Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 9:47 a.m.
Clinton High School’s baseball program, unused to such success over the years, entered Monday night’s Class 3A Upstate district game with Belton-Honea Path riding a 20-game winning streak like it was Nyquist.
The Bears were riding years, even decades, of success like it was American Pharoah. Longevity prevailed in this battle of irresistible force versus immovable object, 2-0.
For 20 games, almost everything worked. For the 21st, almost nothing did for the Red Devils. Both teams entered with 23 victories. The Bears went back home with 24.
I first experienced this feeling when I played football. I didn’t really recognize it until I started writing about sports. Sometimes it seems as if the playing field is forever tilted against a team. Everything goes wrong. The law of averages catches up in one miserable evening. During a season, every team endures at least one such game.
Clinton (23-2) had it Tuesday night. A failed squeeze play. A bunt that didn’t get down. It happens, as winning head coach Steve Williams and losing coach Sean McCarthy both opined afterwards. Both teams pitched and fielded well. For both, the offensive opportunities were rare. B-HP took advantage. Clinton did not. The Bears (24-3) move on to play Wren. The Red Devils go to Seneca on Wednesday, facing elimination.
It was a wonderful atmosphere at The Sponge. Clinton had the B-HP fans outnumbered, but they made up for it by being loud. They kept chanting for Clinton pitcher Jeremy Simmons to “throw it in the dirt!” By and large, he didn’t. The stocky lefty battled in a rare start. Usually he comes to the rescue. McCarthy saved Davis Cunningham or Tristan Smaltz for Wednesday and the other, likely Smaltz, for if it goes on beyond. Simmons only gave up four hits. One of the B-HP runs was unearned.
The game hung in a balance of balls flying off bats high above the lights. The most solidly struck was that of the Bears’ catcher, Dax Roper, and it bounced off the fence in right-center field, but Roper’s blast didn’t produce a run. His courtesy runner, whose name I forgot to record, got picked off third in the fourth inning, the final installment in a rare 4-3-5 double play.
B-HP’s left fielder, Andrew Ford, snagged long fly balls twice, sending up groans from the stands because the drives were less fortuitously placed.
In the bottom half of the same inning, Smaltz, who played first after spending most of the season either on the mound or in the outfield, swung under an Austin Todd fastball, sending it straight up. The difficulty of a catcher in tracking such a geometric oddity is underrated, and Roper couldn’t catch it. It nicked off his glove and landed on the foul line, but it looked as if his mitt had turned it inward, and the initial ruling of the home-plate umpire, at least when my eyes shifted quickly to him, appeared to be “fair ball.” Smaltz was standing on first, and Cameron Bishop, the Clinton courtesy runner whose name I did record, was at third.
What might have been the break of the season failed to occur because the umpire, under duress, apparently changed his mind, and then Smaltz struck out. It was the only moment all night in which the field appeared to tilt the Red Devils’ way, and it was fleeting.
The game, well-played by both nines, had its freak moments. The 4-3-5 double play. Clinton’s failed squeeze play in the first. The botched popup.
The Red Devils’ first-inning opportunity was the first example of bad luck following good. Copeland had narrowly reached second ahead of Chevy Brock’s tag. Brayden Gibbs bunted him to third. Chandler Todd reached first when Roper failed to make a play … anywhere. Wary of the speedy Copeland dancing off third, Roper held the ball. Todd was safe via “K, fielder’s choice,” which is about as rare if not as impressive as a triple play or a perfect game.
McCarthy called a squeeze. Williams called a pitchout. Copeland got caught between third and home. He tried to avoid Roper’s tag by pirouetting like a student on the first day of ballet class, and while the tag may have missed him, Copeland was out of the baseline and dead to rights, which, as it turned out, was also to be his team’s fate.
Fate was fickle on Tuesday night. It dangled opportunities, then snatched them away.
Lord, have mercy. It was something to watch.
Miracle of miracles. All four of my novels are available in both Kindle (and free apps usable in virtually anything electronic and communicative) and print. The latest is called Forgive Us Our Trespasses. It’s a bold ripsnorter of a crime novel.
My fable on life’s absurdity, in the person of a football coach subjected to all manner of crises, is called Crazy of Natural Causes.
I’ve put together a collection of short stories, all 11 born in songs I wrote, aptly entitled Longer Songs.
My historical novel, set in the 1960s, of the South, civil rights, integration, bigotry, and high school football, is called The Intangibles.
The adventures of a pot-smoking songwriter turned national hero is known as The Audacity of Dope.
If you’ve read them, particularly Forgive Us Our Trespasses, I’d appreciate a customer review at amazon.com and/or goodreads.com.