’s campus back in the fall of 2013. Fast forward five years and we are both chasing our childhood dream of playing in the big leagues and yet, we still play on the same team. Crazy.

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As the tunnel drew to an end, with the Florida sunshine beginning to surface, I wished Jonesy luck. He said the same and we parted ways; myself turning left into the bullpen, Jonesy continuing down the left field line towards the dugout. I’d say it was a great day to be a Zag (#GDTBAZ) indeed.

Okay B, don’t panic. You did this last year remember? You probably won’t even have to get warmed up. You’re just there to back up if things get crazy in the late innings, right? Wrong. Immediately after I walked into the bullpen I was met by the bullpen coach Dyar Miller. Miller, who happens to be celebrating his 51st season in professional baseball, greeted me with a smile and some shocking news.

“It’s Bailey right?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” I responded.

“It’s nice to meet you Bailey. My name is Dyar Miller. AJ told me to inform you that if any of the big leaguers get into trouble during the first few innings, you will be the first to go in. Sound good?”

It was in this moment that things started getting real for me. This wasn’t going to be one of those back-up situations like last year where I get to look cool with my Oakley sunglasses on, wearing the big league uniform, sitting in the bullpen for 9 innings while I listen to the big leaguers tell funny baseball stories. Oh no, this was the real f**king deal; with a high chance that I would inherit base runners if I did get in the game, making things even more stressful.

“Yep sounds good!” I shouted awkwardly. “Unbelievable,” I thought to myself. “He’s going to think I’m nuts.”

I stood there for a moment, attempting to process what Miller had just told me. My legs felt heavy, my arms felt weak. I could feel the heat from the sun beating down on my neck and my heart racing as if I had just finished The Bolder Boulder. It felt like I was in some sort of trance, completely still, unable to move my person. But then, out of nowhere… POW! A sound that snapped me out of my daze. A sound that is music to every pitcher’s ears. A sound that ignites fear in every hitter that’s about to step foot in a batters box. It was the sound of a catcher’s glove popping as a fastball whizzed into its leather. But this wasn’t any ordinary fastball. No, this was a fastball that had just been delivered by a future Hall of Famer.

Verlander towered on the mound. 6 feet 5 inches tall, 225 pounds, this guy was born to throw absolute cheddar biscuits. After hearing the sound of his first fastball whizzing by just a few feet away, I regained control of my body and moved into a better position to watch the Cy Young award winner warm up.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Every single pitch was perfect. It was like the guy wasn’t even trying. Fastball outside corner, painted. Change-up at the knees, good luck. Back foot slider against a lefty, spin city. Curveball a few inches off the dish, we’ll smell ya’. The guy did not miss. What makes things even more impressive is that Verlander’s fastball averages around 97 miles-an-hour, but he’s known to hit triple digits every now and again. During this bullpen, I’d say he was just getting a feel for things, probably throwing a nice and easy 93-94.

After putting on a pitching clinic for 10 minutes, Verlander shook hands with Max Stassi the starting catcher before they made their way towards the bullpen gate. All of the relief pitchers including myself, made a tunnel for Verlander and Stassi to walk through, giving fist bumps and words of encouragment to each guy as they exited towards the dugout.

Finally, it was game time and the hype around this pitching duel did not disappoint. Both Verlander and Syndergaard dominated. Verlander threw 2 scoreless innings with four strikeouts; Syndergaard threw 2 scoreless with two strikeouts. In addition to his solid outing, the son of Zeus delivered 11 fastballs that registered over 100 miles an hour.

Because it’s spring training, each starter had a limited pitch count, exiting the game relatively early. However, the pitchers who replaced them did not skip a beat in terms of fastball velocity. Every single pitcher who threw for both teams during the first four innings of the game (5 total) all threw fastballs over 97 miles an hour. As a spectator in the bullpen I turned to Andrew Thome and said jockingly, “Bro, if I do get in this game, my fastball is going to look like it’s moving in slow motion.” And then the phone rang…

It was the top of the 4th inning and Hector Rendon was pitching for the Astros. Rendon was slotted to throw just one inning for the day but was struggling from the start. A few batters reached base on hits while another worked a walk. The bullpen phone rang after the second batter of the inning reached base. Miller answered and listened to what Hinch had to say on the other end. It was a short conversation, probably only 5 seconds in length.

