Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 12, 2015

A Faceoff In The Present, A Glimpse Of The Future

It is the game within the game, the battle at the very core of the sport. Yet the duel between pitcher and batter is not quite as old as baseball itself, for there was a brief time in the Great Game’s early days when the pitcher’s role was to help each hitter put the ball in play. Upon taking his stance a batter would indicate with a gesture where he wanted the pitch to be placed, and the moundsman would do his best to accommodate the request. Of course in those days hurlers would not have been called moundsmen, since they threw from flat ground.

Over time the game evolved in various ways, perhaps none more fundamental than the shift of the once congenial roles of pitcher and batter to that of adversaries at the heart of the action. What has become baseball’s central drama is never greater than when it involves each side’s premier representative. Surely the crowd sensed that Wednesday afternoon.

On the hill was the visiting team’s once and future ace, making his second start after losing a season to the protracted recovery period following Tommy John surgery. Stepping into the batter’s box was the home squad’s once and future slugger, returning from his own misfortune, a season-ending fastball to the face last September that resulted in multiple fractures.

It was the bottom of the first, and the ace had been staked to a two run lead by his teammates in the top half of the inning. The big right hander retired the leadoff batter with ease before the number two man in the lineup grounded a single through the left side of the infield. That brought the slugger to the plate, as the crowd in the stands murmured in anticipation.

Pitcher and batter tested each other, with the count slowly climbing. In the midst of the at-bat the runner on first wandered too far from the bag and was an easy pickoff victim for the hurler. Now the bases were clear with two outs. Nothing further could distract from the tense battle between the two-time All-Star at the plate and the pitcher who had started the 2013 Midsummer Classic in his own home park.

In 2012 the hitter had walloped a grand slam off a pitcher who had not surrendered one in eight years. On that mammoth blast the ball left his bat at a speed of more than 122 miles per hour, the fastest off-bat speed since ESPN started measuring the statistic. Last season one of his home runs traveled 484 feet, the second longest homer in the big leagues all season. In his major league debut the pitcher had struck out eleven men, and once retired the first 20 batters he faced before a runner reached base.

One blazing fastball broke the hitter’s bat as the ball sailed harmlessly foul. Again the batter stayed alive by catching a piece of the ball, and the count worked its way to full. Ace and slugger stared each other down. At last came the eighth pitch of the at-bat, a fastball hurtling to the plate at 96 miles per hour. The slugger lashed at it, and the ball leapt off the bat on a low line. But it was right at the third baseman, who nabbed it for the inning’s final out. Round one went to the ace.

Two innings later the pair matched up again. Just as in the first, there was one out and a runner on first as the duel ensued. This time the ace fell behind in the count. With two balls and a strike showing on the scoreboard, he reared back and once again came with a fastball, aiming for the inside edge of the plate. But the pitch wandered out a bit too far off the black, and this time the slugger’s stroke drove the ball into the air. Deep in left field it bounded off the wall for a run-scoring double. Round two to the slugger, evening the tally of the game within the game.

Of course it is only March, with the exhibition schedule still in its early stages. Just under 4,000 fans made their way to Roger Dean Stadium on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, a few miles north of Palm Beach, for the game between the Mets and the Marlins. The ace of the team from Queens, 25-year old Matt Harvey, was making just his second appearance of the spring. The slugging star of the team that will make the short trip from Jupiter down to Miami when camp is broken, 25-year old Giancarlo Stanton, recorded just his 11th plate appearance of the year when he stepped into the batter’s box in the 1st inning. It is easy to dismiss it all as meaningless.

But the Marlins have had a losing record for five straight seasons; while for the Mets it’s been six since they finished with more wins than losses. For both franchises the period since a playoff appearance stretches even longer. Now both New York and Miami are projected to be climbing. The first statistical analysis by the geeks at Baseball Prospectus projects that both will end their string of losing records. If dreams of a World Series appearance seem a stretch, perhaps contending for a playoff berth is not.

For the Mets the hard-throwing Harvey anchors a young rotation that appears to have the potential to be, in time, among the Great Game’s most formidable. In Miami Stanton is already the face of the franchise, and with a rich and lengthy offseason contract extension he promises to remain so for the remainder of his playing days.

It was just a couple of at-bats in a Grapefruit League contest, likely forgotten by many observers before the calendar even turned the page. Yet for fans of the Mets and the Marlins it was so much more. Spring training is about many things. It’s about getting in game-shape, and practicing fundamentals. For veterans in decline it’s about grasping a last chance; while for callow prospects it’s about seizing a first one. For fans spring training can be about something no less important. On Wednesday afternoon, for the faithful of the Mets and the Marlins, spring training was about the power and the beauty of dreams.

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Responses

  1. As always, insightful, interesting and very well written.

    Don


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