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Cornstalk stretches forward, the look almost as if he’s about to fall headfirst off the mound, saved only by the slapping of his left hand to his knee. He locks eyes with his catcher, then lets his gaze wander down just below his glove for the sign.

            Uncle Charlie.

            He straightens and shakes it off. Heat, man. This is Mad Hatter we’re talkin’ here, number three in the order. He’s lookin’ for that long slow curve on the outside. We need some heat here, brother.

Smiling—with the hope the batter catches it—he lifts his foot off the rubber and turns to the side, taking a long glimpse at the scoreboard.

            No outs yet, but the bottom of the ninth and a whole bunch of zeroes up there. In fact, as if realizing it for the first time, he notes that other than a solo homer in the third by Griggs, his catcher, everything else is plastered with zeroes.

            “Hey, ‘Stalk, what’sup?”

            Lost in thought, he doesn’t even see Griggs come to the mound.

            “Is that right, the board?”

            “You bet your sweet ass it is. Just three more buddy, and you’ve got yourself a muy perfecto.”

            “Holy shit.”

            “You said it. Now let’s do this thing.”

            Griggs swats him on the butt with the glove and jogs back to the plate. Muy perfecto. Since coming up in May, he’s tossed a shutout and two no-hitters, but nothing like this.

            Twenty-four years old and three outs from a perfect game.

            He foots the rubber, leans back into a full windup and gives his face an extra crunch for show. But just as he’s ready to release the ball, he holds back, with the slightest of fingertip grip.

            Mad Hatter is set, his focus intent on a three-digit fastball. He swings from his heels a heartbeat too early, the changeup fooling him, all the while making him look the fool. The bat nicks the ball, sending it dribbling a few feet out from the plate where it’s scooped up by Griggs and sent to first base.

            One away.

            There’s a rare twitch of nerves in Cornstalk’s belly. Two more. So close, yet so far away.

            The cleanup batter, Paulo Manuel, a behemoth from the Dominican, steps into the batter’s box. This is the first game Cornstalk’s faced him. When the teams last met, Manuel was on the DL. Now he’s trying to make up for lost stats; he’s a free agent next year.

            So far, 0 for 3. All three pop-outs to the Jay-man in centerfield.

            But the fact that he made contact stabs him with worry.

            Griggs calls once again for the curve. He gives in, the ball just missing the outside corner.

            “Ball.” The ump’s call sounds half-hearted and he steps to the side, as though even he was disappointed in the pitch.

            Time for some show. Cornstalk steps off the rubber, making a little spin around the mound, drawing in breaths as if he’d just run a marathon. Back on, he winds and throws, winking at Griggs just before the release.

            The ball is wide and high, Griggs having to jump up to snag it.

            Let him think you’re tired, getting a little wild, Cornstalk. The advice originally came from Griggs toward the end of his first game in the show. As he puts that thought to mind, he remembers it was at that same time Griggs dubbed him Cornstalk. Back in the minors, he’d always been called Bean or String Bean. But at a gangly six foot-two, with an explosion of yellow hair that even his hat had trouble controlling, the catcher saw him as a cornstalk out there on the mound. The name stuck.

            Griggs cocks his head, not even making an attempt at the next sign. Cornstalk knows that he already knows what’s coming.

            Heat.

            He winds and lets it go, the ball and the wind in his lungs rocketing out at the same moment.

            “STEEEEEE-RIIIIKE.”

            Just beyond the ump’s clenched fist, Cornstalk sees the radar screen.

            97.

            Still in the box, unfazed, Manuel resets his gloves, taps the plate with the very tip of his bat, and readies for the next pitch.

            “STEEEEEE-RIIIIKE.”

            99.

            Now he knows the batter is thinking. Changeup? Curve. Another burner?

            Griggs sends the sign and Cornstalk nods.

            Heat.

            “STEEEEEE-RIIIIKE.”

  1. Two down.

            Manuel drags his bat back toward the dugout, but just as he passes the on-deck circle he turns, giving Cornstalk a tip of the hat.

            Lenny Dunning, the number five hitter, steps to the plate. The third baseman, it was he who broke up Cornstalk’s no hitter in their first meeting. A slap down the right field line in the eighth, it was their only hit, but enough he was shaken and coach pulled him in the ninth.

            But that was two months ago. Right?

            Griggs calls for a changeup to start out Dunning. Really? Wait...he’s right. After blowing out Manuel with those last three pitches, Dunning’s probably going to be looking for the same thing. And Griggs knows his stuff.

            He lets the ball fly, the batter clearly ready for the heat swinging hard. He fouls it over the dugout and into the crowd, strike one.