“Bailey start warming up!”

Holy Santa Claus s*it this is actually happening…

I grabbed my glove and made my way to the mound. Chucky Robinson, another mini-camp invite, was the bullpen catcher for the day and tossed me a brand new baseball. During my first week of camp, Chuck had been one of the first friends I made and having him there to warm me up gave me a little bit of comfort as I tensely gripped the baseball.

Okay B, you can do this. It’s just baseball. You’ve been playing this game for years. Yeah, every other guy in the game today has been throwing 97 but who cares? You throw 92 with control (smh…)! Alright, let ‘er rip!

My first throw I nearly tossed out of the bullpen, just missing the top of the fence by a few inches.

Yep, I’m screwed.

I’m not sure how, but after that first wild throw I was able to get a grip on my nerves and found myself settling into a rythme. Fastball away, “Hey not bad”. Fastball inside, “That’s probably a strike,”. Change-up away, “I mean, it’s not Verlander’s but that was pretty darn good,”. Slider down “That could work,”. Curveball for a strike “Boom baby!” I was starting to build up some confidence when Miller called out, “Bailey are you ready?”

“Yeah I’m good,” I answered.

After Rendon failed to retire the next batter, I heard the words that I’ve been dreaming about since I was 5 years old, “Bailey you’re in!”

It felt like a scene out of a movie. Like everything was moving in slow motion. I tossed the baseball down, opened the bullpen gate, and started my jog towards the pitchers mound. During my run, I thought about the movie The Rookie staring Dennis Quaid. It’s one of my all-time favorite baseball movies and hits me in the feels every time I watch it. There is a scene in the film where the main character Jimmy Morris is told by the bullpen coach of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that he was in the game just like I was in this very moment for the Astros. Once Jimmy reaches the mound the camera work depicts a feeling like the world around Morris is spinning rapidly.rookie I think the director was trying to simulate the feeling of nerves along with the pressure Morris was feeling at that point in time. I don’t think the film director could have done a better job illustrating the emotions that are felt during a players first big league appearance.

When I reached the mound I was met by AJ Hinch, catcher Max Stassi, and the four starting infielders which included former first overall pick Carlos Correa and 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve. Hinch handed me the baseball and explained to me the situation.

“Alright, we’ve got runners on first and second base. There are two outs. Don’t try and do too much, just have fun and get us out of this.”

I nodded my head, “Okay skip.”

Max Stassi followed Hinch’s pep talk with a question, “What’s your name bro?”

This is where my introduction to this post comes in to play.

I was so nervous that my mind didn’t even process the question that Stassi had asked me. Instead, I was thinking about the importance of telling my new catcher what pitches I threw.

I responded with an answer completely out of left field, “Fastball, curveball, slider, change!”

I’m such an idiot.

Stassi laughed and said, “Alright bro! What do you want to do for signs?”

“Chase the outs, if I shake, first sign,” I replied.

At least I answered that question right…

“Alright lets do this!” Stassi said as he turned and jogged back towards home plate.

I started throwing my warmup pitches with the four infielders observing from behind the mound. My arm felt great which gave me some confidence. “If I can just throw that first strike, I know I’ll be alright,” I thought to myself. The umpire asked if I was ready to go after throwing about eight warm up pitches. I gave him the thumbs up. That’s when I turned to my right planning on fixing the dirt near the rubber but instead came toe to toe with the biggest shortstop I’ve ever seen. Looking straight up, neck completely flexed, I locked eyes with Correa. My new short-stop wanted to know what kind of fastball I threw.

“Four seam,” I responded.

“Does it move?” he asked.

“Nope, straight as an arrow unfortunately,” I said sadly.

Correa nodded and made his way back to his position.

This was it. My first big league appearance. In the moment, all I wanted to do was prove that I could play. All I wanted to do was show that even though I may not look like a prototypical big league pitcher, I could still come out and compete at this level. All I wanted to do was perform well, not just for myself, but for my family who was nervously watching back home in Colorado. And above all, right before I toed the rubber, I thought about wanting to prove everybody wrong that told me I would never make it this far. That very thought, lit a fire in my chest. I lowered the bill of my cap, locked on to the rubber, and waited for the sign.

