At long last, pitching exaltation

After my final pitching outing of 2016, I spent our holiday break working to free up my pitching motion, returning to the pitching form I had back in college. Searching, endlessly, for exaltation that continuously eluded me. As the break neared its conclusion, I was seeing some positive signs. My throws felt looser. The ball was flying out better than it had during the previous months. At the end of a disappointing outing on January 14th in a scrimmage against a Division 1 club, I had an epiphany while spending hours looking at my pitching motion on video. The next time I stepped on the mound in a game I would drive my glove side down more, instead of spinning, and drive my back knee down (to generate hip rotation), shortening my stride a bit. It would feel like I was trying to less on the mound in my motion. The huge question was, would it work?

Sundays (game day) were usually the toughest, yet best days of the week. I typically worked past 9 pm on Saturday nights (flipping burgers), came home to eat (leftovers from work included if I was lucky), showered off my greasy feelz, and then walked over to the train station (~20mins) with my baseball gear for the next day. It was roughly a two-hour public transit ride over to the club president’s house, where I would sleep to be closer to the club for early U16 games on Sunday mornings. I would get to his house after midnight and try to be asleep on his couch by 1 am. If the U16s had an away game, I would wake up at around 7 am to give me enough time to arrive at the field by 8 am for warmups. Immediately following the U16 game, I’d drive over to wherever I was playing for the day. If I was lucky, all the games were at our home field and I would get 30 minutes of extra sleep in the morning and have time for a 30-minute power nap before the 2s game. When I began warmups for our 2s side at noon, it was like I was free at last, finally doing what I loved.

I arrived at the field about 50 minutes prior to game time for our first game after the holiday break, at Malvern. The warmups went well enough, threw the ball well. I only got about 10 pitches off in the bullpen before I headed back to our dugout to lead off the game at the plate. Those 10 pitches felt great though, a bunch of low strikes with the fastball. Would today be the day I experienced the fruition of the countless hours spent on throwing drills when I experienced the completion of a pitching metamorphosis? Yes. I threw all four innings of our mercy rule win. I only walked two batters. Struck out seven. And didn’t give up a hit. The other team was really bad, but I dominated them in extremely commanding fashion. In our post-game huddle, I told the guys how much the game meant to me, how I hadn’t won a game on a mound since March 2015 and that I was incredibly thankful for all their patience, sticking with me in spite of all the bad performances I had before. My eyes watered up a bit. I had been imagining this day since the moment I first put on the Wolves uniform. I told them I was excited to make a run at the playoffs with all of them. I was overjoyed that I could finally contribute to the club on the mound, where I wanted to all along.

The next game was at home vs. Sunshine. The club ahead of us, in 4th place, the last playoff spot. We had three games left to play and needed to win all three in order to make the playoffs. I was able to get a power nap in before beginning my warmup and was feeling especially pumped for the game. Sunshine was a solid club, one of the best hitting clubs in the division actually. I would find out if my game the week before had been a fluke or if I really had made a significant leap in my ability. All doubts were squashed in the first inning. Almost immaculate. I threw the first eight pitches for strikes. Got in my head and threw a ball, but then sat the last guy down on a spotted fastball. 10 pitches, three strikeouts. My teammates were pumped with positive energy coming off the field and into the dugout to hit. That feeling is like a drug. There is pitching well and then there is pitching well in a dominating way that inspires and motivates the rest of the team. I distinctly remember how one of the older guys on the team said something along the lines of ‘well, Lucas really came out to play today, let’s do him right boys and get the bats going!!’ Through four innings I was perfect. No walks. No hits. Then, in the fifth inning, I ran into some trouble. I walked the bases loaded. Got out of it with only allowing a single run though. Walked the tightrope well this time. While I did walk three batters in five innings, which is not very good, I felt ecstatic that I went four entire innings without walking a single one! The last time I had done that was in March 2015 too! We won the game 6-1 and it was my 2nd straight W on the mound. Things continued to be good again.

Next outing, last regular season 2s game vs. Doncaster. Winner secured the 4th position in the standings and a trip to the playoffs. My nine-inning streak without allowing a hit was broken in the 1st. I didn’t let it faze me though, as I went five innings, gave up two runs, and we won handily, 13-2. It was my 3rd straight W. Then came the semi-final playoff game vs. Berwick. They were undefeated and had beaten us two times already. However, they hadn’t faced a resurgent left-handed spiritual pitcher on the mound in those two previous games. We were very happy to have made the playoffs and the atmosphere for the game was top notch. We had many of our 1s players drive all the way to see us and there were dozens of supporters for Berwick. I don’t know how cocky they were going into the game, but it quickly vanished as things got underway.

