Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney



April 15, 2005

CH...CH...CHANGES...

David Bowie stuttered out the first line of that song for effect.

Tonight, I'll be doing it out of nervous apprehension.

As we enter the tenth weekend of the season, our three starting pitchers will be different for the first time. Our 7-8 conference record and the recent struggle for a quality start on the weekend has necessitated the ch...ch...change. We have had a starter go past the 5th inning just once in the past twelve weekend games. The consequence is that our offense, which had started the season so slowly, is seeing their recent run production wasted, and a continued stress placed on our middle relievers. If we get to our short men with a lead, we've been a lock- but that hasn't happened enough lately.

My job is to put us in the best position to win games. Sometimes that calls for much soul searching and difficult decisions. When changes are made they affect everybody, so they are not made lightly. The player removed from the lineup or whose role is changed, has to deal with the disappointment and feelings of failure. It's our job as coaches to get them to realize that each role is important to the success of the team, and that they need to find a positive in such a seemingly negative situation.

There are two sides to every lineup change. A coach can't please everyone. The decision making part of my job makes someone happy at the expense of another person's feelings. It's part of the job. It's part of life for the players. But I don't enjoy it for a minute. All I can do is try to focus on the hand I re-dealt myself and play the cards accordingly.

This change is a huge one for us. We will be taking our two best relief pitchers, Mickey Storey and Mike McBryde, and inserting them into our starting rotation. Their longest stints thus far are five and four innings respectively. Brandon Kloess, who has three mid-week starts, will also now go on the weekend.

So, the logical question would be, do I expect either McBryde or Storey to pitch beyond the fifth, and if not, how has this change been any help? The answer is, no I don't, but my hope is their effectiveness will continue, and we will have a better chance to build an early lead, while holding down our opponents.

What, then, happens in the rest of the game? That's the kind of question that has led to several fitful nights of sleep. Who becomes our closer? It's been a primal pleasure to sit in the corner of the dugout and watch Mickey or Mikey just totally dominate the last innings of games. But that's all over now.

Earlier in the year, I wanted to make this change because I feel that these are the two most dominant pitchers we had, and they should be used to start us on the right foot each night. We weren't scoring much back then, and I felt it was an ill afforded luxury to have them in the pen. But we had some talented young arms in the rotation, and the prevailing sentiment was that they would be fine and we would start scoring more often. Then the bullpen would do its job. It was a smarter road to travel, particularly from the standpoint of player development.

I've been on this road before.

In 1997, we arrived in Stetson for a crucial conference series. We were struggling at the time with a freshman shortstop, who we hoped would be a solid player for years to come. But things weren't going well; he wasn't playing well in the field and his batting average was near the Mendoza line.

That team also had a transfer who was projected to be a high pick in that year's draft. He was a talented young man, blessed with great tools, but hampered by a big ego and a stubborn attitude towards anything that wasn't his idea.

The batting order is a study in sociology. There is a social perception to each place a player finds himself. Centuries of baseball lore have assigned certain values and rankings to the order in which we place hitters each game. This phenomenon is curious when you consider that the roles and order of the hitters will change as the game progresses. The "leadoff" hitter may only bat first at the start of the game. It all depends on the ebb and flow that occurs as each inning unfolds. So what does it all really matter?

This player was in the leadoff spot because he had home run power and was the fastest runner I had ever coached. The comparison I gave him was Rickey Henderson, a guy that could change a game in the first inning with one swing or by causing havoc on the basepaths. This kid had the same potential. But he never bought into my plan and was contributing as little offensively as our freshman shortstop was defensively.

I decided to drop the hitter to third, and bench the shortstop. Rich Ozarowski was a JUCO transfer playing out of position in left. He felt he was a college shortstop, but we didn't. That night I decided he would become one. Oz made three plays worthy of the nickname he shared with Ozzie Smith. Our new leadoff hitter started the game with a triple, the new third hitter homered and we won in a walk. Oz was a 10th round pick with the Tigers. He later changed his last name to Romano in honor of his grandfather, who raised him. The transfer was a 3rd round pick for the Blue Jays.

Sometimes change is good.

Tonight is riskier.

We still need the three guys that have been moved to the bullpen. Anyone who can do simple math would come to that conclusion. Our bullpen will be rebuilt this weekend and a new closer may need to emerge.

