Archive for Thursday, July 7, 2005

Lessons from the Huskies

July 7, 2005

As I stepped into the batter's box and dug my cleats into the dirt, Lansing Reds pitcher Danny Wyatt flashed a sly grin in my direction.

I wondered, what did it mean? Was it a sign that he was going to go easy on me? Or did it mean he was about to dazzle me with a blend of fastballs, change-ups and then a dreaded curveball? Would he throw a brush-back pitch just to give me a good scare?

All of those thoughts raced through my head Tuesday night at Lansing High School when I filled in with the Lansing Huskies for a scrimmage against the Reds.

Wyatt served up a gentle blend of high, low and right-down-the-middle fastballs. He worked the outside corner a bit, but he politely never threw inside. I got lucky and fouled off a 2-2 pitch before whiffing.

There was no shame in going down swinging, but I kicked myself after the fact because of my mindset heading into the at-bat. By overanalyzing Wyatt's grin and fearing what he would fire my direction, I'd beaten myself before I ever stepped to the plate.

Self-doubt is difficult to overcome in sports, though, and baseball may be the greatest example of a sport where second-guessing can crush a player. In baseball, whether it's swinging at a pitch, making a throw or fielding a ground ball, you have to be decisive in your actions. If you second-guess, you've already lost.

My confidence was higher for my second at-bat, but the result was the same. I missed badly twice and then worked the count full. Another foul tip made things interesting before I chased another high fastball and struck out again.

The final two at-bats went much better - a pair of full-count walks, another foul ball and two runs scored. I never got a hit, but part of me wondered if that would have been different had I simply been more confident.

Turns out, that's the very reason former Huskies coach and current Reds manager Michael Smith scheduled Tuesday's scrimmage in the first place. He wanted the Reds to play another team of superior talent, and he wanted the Reds to learn from the confidence with which the Huskies played. He wanted the Reds to witness, and then try to adopt, the Huskies' mindset.

The Huskies - a former American Legion team of now-19- and 20-year-olds who advanced to the finals of the AAA Zone Tournament last year - looked every bit the confident bunch. Former players Bryce Baker, Eric Delich, Daniel McCrudden, Tom Kohl, Phillip Smith and Brett Horseman made almost every routine play. They smashed hits into the gaps. McCrudden homered. Horseman gobbled up ground balls at shortstop. Kohl threw out a runner while playing catcher. In the event of an error, they simply laughed it off.

"They work as a team and they can laugh off errors because they've worked together for so long that they know they'll make the next play," Reds second baseman Ezra Carpenter observed of the Huskies.

For the better part of five innings, the Reds showed that they are capable of playing the same way. Carpenter made a heads-up play by running on a dropped third strike. A throwing error on the play allowed a run to score.

In the bottom of the fourth, Reds catcher Elias Moya threw out Phillip Smith as he tried to steal third base. In the fifth, he nearly nailed his second runner of the night when he almost gunned down the local sports reporter.

Taylor McNeil showed why he could be one of the city's top pitchers a year from now. He had some success against the Huskies' hitters as he changed speeds, worked the corners and consistently threw strikes.

Then there was Nick Bell. The 13-year-old and smallest guy on the field scored the Reds' final run when he slid into home and kicked the ball out of the catchers' mitt in a close play.

"We played them better than we thought we would," Carpenter said. "We played them as tough as we have some of the teams in our own league."

But then the sixth inning got away from the Reds. A walk. A few hits. A couple errors. Instead of shaking it off, the second-guessing began. The looks of doubt returned to some players' eyes. The Huskies sensed it immediately and pounced. Within a few batters, the close game was blown wide open.

"They're at that age still where, even though it shouldn't, it gets to them," Michael Smith said. "Being down gets to them. Losing gets to them."

Perhaps the greatest lesson the Reds can take away from scrimmaging the Huskies is the knowledge that although bad innings happen, bad innings don't have to spoil a good game. Even though mistakes will happen occasionally, they don't need to doubt themselves.

The Huskies learned that lesson long ago when they erased a seven-run deficit during the last at-bat of a game. They lost tough games. They won big games. They didn't doubt themselves.

The Huskies provided a great model for the Reds to follow, and judging by their responses after the game, the Reds learned plenty Tuesday night.

"We're not quite as talented yet," Carpenter said, "but we have something to work toward so that when we're more experienced like them, we'll be as good as they are."

- Chris Wristen's column appears weekly on the blogs page at lansingcurrent.com and occasionally in print.

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