Going into the bottom of the 9th, we were leading 4-0. I had only walked three and given up three weak contact base hits while striking out 14. The pressure began to get to us in the 9th, our 2nd baseman botched a groundball, I walked two batters, and Berwick had two on with nobody out and the score 4-1. At that point, I had thrown about 135 pitches as well. Our coach called time and came out to talk to me, give me a rest, and settle me down. It worked. I regained my poise and pounded the strike zone again, recording three straight outs. The last play was a ground ball to shortstop, our usual head coach and a life member of the club (been playing with the club for over 30 years), and he smoothly picked it up and put the throw on target to 1st. It was fitting that he made the last play because he cared more about the game than anyone else on the field. When our 1st baseman caught it, the catcher and I look at each other and then we ran together for a massive hug. Exaltation. It means a lot when you work with someone and produce something magnificent together. That was the most fun I had on a mound ever. Playoff baseball, against an undefeated club, and I pitched the best game of my life.

Six months well lived.

I had one last outing, a surprise one in relief, in the 1s second playoff game vs. Sunshine. It did not go so well. I gave up five hits, walked three, and only recorded four outs. Yikes! There were some factors to explain the horrible outing. Like how maybe my body wasn’t in the best pitching shape after throwing 147 pitches six days before. Or how there were complications with my living situation and the night before the game I stayed up way too late packing up all of my things. Or how I wasn’t expecting to pitch, so my warm up before the game included too many throws and I didn’t prepare my body in the best possible way before heading out to the mound. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not consistent and polished enough to be successful against what was the best team in our league yet (probably comparable to an average NCAA D1 team). Or the likely scenario, it was a combination of all of those factors. Anyway, it was a fortuitous end to my season as a Wolf because it gave me another spark to keep getting better.

So, I am by no means done improving as a pitcher. As I left Melbourne, there was still a long way to go towards my goal of pitching 90mph, wherever I want it, in any situation. The transformation I had while playing for the Wolves certainly was a substantial step closer to that goal. It bolstered my confidence and faith in my ability to put in consistent hard work, even when things weren’t looking great for a long time. When things go bad, so frequently, you doubt yourself, your belief wavers. Yet, you take action while still hanging on to the ripped threads of belief for dear life. That’s when the magic happens. Believe, and then the evidence will appear. The four starts I had for the 2s side from the end of January to the end of February (23 total innings) were liberating. After almost two years, I had some sustained success on the mound again 🙂

Besides, improving on the mound, the other most rewarding outcome of my trip was seeing the guys on the U16 team I coached gain more self-esteem throughout their season. A couple of them had almost no prior baseball experience and a lot of the other ones didn’t have much more than that. They made a lot of progress, especially given the sporadic attendance at the weekly training sessions. Here is something I wrote before the juniors presentation night:

My two biggest goals for you guys this season were for you to have fun and to improve your baseball ability. We managed to experience a bit of both. My biggest hope though, was for you to experience the combination of the two together. To show you guys that putting in effort, hustling, giving your maximum energy, having a competitive edge, an unrelenting tenacity towards the improvement of your ability, and noticing you can now do something that was impossible for you a few months ago, is what enables you to have the maximum fun possible. (Player 1’s) home run the opposite way, (Player 2’s) multiple innings of commanding the strike zone in a row, (Player 3’s) making an error but then gathering himself to contribute to all three outs in the rest of the inning. I resolutely believe that the more you put in, the more you get out, in every aspect of life. You all are talented individuals, good kids, and on the path to being solid young men. It was a pleasure to coach you this summer and I wish you all the best in your future seasons on the field and off of it.

A big thank you goes out to our assistant coach. His presence was incredibly helpful, from his willingness to step in and coach when I got hit in the face, to being at almost every game to help with warmups and coach first base. It was a synergistic situation where we were able to provide a lot more instruction to the guys than if either of us were on our own. I am very grateful for all the time you gave to help the team.

It was heaps of fun to coach them. Over their final few games, they showed massive improvements on the field and had a blast doing it. I distinctly remember how in a game very far away, with very bad weather (~10 degrees with wind and drizzle, cold for Australia that is!), we got down big early, but managed to keep our spirits up and beat the other team in the last few innings (though we still lost by a lot). If you saw the looks on all the guys’ faces after the game it would have seemed like we won. The other team looked jealous, envious that they weren’t having as much fun as us, despite the display of the scoreboard. That’s what baseball is all about. Giving your best and having one kick-ass fun time while you’re doing it.

Little by little. Day by day. The dream was realized. That’s what they’ll all say.

Though I was not able to contribute to the 1s team on the field as much as I would have liked, I’m proud of the way carried myself as a Wolf during my six months with the club. I developed further on the field as a player, a coach, and a teammate. I learned loads from the mates I played with, played playoff baseball for the first time in more than five years, and made progress on the journey of realizing my personal legend. A season well spent. I doubt many people from the club will read this, but from the depths of my soul, THANK YOU!!!

ENTIRE SEASON BATTING GAME LOG:

Totals: IP -> 42, ERA -> 4.71, Record -> 4-1

Status -> BACK ON TRACK 🙂