McBryde's role change has further complications. He is a valuable position player who plays great defense in center, leads the team in batting average, runs scored, and stolen bases. What happens to that part of Mike's game? He will serve as pitcher/dh in the game he starts. That enables him to remain in the game as a hitter when removed as a pitcher, but if he throws the second game, will he be able to play the outfield the next day? Should we hold him for the third game instead? That would answer that question. We could then conceivably use him as a closer in the first game and a starter in the third. But looking at Lipscomb's stats, I think their pitchers in games one and two pose the greatest challenge; the third day, runs may be easier to come by. Mike may be of better use in the second game.

You see now why I stutter the word ch...ch...changes?

SATURDAY AM...

THE DEERFIELD BOYS...

Vinnie Tozzie coaches at Deerfield High in Florida, and in the last few years was blessed with two outstanding players. Jordan Hafer chose to drive the ten minutes up 95 and play at FAU. His friendship helped Mickey Storey to make the same decision and give Coach Tozzi the chance to see his boys develop.

Last night they made the big guy proud.

Mickey took the hill with all the aforementioned pressure of getting us off to a good start on a conference weekend. During the past week, Mckey's been chugging cans of Ensure with every meal. The hope was to add some energy, and maybe a few extra pounds to his less than Canseco-like physique.

The folks from Ensure might be calling to have Storey do some commercials. Mick looked a little bloated, but he gave us exactly what we needed. He survived back to back solo homeruns in the fourth, and turned in seven strong innings leaving with the score 5-2. He scattered seven hits and struck out five Lipscomb hitters.

It's been six weeks since Jordan Hafer pulled a back muscle against UNLV. The big guy got the doctor's ok to practice last Tuesday, and without seeing any live pitching in that span, laced a leadoff double in his first at bat in the third inning, and scored our first run of the night. A double steal by Hutton and McBryde, followed by Fonseca's sac fly, gave us the early lead we needed.

Hafer was just getting started. After Alex Silversmith's single, Jordan ripped a single to center and the lead was 3-0. In the sixth, his walk advanced Silversmith to second to set up McBryde's two out rbi single. The lead was five.

Now the hope was to keep the lead and not have to use McBryde in relief.

We tacked one on in the seventh, but the big inning was the eighth.

Tyler Stevens delivered a pinch hit single, and McBryde beat out his sac bunt. Mascia advanced both runners with a perfect bunt, and Fons walked to load the bases for Widlansky. Woody delivered a sacrifice fly to score Stevens. Shapland got hit by a pitch, and the sacs were juiced for Brian Lipman.

Lip stepped in wearing his new Blue Wave eyeblack tattoo- for a night game! The big guy ran the count full and ripped some long foul balls deep to left. Finally he got one he liked and sent a towering blast over the leftfield fence for a grand slam. Chris Salberg pitched two scoreless innings and the first one was in the books.

Lpscomb threw me a curve and didn't start the guy we expected. Now we're going to see their lefty Zach Duncan in the pivotal second game. This one is big.

SATURDAY PM

OLD SCHOOL BASEBALL...

I spent some time talking to our guys before this one. The importance of this game couldn't be overstated. One weakness of mine is assuming that the players always understand the weight a particular game carries. In this case, I felt our entire season rested on how we played today.

Four straight lost series, a rebuilt rotation, and an undefined bullpen- now a tough lefty poised to swing the momentum his team's way with a win. Then Sunday we would face a tough reliever who also would be pressed into starting. Our guys needed to play their best game today, and they did. Everything I asked of them they accomplished.

It was like a playoff game.

Brandon Kloess was on the mound for us in his first conference start, with his Dad and uncle in from Alabama to watch. The kid gave them something to see. Brandon shut down Lipscomb over 5 2/3 innings. He pitched out of two jams and struck out six hitters, while we gave him one run to work with on doubles by Martin and Fonseca.

In the sixth, Kloess walked the leadoff hitter, not a good sign. After a pop up and a fielder's choice, Patrick O'Rourke singled, putting runners at first and second. The next batter was hitting only .169, but Brandon's stuff had dropped off. It was a matchup I didn't like.

Alan Knight is one of those bullpen guys who wants to be the next closer. I felt this at bat was as big as a close and told him so as I handed him the ball. The big guy answered the bell with a comebacker for the third out.

On to the seventh, 1-0.

Tyler Stevens was really struggling at the plate, but the kid is a fighter. Trying to stay alive with two strikes, Ty slapped a changeup just softly enough, and just far enough from the secondbaseman for an infield single.

