The throw was high and fluttering higher. Henry wanted it back as soon as it left his hand; even as he finished his follow-through his fingertips grasped after the ball, as if he could bring it back. Motherfucker.
It seemed destined to sail over the fence and into the bleachers until Rick O’Shea somehow detached his two-hundred-plus beer-bellied pounds from the earth—it was impressive, how much air that leap put beneath his spikes—and snow-coned the ball with the fringe of his extralong mitt. Rick landed, spun, and slapped a tag on the hustling runner. One out.
Henry lifted two fingers in sheepish gratitude. Rick nodded and winked—No sweat, little buddy—and whipped the ball back to Henry to begin the around-the-horn.
Henry spun the ball in his throwing hand. It felt cold and slick and alien. He tucked his glove under his arm and worked the ball over with both hands, trying to knead some life into it. Technically illegal, only pitchers could do that, but the umps weren’t going to stop him. A minute ago he’d felt fine, or thought he felt fine, but now the possibility of failure had entered his mind, and the difference between possible failure and inevitable failure felt razor slight. His lungs clenched like he was standing in the lake to his armpits.
Relax, let it go. He’d had one bad throw in him and he’d gotten it out of his system. Rick had saved his butt. They were ahead 2 to 0. He pushed the bad throw aside, steadied his breathing, tossed the ball to Ajay. Turned around and flashed an index finger at Quisp in left: one out. He could see without seeing Aparicio in the stands, his sister, his parents, Coach Hinterberg in the bright-green cap of Lankton High, a private bit of rooting amid all the red and blue. Owen’s voice came floating out over the grass: “Henry, you are skilled! We exhort you!”
He pummeled his glove with his fist, dropped into his shallow crouch. Starblind threw a backdoor curve that looked like it caught the corner. The ump called it a ball. “Lookedgoodlookedgoodlookedrealgood!” cheered Henry. Stay up, stay vocal. Don’t wither, don’t withdraw. “That’s your spot, Adam, that’s your spot. Won’t get robbed again.” The more guys Starblind strikes out, the fewer ground balls get hit to me. Henry caught himself thinking this and chastised himself, caught himself chastising himself and tried to quiet his mind.
The next hitter rapped a single to center. At least if it’s hit to me now I won’t have to throw to first, I can flip to Ajay for the force. If it’s hit to Ajay I cover and make the turn. I haven’t had trouble making the turn.
Quiet quiet quiet.
The Coshwale fans were standing, whistling, stomping their feet. Ready to rally. Sweat poured down Starblind’s temples as he took the sign from Schwartz. He checked the runner and fired a wicked two-seam fastball that was tailing in. The batter’s front foot lifted and Henry knew where the ball was headed before the swing was half finished, a sharp grounder three steps to his left, ideal for a double play. He was there waiting when the ball arrived. Ajay darted over to cover second. Henry, still low in his crouch, pivoted and whipped his arm sidelong across his body, just as he’d practiced so many thousands of times, but at the last moment he sensed the throw would be too hard for Ajay to handle, so he tried to decelerate slightly, but no, that was wrong too, but it was too late, the ball left his hand and began sliding rightward, out into the path of the charging runner, and Ajay, all five-foot-five of him, tried to stretch to make the catch, but the ball caught the tip of his glove and scooted into short right field as the hard-sliding runner took out his legs and sent him flying ass over teakettle. By the time Sooty Kim chased down the ball the runners were coasting into second and third. Ajay lay flat on his back in the dust, groaning. A voice rang out from the Coshwale dugout: “Thanks, Henry!”
GARY STUCK HIS FACE OVER Pella’s shoulder again. “We won’t count that one.”
Her dad had returned to his seat between the blond guy and the self-possessed Latino man. “How could we count it?” Pella said angrily. “It didn’t go in the stands.”
“Plenty of time for that. It’s only the third inning.”
AJAY POPPED TO HIS FEET and waved off the trainer. Schwartz called time and moseyed out to the mound, his leisurely pace meant to convey and instill a sense of calm. He motioned for the infielders to join him. “Play back,” he instructed. “We’ll give up that one run.”
Starblind gave a curt caustic chuckle, stared a hole in Henry. “We’ll give up more than that, we don’t get our shit together.”
“Just keep throwing like you’re throwing,” Schwartz said mildly. “We’ll make the plays.”
Starblind spat on the ground between them. “Aye aye, Captain.”
The next batter struck out. Two down. Let’s just get out of this inning, Henry thought. Get back to the dugout, regroup.
First pitch, fastball. Henry saw, with his usual prescience, where the ball was headed: right at him. Easiest play in the world. He charged and fielded it at sternum height, just at the lip of the infield grass. Rick stretched toward him, offering his huge mitt as a target. The batter was barely a third of the way down the line. Plenty of time. Henry slide-stepped, pumped his arm.
He pumped his arm again, gripped and regripped the ball. By now he was well within the infield grass, not far from the mound. Rick’s mitt looked near enough to touch. Still time.
The batter crossed first base. The runner from third crossed home and bent to pick up the jettisoned bat. The runner from second reached third and stopped. Henry turned his palm up and looked at the ball emptily, his mind finally quiet.
He walked toward Starblind, who was standing in front of the mound. Starblind was yelling, his mouth moving, white teeth visible, but Henry couldn’t hear him. He handed him the ball. As he walked toward the dugout he kept his gaze angled up at the blue of the sky.
PELLA HAD NEVER HEARD so much silence from so many people. A tear ran down her cheek, pushed forward by the one behind it, and the one behind that, and who knew how many more. She turned and glared at Gary. “You owe me a hundred bucks,” she said.