Chapter One: Make-or-Break
Chapter One MAKE-OR-BREAK
Derek Jeter felt an electric surge go through him as he and his Yankee teammates put their hands together, then lifted them skyward for their pregame cheer.
The team was at the season’s final crossroads. With a win today against the Pirates, they could punch their ticket to the Little League playoffs. But if they lost, their season would be over.
Derek shuddered, picturing himself sitting around for the whole second half of June, while other kids competed for the championship.
Unthinkable! No way was Derek okay with that—not after the Yanks had come back from the dead with three straight wins, rescuing their season after a horrible start!
Today’s teams were both 4–3 on the season. Not only would the losers be eliminated, but they would also finish without a winning season.
For this crucial game, Coach Stafford had switched around the Yankees’ normal lineup. Instead of Harry Hicks, their usual starting pitcher, Avery Mullins was on the mound. She was the only girl on the team—or in the entire league, for that matter!
Coach K was taking a chance on Avery today because Harry had been sick with a fever earlier in the week. Derek knew she could do the job—hey, she’d done it before! On the other hand, she had never been in a game this critical.
Derek watched Avery throw her warm-up pitches. Avery can really play some ball, he thought. She had grit and determination, too.
Most of the guys on the team had given her a hard time at first, ignoring the fact that she’d never played organized ball before. The coaches hadn’t given her much playing time, either—not until midseason, when things had already been looking desperate, and the need to shake things up had become obvious.
Still, in spite of everything, Avery was having a breakout rookie season. By now, of course, they all knew what she could do. They also knew to stay out of her way when she wasn’t in the mood to fool around—like now.
Derek fielded a warm-up grounder and fired it over to Ryan McDonough at first base. Then he turned and waved to his pal Vijay Patel out in right. Vijay waved back, flashing a huge grin and a victory sign.
Derek shook his head in admiration. Somehow Vijay always found a way to enjoy the moment, even under maximum pressure.
Derek wished he could take things so casually, but he couldn’t. Baseball meant the world to him. One day he hoped to be the starting shortstop for the real New York Yankees! Every baseball game along the way meant more to him than it meant to most kids he knew.
And even though he understood that “you can’t win ’em all,” it was never okay with Derek when he lost.
Avery was like that too. Maybe that was why the two of them had become friends over the past month or so.
She fired one last warm-up throw, and JJ Stafford, who was the catcher and the coach’s son, threw down to second base, where Pete Kozlowski, the assistant coach’s son, grabbed it and put the tag on the phantom runner.
“Play ball!” shouted the umpire.
“Go, Yankees!” came a shout from the stands, louder than the general cheering.
Derek recognized his mom’s voice. He turned and gave her a wave before settling into fielding position. Avery’s mom was there too, along with the two teenage boys who came to all of Avery’s games. Her brother’s old friends, from before he’d died in the car accident.
The Pirates’ leadoff man came to the plate, waggling his bat like he was going to wallop the first pitch he saw. He looked Avery up and down with a scornful smirk on his face.
Avery wound up slowly, then fired one inside and high. The hitter ducked, and catcalls came from the Pirates bench. But the batter didn’t waggle his bat after that.
Avery threw one over the plate next, and the batter swung right through it. Then she tossed one low, and he grounded weakly right back to the mound. Avery grabbed it and threw to first for the easy out.
The hitter jogged back to the bench, shooting Avery a dirty look as he went. She paid no attention.
So far, so good, thought Derek. “Let’s go, Avery!” he yelled, pounding his mitt.
But after that promising start, Avery’s control started to waver. She walked the next batter on a 3–2 count. Then she plunked the number three hitter with a wayward fastball.
More full-out boos rose from the Pirates bench. “Throw her out!” a couple of kids yelled to the ump.
Derek blew out a worried breath. Avery had seemed stressed before the game, and he’d worried she might be feeling shaky. But he hadn’t said anything to her then, and he didn’t now. Avery didn’t like being encouraged—not while she was in the middle of yelling at herself.
The cleanup hitter swung at the first pitch, got hold of a high fastball, and sent it deep to center field. Mason ran back, back, back… and made a sno-cone catch!
“Let’s go! Woo-hoo!” Derek yelled, raising his arms high in the air along with his teammates.
There were two out now, with the runners advancing to second and third on the play.
If Avery had felt tense before, she looked almost rigid now. She’d just thrown her best pitch, and it had been absolutely crushed. Now, seemingly scared of throwing the ball over the plate, she walked the next batter on four straight pitches to load the bases.
“No batter, no batter!” Derek called out, smacking his fist into his glove. “You got this, Ave!” She paid no attention. Derek could see her breathing hard. Her eyes looked wild as she went into her windup and fired—ball one, high.
Two pitches later, the count was 3–0. One more ball, and the Pirates would walk in a run!
“Get it over, will ya?” Pete yelled at Avery from second base. “Just throw him a strike!”
