Major League players appear in about 150 games a year. I appeared in ten. How do you think I feel about that? Bloody delighted. Because that’s a huge jump from my usual six games a year. It’s a quantum leap, and it means that I don’t have the frustrated feeling which usually accompanies the end of a year’s baseball. That’s not to say I am happy of course! In the quest for my baseball dreams, I would prefer to have had more innings, more at-bats, and more moments of brilliance. But there are at least things I can look back on fondly.
The first must be the fact that — for the first time since 2009 — I was involved in a win! In fact, I was in on two of them. On a sun-baked day in Tonbridge, the Raptors piled on the Bobcats and beat them 35-23. We had suffered a long hard season with big defeats by vastly more experienced sides, such as Southampton and Cambridge, so that was an immense relief to get the victory. Like a warm wash of Caribbean sea, after a long British winter. The Raptors had also faltered during some close games and given up big innings, such as against Guildford and the London Marauders. So that meant it was doubly satisfying for us to win much closer games to wrap up the season – a second win over Tonbridge, and a defeat of the Braintree Rays.
Throwing the ball is the area where I must do the most work. Earlier in the season I had a couple of games at third base — which I really enjoyed actually — but they did confirm that I need to put a whole lot more mustard on the ball to be fully effective. There are times over this year — and over my previous career — when I have made perfectly good throws from short, and in from the outfield. But I need to focus every time, and put everything on it every time. Blog entries from my time at third show that I finally decided the problem was not that I couldn’t make the distance, but that the ball just wasn’t travelling fast enough. That requires some wrist work over the winter (stop sniggering). I have the best intentions, but I can’t promise anything.
The other element of my “throwing” the ball this year was pitching. I made another baby step onto the mound, logging about six innings, and one start. I can’t imagine that even single-A teams are quaking in their boots at the idea that I could do more pitching next year, but overall I definitely advanced from previous seasons. I threw at least two, and probably three, curveballs that I was completely happy with. One of them appeared to entirely bamboozle the hitter, and whilst Slater was doubtless boosting my confidence by shouting “Yes! He didn’t know what to do with that!”, it worked, and I am grateful to him! After some experimentation, I have found a curveball grip that I am happy with and I hope I can put it to good use next year.
My first ever start — against the Old Timers in the second half of a double-header — was an interesting moment. Usually I have come in as a reliever in a game which is already lost, so it is hard to judge how successful you have been. For example, hitters might swing away at pitches they would normally leave. My two scoreless innings to close the game against Southampton — whilst I do not write off the wonderful feeling that gave me! — were perhaps misleading. On the flipside of that same coin, when I came in as a fire-fighter against Guildford, I was guilty of focusing too much on throwing straight strikes, and not ‘working’ the hitters enough. That didn’t turn out well. So, the start against the Old Timers was the most “pure” pitching experience I have yet had. I enjoyed it enormously. Three walks and nine runs in three innings actually isn’t too bad at this level. Bizarrely, I seemed to resume a bad habit which I hadn’t really shown since my first appearance last season, namely pushing the ball off to the right, either at or behind the batter. If I had been throwing heat, I probably would’ve been ejected from the game! We will see where 2012 takes me, but if I continue to make progress I might be a passably decent pitcher in about four years.
Catching the ball takes in a variety of skills and sins. I don’t think I ever dropped a ball in the air which I should have caught, so that’s a good thing, and I might even have caught some which I shouldn’t. But I definitely logged errors on the infield. At least two of them were failing to pick the ball up! They were bare-handed plays on dribbling balls when runners were advancing, and I found it was far too easy to rush yourself and fail to get a clean grip before trying to make a play. Other errors were from bad, rushed throws.
But I think I made mostly sensible judgements about when to throw and when to hold the ball, and about where to get the out – on several occasions I helped force a lead runner at second, and made sure of that out. In our final game against Tonbridge, Zach Longboy was bossing the infield brilliantly, and with his help I was in on great defensive plays, including cutting down two runners at the plate. I’m not too proud to learn from a teenager! And I must not leave without mentioning the fact that I did turn a relatively unassisted double play, so my year did have a defensive highlight! It was against the Guildford Mavericks, a man on first, nobody out. The batter hits a sinking liner to me at shortstop. It looks for all the world that it will get through, but I am able to reach down and make the catch off my shoelaces. All those years of playing must finally have sunk into my brain, as I instantly knew that the runner who had confidently set off from first was now a dead duck. One simple throw to the first baseman and it’s now two down, bases empty, and we got out of the inning without conceding a run. Man, that felt good!
So, to sum up all this self-obsessed rambling? It’s been a pretty good year. Getting so much time at the diamond was a huge plus point for me, and playing in two victories was a welcome bonus. The raptors were a fun team to be part of, especially in the second half of the year. I felt that I made some progress in all areas of the game in 2011 so whilst there is much more progress to be made, I feel pretty good about things. The club as a whole is strong, and the youth players coming through have a lot to offer. I don’t know whose team I will be on next year, but I do know one slightly strange ambition for the year — and that is to suit up in the tools of ignorance! Might never happen, but having now played third base and starting pitcher, the only position I haven’t played in proper, competitive league games, is catcher. Managers, take note…