            Griggs calls curve, but then changes his mind, making his “fingers crossed” sign. Cornstalk smiles, knowing where this is going. Back to this inning’s batter number one. He winds and throws, the ball hitting the dirt well before the plate and on the outside. Cornstalk shakes his head and waves a dismissing hand, as if disgusted by the pitch.

            Griggs next calls for one inside, but while ‘Stalk’s still well in control and knows the catcher is probably right, he doesn’t want to risk hitting the batter two strikes away from a perfect game.

            He shakes it off, choosing instead another curve.

            It again falls low and outside.

            Cornstalk takes a deep sigh. Maybe he is a little more tired than he cares to admit. Maybe the stress of this is really starting to get to him. Maybe—

            He doesn’t realize he’s circling the mound until the ump shouts out his way, asking him if he’s okay.

            “”I’m good, Blue. Let’s play ball.”

            Griggs makes a couple of signs, but it’s gotta be heat. The sign finally rolls around and he nods. The echo of the ball slapping into the glove quiets an already mulled crowd and turns the batter’s head.

            102.

            Okay two and two. Another changeup? Or blow that sucker by him?

            Griggs calls for yet another curve, but Cornstalk knows that one’s just not there this late in the game. They agree on the changeup.

            He spins it perfect, but there’s not enough oomph, and the ball taps the back of the plate, the batter standing firm.

            Full count.

            Cornstalk needs another breath. His vision seems to have narrowed, his mind swirling looking for something, anything, resembling solid ground.

            Though they’re on the road, the crowd rises to their feet. Their chant is a mix of hope for the batter, sprinkled with the allure of seeing a perfect game. And in respect, as he puts his foot to the rubber, they fall into a quiet that can be heard throughout the stadium.

            Heat.

            He throws with every last inch of heart and soul he can muster, the ball flinging from his hand as though launched. He knows even as it leaves his grasp it’s right down the middle and the radar gun’s going to have trouble keeping up.

            Craaaack. There’s a silent scream as he sees Dunning’s bat connect, the ball hurling back at him as if on a rope. He tries to get his glove up, but there is no time. The ball takes him clean off his feet as it finds his jaw, the pain as though he’s been struck by lightning.

Then nothing but black.

 

*          *          *

 

Through narrow slits, light and fuzzy images of a group of people seep into his vision. A voice, maybe several, call from the distance, as if in a canyon on the far side of a hill. As he tries to force open his eyes hoping for a little more focus, a dull throb of pain begins to awaken in his cheek.

            “What do’ya know, the dead has arisen.”

            It takes a moment, and a long one at that, but he finally recognizes the voice as that of his catcher, Briggs. Standing beside him is Coach Marks along with several other players from the team. Lastly, closest to this side of his bed, his mom smiles down upon him.

            “Hello there, big guy,” she says, as if he were that little T-Baller once again.

            “Hey everyone.” The words are like chalk caught in his throat and cough out rather than roll off his tongue. “At least I knocked down that liner, eh? Though I guess it returned the favor and knocked me down as well.”

            The room lights up with a chuckle, then Briggs leans close. “You did more than that big guy.”

            “Huh?”

            “That rocket smacked you on your butt. Laid you out cold. But let me tell you something: When that sucker bounced off your jaw, it shot straight up into the air.” He points upward, as if the ball is still flying that way, luring everyone in the room to stare at the ceiling. After a long pause, he finally smiles and looks back at Cornstalk. “Now remember, you’re sprawled out on the mound like you’re taking a Sunday nap, arms and legs all stretched. That there ball drops right in your glove. Like nothin’ you ever seen, I tell you. Right in your glove.” He can’t help but shake his head and smile. “Old Dunning stopped dead in his tracks halfway to first, that poor guy just robbed a single by a pitcher who’s laying on his back in the infield, completely unconscious.” He grabs his side, the first gurgle of a chuckle bubbling up. “You’re out, but so’s he.” He can hardly talk now, the words mixed with laughter, and it only takes a minute for the laugh to become contagious, spreading throughout the room.

Finally catching a breath, he slaps Cornstalk on the leg. Though his face remains full on red, he somehow pulls serious from somewhere deep within. His eyes go misty and he looks away. “Cornstalk, man, you gots yourself a perfect game. You got him out.”

 

End

 

Bio: Jim Bartlett has been fortunate to have several stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in such wonderful publications such as, Fiction on the Web, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books, CrimeSpree Magazine, amongst many others. Most recently one of his works was featured in the anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 - 2017. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and golden retriever (shhh....she doesn't know she's a dog).

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