Derek Huton has had a tough time this year, but he's a good baserunner. Pinch running for Stevens against the lefty Duncan, Hut gave me the sign asking for the green light to steal. I smiled and gave him the go sign. As Meatloaf said in Paradise By The Dashboard Light... "safe, safe at second base." A good piece of situational hitting by Chris Akins got Hutton over to third with one out. Lipscomb brought the infielders in on the grass to choke off the runner at the plate. Their strategy worked perfectly, as Justin Martin hit a sharp groundball at the secondbaseman. Hutton had to stay at third.

Duncan looked ready to again pitch out of a jam. We really needed another run and things didn't look good.

Earlier, with Akins at third, I clocked Duncan in the windup. He would look at the runner, turn his head home and start his windup. From that point I had him at 3.1 to 3.3 seconds. That might be good enough to steal home. I told third base coach George Roig that if we got the right guy at third, we might try it.

Hutton was the right guy.

I saw George talking to Derek as McBryde stepped into the batter's box. Mike fouled the first pitch down the rightfield line. On his way back to third base, Hutton told Mac to be heads up for the steal. The last thing you want is the batter swinging when you're racing toward him!

Back on third, Hut again flashed me the go sign.

Alright!

I tried to get McByde's attention. He gave me the batter's answer for the squeeze sign. No!!! There's two outs; you don't squeeze with two outs! McBryde, however, had heard Hutton's warning. It would have been nice if I had known.

Duncan got the sign, looked at Hutton, and started his windup.

Derek broke for the plate like Jackie Robinson. I'm screaming "Don't swing!" As Meatloaf would say, "Like a Bat out of Hell", Hutton raced down the line and slid safely home. 2-0 FAU.

But this game's tension wouldn't go away. An unearned run in the bottom half got Lipscomb back within one run. With two outs they had the tying run at second and their leading rbi guy at the plate, I went to the pen for Jason Doherty. We needed a lefty to face Ryan Mitchell and give us a shot at holding the lead. The first pitch was a curveball that nearly hit Mitchell. But Jason was up to the challenge and got a big, inning ending strikeout. 2-1 FAU.

The scenario we so desperately wanted to avoid was here. We had to use McBryde to start the eighth. We'd have to worry about tomorrow when it gets here. There was a game to win.

A flare hit by Ryan Price and a throwng error on an attempted pickoff put the Lipscomb runner at second. They tried to bunt him to third, but McBryde made a great play throwing the runner out at third. Nick Bruning stole second to keep my heart firmly in my mouth. But Mike got the next two hitters and it was on to the ninth.

Tim Mascia led off with a double to left center, bringing Hutton to the plate. Besides being a good baserunner, Derek's our best bunter. He laid down a beauty and Mascia was ninety feet from home.

Lipscomb went to the pen for sidearmer Seth Kuwik. He brought his five saves and 1.39 era with him. Seth is especially tough on right handed hitters. His ball moves a lot and is always down, making a sac fly or a hit hard to come by.

Chris Akins went to the plate with instructions to look for a pitch up in the zone. Chris was also told to be ready for the squeeze sign. Kuwik through a frisbee slider for strike one. Akins looked at me for a sign. The squeeze was on. Chris and Mascia each gave their respective replies and I prayed Lipscomb wouldn't pitch out.

They didn't. Akins laid down a perfect bunt and Mascia slid safely past the catcher. The lead was back to two.

Bottom of the ninth, McBryde strikes out the leadoff hitter, but the next guy doubles with two strikes on him.

Nothing hard is ever easy!

Tadd Brewer grounds out as the runner moves to third. Akins' bunt is looming larger with each pounding of my heart. McBryde drops a hammer on the Lipscomb batter for a called strike three! Game over. Time for Famous Dave's Barbeque!

Four sacrifice bunts, including a squeeze, and four stolen bases, including a steal of home. Today, they like to call that "small ball". Whatever its name, it was played exceptionally well by both teams. I told Duncan that I was happy to win, but it was tough to see him lose after pitching so well.

Our guys answered every challenge that came their way. But it all starts again tomorrow.

Sunday PM

I Can See Clearly Now...

I can't remember who sang that song back in the 70's, but today, the lead singer was Jonathan Shapland.

Jon had gone through a stretch where he seemed to just miss some real good pitches to hit. That's a real frustrating thing for a hitter. Balls that should be crushed get popped up, fouled back, or missed entirely.