Fastball away. I came set, checking the runner who was inching off second base. Correa was tapping his glove trying to keep the runner close and then suddenly broke back to his position. This was my indicator to deliver the pitch. I looked back at my target and fired a four seamer towards home plate. “HA!” yelled the umpire, indicating strike one. Stassi didn’t even have to move his glove. I exhaled a sigh of relief. Okay, you threw a strike, now lets get this guy. Stassi waited for the hitter to step back into the box. I took a deep breath, staring down the hitter to show I wasn’t intimidated. Fastball away again. I came set, this time Correa stayed in a good fielding position. The base runner was close to the bag, hinting that he wasn’t a threat to steal 3rd, so I decided to throw the pitch. The hitter swung and made contact, hitting a ground ball right at the first baseman. I sprinted over to first, ready to cover the bag incase my infielder wanted to toss me the ball. He declined, taking a few short steps to his left, stepping on the bag with plenty of time.

I did it! I actually did it! Overjoyed with emotion, I sprinted back to the 3rd base dugout. Before I got to the steps, Jose Altuve got my attention. He was clapping in his glove and then pointed at me, his way of telling me good job. That was the biggest compliment I have ever received and the man didn’t say a word. I went down the dugout stairs and was greeted with high fives from every single player and coach. Everyone was excited for me because they knew it was my first time pitching in a big league game.

I sat down on the bench and was met by AJ Hinch, “Can you go one more?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I said, and he walked away.

During the bottom half of the fourth inning, Max Stassi hit a solo home run to put the Astros up by one. The score was now 5 to 4. After jogging around the bases and being greeted by high fives from all of the guys, Stassi and I had a moment to laugh about my “fastball, curveball, slider, change” response. We talked for a moment and I learned that he was also drafted by the A’s back in 2013 before being traded to Houston. By then, it was time for me to go back out for the top half of the 5th. I grabbed my glove and jogged to the mound. This time around, all the nerves had disappeared. It felt like just another baseball game and I was excited to have the opportunity to get my own inning. Hopefully I could make the most of it.

The first batter who stepped to the plate was Wilmer Flores, the starting 3rd baseman for the Mets. I made quick work of Flores, throwing a first pitch fastball that he swung & missed at, registering at a whopping 93 on the radar gun. I followed that pitch up with a great change piece that Flores took for strike two. Now I could do anything I wanted. Stassi and I were on the same page as he signaled fastball up hoping Flores might swing at it. Instead, Flores took the pitch as it whizzed right in to Stassi’s glove. The umpire felt like it grazed the top of the strike zone, ringing Flores up. Flores voiced his disagreement as he walked back to the dugout. One down, two to go.

The next hitter was Jose Reyes, the starting short-stop for New York. Jose was the hitter I was most excited to face because he used to be the starting short-stop for my hometown team the Colorado Rockies back in 2015. I remember going to a game with my family down on 20th and Blake a few weeks after my summer baseball season in the Cape League had concluded. Reyes started that day for the Rockies going 1 for 4 with a single as my family and I watched from the nose bleed seats 5,280 feet above sea level. Now, 3 years later, he and I were about to tango, but who had the smoother moves…

Reyes gave me a good battle, working a full count, 3 balls and 2 strikes. I tried to be tricky by throwing him a 3-2 change-up but he stayed back just enough, fouling it off behind the 3rd base dugout. I followed that pitch up with a fastball high & inside. Being completely honest, this would have been ball four but Reyes chased it, popping up to Altuve at second. Two outs.

The third hitter I didn’t recognize but who ever he was, he made life easy, swinging at the first pitch he saw, popping it up to Springer in center field. Three up, three down and just like that my day was done. Stassi gave me a pat on the back as we made our way back towards the 3rd base dugout. He told me I did a great job and that he looked forward to catching me again in the future. I walked down the dugout stairs and shook AJ Hinch’s hand.

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“Great job. Be ready to come back and visit us in a couple of days,” Hinch said.

“Absolutely sir, anytime you need me,” I responded.

Talk about living a dream… next time I just gotta remember my own first and last name.

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