The schedule for the second half of the season was a repeat of the first, same teams in the same order, and Carlton couldn’t believe it: the Braves were on fire. With the first four games they beat the Marlins (who for some reason didn’t pitch Little Carl Crowther against them), the Mets, the Astros, and the Cubs. David Slaughter was untouchable. Damian was glum, but businesslike on the mound. Carlton called two good games for him, allowing a total of three runs. Perhaps, Carlton thought, in thinking about his brother’s troubles, he was worrying less about his own pitching and thus performing better.
Carlton was a hitting fool during these games, going eight-for-twelve, with two doubles and a homer. Every time he stepped into the batter’s box, he went through the Fisk routine, putting his front foot into the water, keeping his back foot out while he looked the bat up and down, finally settling the back foot into the box. And two times out of three, he’d put the Air C Triple 5 right on the ball, and it would pop.
The rest of the time he went to school, worked at the Java Jive where he bussed and made pies, and talked with Meredith. Her season was going well, too, almost as perfectly as the Braves’. Both of them were pleased with their lives although both wished that they were playing on the same team, going to the same school, and working at the same restaurant. “Except your aunt and uncle probably wouldn’t hire me. I’m too young.”
“I’m too young, too.”
“Yeah, but you’re family. You aren’t officially on their payroll.”
Game eleven of the Braves’ season was set for Saturday, against the Pirates, who already had a second-half record of two and two. A win would lock the second half for the Braves, putting them into the championship playoff against the Marlins. So a lot was riding on this one, Carlton thought. Then on Friday he heard that Damian – slated to pitch – was not in school. No one knew if he was sick or what.
Friday night the phone rang. Peter spoke for five minutes or so and then, “Thanks, Modest. We’ll be there.” He hung up, his face serious. “That was Coach Smith. He’s got the team tomorrow. It’s just the two of us.”
“Where’s Coach LaBonté?”
“Right. We don’t know. He’s got some kind of family emergency.”
“Oh, jeeze. Troy.”
“I guess.” Then he looked over at Carlton. “Think you and Mouse will be ready to pitch?”
Neither LaBonté showed up at Jeff Reardon Park Saturday afternoon, and the rest of the Braves discovered their starter was MIA. The bench was aflutter: “What’s up with Coach?” “Where the heck is Damian?” They looked to Nate and Carlton, offspring of the remaining coaches, but both of them shook their heads. “Dunno,” said Nate, and Carlton added, “He wasn’t in school yesterday.”
They all looked grim, game faces on.
“Look,” said Carlton. “This game is serious. We gotta do this.”
Modest Smith had worked out the lineup. David Slaughter had no more innings this week, so he played shortstop. Mouse would pitch at least three, with Carlton relieving as necessary. Doug Duncan took first, Tran second, and Nelson Morales third. The outfield comprised Joey Pelletier, Nate, and Jason Allen. After three innings Phil Thibodeau and John Wilson would come into the outfield.
During their first game, Carlton and the rest of the Braves had spotted the Pirates’ weak link. Their replacement third baseman was a small, nervous kid named Arnold Wainwright. When Arnold went to bat, he danced his feet around the box like a little Bojangles. Amazingly he often put his bat on the ball, but predictably it never went very far, and he seldom reached base.
Arnold’s real problem was in the field. He danced around any ball hit in his direction, occasionally stopping it, once in a while getting it to first. He played third like a deer in traffic. His father, of course, was a Pirate coach, desperately hoping to turn his son into John Valentin. Arnold tried hard; Carlton felt sorry for him.
By the fifth inning, Carlton was pitching and the Braves were down, 4-3. Some of this unhappy situation was his fault; when he’d taken the mound in the fourth, the score had been tied. In the bottom of the fifth, Braves up, Nelson Morales led off, and the Pirates had brought in Arnold Wainwright to do his dance around third base.
Nelson was small, fast, Hispanic, and very smart, but otherwise with average baseball skills, if those. “Look, Nelson,” said Coach Smith in his ear. “Bunt. Just lay it down the third base line. Then run like fury.”
Nelson nodded, very serious. In the batter’s box, he squared for the first pitch.
“BUNT!” screamed the Pirate head coach from the dugout. “Charge it, Arnold!”