I was aware that Jon had recently gotten contact lenses, but he wasn't wearing them in games or practices. We talked about it and Jon said that he couldn't get them in or out, and the ball looked different. My answer was that, just perhaps, different might be better.

This went on for a week or two until I sent him home from practice, to "practice" putting in his lenses. I told Jon he wouldn't get in a game without the contacts or glasses. What he failed to tell me was that he had a slight astigmatism problem, and that was probably the cause of the blurred vision. Thankfully, his Dad and I spoke, and we got Jon to my eye doctor on Wednesday.

Today it paid off for Jon and us.

Seth Kuwik took the mound for Lipscomb as expected. Righties are hitting .189 against him, so we stacked our lineup with every lefty we could find. This meant starting freshmen Robert Yodice and Daniel Cook. Cookie thought the guys were kidding him when word leaked out that he was playing.

Lipscomb jumped out to their first lead of the weekend, with two runs in the first inning. But the two freshmen wasted no time in contributing. Alex Fonseca laced a double down the left field line to lead off the second . Yodice strutted to the plate with that brash New York confidence that is such a part of his game.

The ball seems to jump off Yodi's bat, the result of great bat speed. Kuwik tried to fool Yodice with a changeup, but the result was a shot to deep right that moved Fons over to third with one out. Cookie was next, and not to be outdone, he lifted a deep fly to left and scored Fonseca on a sac fly.

The two youngsters were at it again in the fourth. Yodi led off with a double, and Cook drove him in with a single to left that got past the charging Bison outfielder as Cookie sprinted all the way to third. One out later, Cook scored the go ahead run when Mascia reached on a error.

Meanwhile, Mike Crotta had relieved Jason Costello and was throwing up goose eggs. Mike was throwing hard and showing a curveball that had been away for a few weeks. Things looked good as we continued to chip away at Kuwik.

Our guys were having good at bats against a guy with a funky delivery and good stuff. The bell was being answered each time. In the 5th, Brian Lipman started us up with a single, and trotted to second on a balk. Fonseca stayed hot and ripped a single too hard to score Lipman, putting runners on the corners with one out as Shapland blinked his way to the plate. Jon delivered a single to score Brian and the lead was 4-2.

Another scoreless inning for the Bisons, and it was Lipman again. After McBryde singled and stole second, Brian launched a moon shot to the batting cages behind the left field fence, chasing Kuwik and giving us a four run lead.

But the big inning came right back to bite us. A hard shot that could have been a double play was missed and the Bisons wound up scoring three times and it was now 6-5. The pressure was back on as Lipscomb served notice they were still here.

Now we had to somehow scratch out another run. We needed to look no further than our neighborhood optometrist's office.

Fonseca singled with two outs and Jon Shapland stood in the box with that wide stance, just looking for something to hit in a gap; maybe Fons could score from first.

Jon's contact lens education was really in the elementary stage. The day after he first wore them, he opened the case, eager to put them in and start the day. Jon was surprised to find them shriveled up and hard as the old hard contacts that dinosaurs like me wore years ago. He didn't know he was supposed to soak them.

Luckily for us, Dr. Sider had given Jon a spare as he looked at a fastball for strike one. The next pitch never made it past his bat. It landed behind he left field fence and the lead was three! Thanks Doc.

Coaches know when they, themselves, are having a good game. We also know when a bad decision gets made. The bottom of the 7th made me want to shoot myself.

Lipscomb was again fighting back. Down three, they loaded the bases with one out. We had Chris Salberg ready in the pen, and had warmed up Mcbryde during our half. As I went to the mound and summoned Chris, McBryde threw some more in the outfield with Mascia.

Mike had said that he was good for three today, but I thought it was his heart talking. Two innings were all I wanted, Salberg would get us through this inning. The first pitch was a sharp breaking curve ball that struck the batter in the foot, forcing in a run and moving the tying run to second base.

Coach Fossas looked at me and said, "McBryde".

I didn't want to make that move. Not just being leery of using Mike then, but more in deference to Salberg. He had thrown one pitch. This kid has a world of talent and we need him to find it. Tony shook his head and said the game would be won or lost here.

Sometimes you coach with your heart and get burned.

The next pitched was ripped down the right field line and rolled into our bullpen. The winning run would easily score from first. I wanted to die right there. You can't describe the feeling that you just lost the game for your kids. They trust us to make decisions that position them best to win.

I really believe coaches don't win games, but we sure can lose them.

But sometimes the baseball gods reward people who mean well. It was about to be my turn.