The ball plopped down toward third, fair but not far. The Pirate catcher came down the line and picked it up, but Nelson was already zipping across first, and there was no play. Meanwhile Arnold had not budged from his spot well back of third, wary of any hot grounders that might be scorched his way. Nate was next up, and when he too squared to bunt, the Pirate coach was standing: “BUNT! ARNOLD! PULL IN, DAMMIT!” Carlton could see Arnold’s father sitting in the dugout. His face was as blank as a thin slab of granite.
Arnold made a couple of dancing steps forward, and Nate bunted, hard, the ball bouncing up right to Arnold, an easy play; but he grabbed it and winged it seven feet over the first baseman’s glove. On the error, the umpire waved Nate and Nelson to second and third. From the dugout, Carlton watched everything. Arnold was now sitting in the basepath near third. He was crying.
“GET UP, ARNOLD!” boomed out in the Pirate coach’s foghorn voice.
Carlton could never figure why the coaches didn’t call time and at least try to settle Arnold down. Maybe they didn’t realize he was as shaken as he was. Or maybe, Carlton thought, maybe the coach was so sick of Arnold’s father’s pushing him to play the kid at third base that he decided to let things fall out as they might. Whatever, after the boy got up, he walked back to his position at third and stood there, quivering.
With runners at second and third and the infield drawn in, Mouse came up to bat. He smacked the first pitch right through Arnold’s legs, and Nelson raced in to score. From the on-deck circle Carlton was focusing on Arnold rather than following the ball or the runners; the boy was wobbling furiously, lurching, jerking himself backwards in front of the basepath. He looked like a drunken marionette. Nate, who was a good-sized kid, had his head down and was charging toward third like the cavalry. And suddenly Arnold jerked back right into his path.
Bang! He was absolutely flattened, completely motionless on his stomach. Now he looked like roadkill.
Nate, unfazed by his collision, rounded third and came barreling across the plate. Mouse stopped at second. For a moment, nobody on the field seemed to be paying any attention to Arnold, as he lay inert in the basepath. Carlton looked for an instant at Mr. Wainwright, standing bemused in the Pirates’ dugout, and then back to see that Arnold was now surrounded by coaches and umpires and a couple of players. It took a long time to get him up.
Eventually the game ended, the Braves winning 5-4 and thus clinching the second half of the season. They would play one more regular season game, against the Cardinals, but it didn’t matter. They had sewn it up, and in a week and a half they would face the Marlins for the town championship. There were some high fives, and some backslapping in the dugout, but generally the team’s joy was muted. They all had thought winning would be a bigger deal, but without Damian and his father, they didn’t feel like celebrating at all.
Carlton came out of the dugout with Peter, looking for Aster. Instead, he saw Arnold sitting alone, his back next to a fence, his face aimed at the ground, hidden by the bill of his Pirates’ cap. “Just a minute,” and Carlton went over, dropped his equipment bag, and slid his back down the fence so the two boys were sitting side by side. They began to talk, and after a minute or so, Arnold came out from under the cap, and they kept talking.
Peter watched them for a minute and then went to find Aster, who had been in the bleachers with some other parents. “Where’s Carlton?” she asked.
“He’ll be along.” Then he added, “He’s talking to the boy who got run over in the basepath.”
“Oh, dear. That was dreadful.”
They sat down on the bleachers, which had pretty much cleared out. Another game was scheduled for four o’clock. Peter turned to his wife. “Would you mind calling Allie LaBonté? Maybe ask them over for dinner?”
“Sure. Good idea. If they’re home.” She looked at him and smiled. “Good coaching, Pete.”
After ten minutes or so Carlton came up to them, his equipment bag slung over his shoulder. “So, what’d you say to him?” asked Peter.
“Oh, nothing. I said he ought to ask the coach to move him to the outfield. He’d do better out there. And I told him that he must have good hand-eye to get his bat on the ball so often. I told him what my dad had told me about keeping his feet still in the batter’s box. He knew about the way I step in. That was why I did it, I said. To keep my feet still.”
They were looking at him with wide eyes.
“That’s what you said?” asked Aster.
“Ayup.” Then he shook his head. “Oh, and he goes to the other middle school, so he didn’t know my story. I told him about not talking for the first two months I was here in Hollis. I said that baseball had pretty much saved me. And I said if I could do it, so could he.”