Mascia was digging through the mass of tarps and sandbags at the fence in the bullpen. He raised both hands to signal the umpire that the ball was either out of sight, behind the fence, or lodged in something. As the umpire ran out to right, the Lipscomb runners raced home, and my heart fluttered. The ump was bent over like he was looking for a lost contact, but Shapland was in left. Then he turned and ran toward the infield. "Two bases," he cried. The runner from first who had scored was sent back to third, and the batter to second. The game was still tied!

I decided to lock the barn door, now that the horse was gone. McBryde was summoned in from center to try and keep the lead. When Mac got there with Justin Martin, who had replaced Yodice behind the plate, I instructed them what to do if the runner broke on a squeeze. They had a kid batting who was hitting below .200. The Lipscomb coaches had been profuse in their praise for Mike's pitching the day before. I knew they would squeeze; what pitch was the question.

The first pitch is sometimes a good one to squeeze because most coaches won't pitch out then, in fear of putting the pitcher behind in the count. Wynn Flecher is a good young coach, the son of a college coach, he knows the game well. I just hoped I'd guess right.

The first pitch was strike one; the runner held.

I had noticed Saturday, that the Lipscomb runners at third always stood facing the pitcher in their lead. That's standard. But their first move was a crossover step with the left foot, and a turn of the shoulders to face home in a walking lead. We had a good shot to pick a runner off if we execute. The pitcher has to kick up and throw to the base as the third baseman breaks for the bag, catches the throw, and tags the runner.

The other scenario is the pitcher kicks up, throws it away, and both runners score, and we're down two runs. Was I prepared to make two bad decisions in the same inning?

This one would only be a bad decision if it failed. Failure... with McBryde and Woody? "Give the pick to third, George."

Sometimes you have to be lucky to be good.

Wynn chose that pitch to squeeze. The runner broke for the plate as McBryde stepped to third. The rundown netted the second out, shifted momentum back to us. Mike struck out the hitter and we entered the 8th tied at eight.

Robbie Widlansky singled and stole second base; we were back in business. After two outs, Robbie was still stuck at second; that was the bad news. The good news was that we needed a hit and Shapland was up. Jon's third hit of the game delivered his fourth rbi, and we were back on top.

McBryde had not yet given up a run all season. As we headed to the bottom of the ninth, I prayed he could hang on for us. But Mike proved himself human, as the Bisons scratched out a run to knot things up again.

Brian Lipman is arguably the slowest runner in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He was our first hitter in the tenth inning. I looked at my watch. It was nearly 5:00 pm, and our flight was at 6:45 pm. Where would I get the money to stay over if we missed it? Lip knew the situation was drastic as he eyed the Lipscomb third baseman playing deep to protect against a double.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. Brian gambled and laid down a bunt, and took off for first, traveling well below the speed limit. The surprised Lipscomb infielder raced in and threw late and wildly to first. Lip made a beeline for second and had just enough strength to get to the dugout as Tyler Stevens went in to run for him.

The go ahead run was at second with Shapland at the plate. I told him to look for something to pull. If he made an out pulling the ball to the right side, the runner would be advanced to third. A bunt was not even an option.

Since Shap was having a Reggie Jackson day, the pitcher was working him carefully. When the count reached 3-0, Jon peeked over his shoulder, looking for the green light. Some guys are afraid to hit 3-0, they sometimes are overanxious and pop up. But not when you're seeing the ball the way Jon was today.

Green light? Is there any other color?

Shap unloaded and took his best swing of the season, launching a scud over the scoreboard in right. Our dugout erupted into a mob scene at home plate. Shapland was getting mugged by his teammates. I was sending someone to retrieve the ball to give to Dr. Sider.

The dugout was still buzzing as Justin Martin drove a first pitch fast ball over the left field fence. Back to back jacks, and a three run lead! On to the bottom of the tenth, and then the airport.

But Wynn's boys wouldn't quit.

McBryde was on fumes and with one out it was again a one run game with the tying run at second. I couldn't swallow. Fossas went to the mound.

Tony's been in these situations plenty of times in all his years pitching. Sunday afternoon in Nashville isn't the same as the playoffs at Busch Stadium, but it felt like it to me.

On he mound, Tony removed his sunglasses, put his hand on Mike's shoulder and said, "These are the situations that make you a baseball player."

He walked slowly back to the dugout and sat down.

McBryde struck out the last two hitters. He's definitely a baseball player.

Maybe it's weekends like this that make you a baseball team. KC

 

 

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