“Hey!” Derek called to him, shielding his mouth with his mitt. “Cut it out!”
Derek wished Pete would keep quiet, instead of always mouthing off at people. Did he really think yelling at her was going to help?
The next pitch was ball four—but luckily, the batter swung at it! He smacked a line drive right at Pete. But Pete’s attention was still half on Avery, and the ball caught him flat-footed. He ducked out of the way, flailing with his glove. The ball ticked off the glove and rolled onto the outfield grass!
By the time Pete had retrieved it, two runs had scored! Coach K jogged out to the mound and murmured a few words into Avery’s ear. She bit her lip, shook her head, and stared hard at the ground. Coach clapped her on the shoulder and went back to the dugout.
Avery toed the rubber. She blew out a big breath, digging down deep for extra strength. She should have been out of the inning already, Derek thought. If only Pete had had his mind on his own job instead of hers.
“Come on, Ave… come on…,” Derek muttered. He knew she had it in her. But could she summon her ability at will?
The pitch was a low changeup. The batter swung, sending a sharp grounder to Derek’s right. He dived and snagged it, rolled onto his back, and flipped to Pete at second for the final out!
Okay, so we’re down 2–0. So what? Derek lectured himself. It’s not the end of the world. We haven’t even come to bat yet! He knew that no game was lost until the last out was recorded—especially in an all-or-nothing game like this one!
On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly the start they’d hoped for. And the Pirates’ starting pitcher was going to have a lot to say about any comebacks.
He was the hardest thrower Derek had seen all year. You could hear the menacing buzz of his fastball as it came in, looking more like a blur than a baseball.
Mason Adams, the Yanks’ leadoff man, ducked out of the way of the first two pitches he saw—each of them a strike. Then he swung wildly at a fastball in the dirt—and missed by a mile.
Derek had trouble catching up with the heater too. He battled for five pitches, fouling off some good ones, but ultimately went down swinging at a changeup—the first one the pitcher had thrown.
This is going to be even tougher than I thought, Derek realized as Pete proceeded to strike out on four pitches. Derek felt a sudden tingling of anxiety as goose bumps rose on his arms.
It’s 2–zip already, thought Derek. And he threw only twelve pitches! He’s still got a lot to go before he reaches his limit!
The Yanks were going to have to make the pitcher work harder. They had to tire him out and push up his pitch count! Derek suddenly found that he was clenching his jaws. He opened his mouth wide to stretch them back out, but he could tell the situation was starting to get to him.
He wasn’t the only one either. Avery hadn’t said a word to anyone since the pregame group cheer. She was deep in her own thoughts. To Derek she seemed to be in agony.
He knew what Avery was like when she was relaxed and having fun. He also knew that when she tensed up, she didn’t play nearly as well.
Sure enough, having walked two batters and hit another in the previous inning, Avery threw her first pitch right down the middle of the plate.
Luckily, the batter let it go by. He was the Pirates’ number eight hitter. Derek had seen him play last year and remembered him not being very athletic. Still, he was big, and if he ever got hold of one…
Avery’s next pitch was another meatball, but this time the hitter was ready. He hit it a mile to right, way over the head of Vijay, who’d been playing shallow against the bottom of the lineup.
The Pirates bench erupted in cheers as their man lumbered into third, just ahead of the relay throw!
Seeing the Pirates jumping up and down made Avery lose her cool altogether. With a scream of rage and frustration, she threw her mitt to the ground as hard as she could, then squatted down with her head between her knees and roared again.
“Hey!” Coach K yelled at her, clapping his hands emphatically. “Get back in the game, kid! Let’s hold ’em right here!”
Avery’s eyes were wild with rage, and Derek knew she was furious at herself for putting the team in an early hole. She stood up and closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and rolled her shoulders around in circles.
Good, Derek thought. She’s calming herself down.
From that moment on, Avery seemed to find her game. She threw the same pitches, but now they were catching the edges of the plate. She started mixing her speeds, which got the Pirates’ hitters off-balance, taking weak hacks and missing badly.
Three strikeouts later, the Yankees ran back to the bench, feeling like they’d just dodged a bullet—and maybe even swung the momentum their way!
“Hey,” Derek said as he passed Avery and they touched mitts. “Nice going there.”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered, looking away.
“Don’t worry, Ave,” he told her. “We’ve got ’em right where we want ’em.” He grinned, to show her he meant it as a semi-joke.
She looked up at him, not even cracking a smile. “Is that supposed to be funny?” she asked. “Is that supposed to make me feel better or something?”
“Okay! Sorry I said anything,” Derek told her, backing away with his hands up.
“What’s going on?” Vijay asked as Derek sat down next to him. “You okay?”
“Me? I’m fine. It’s Avery.”
“Ah, don’t take it personally. She just needs some space probably, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“Listen, though,” Vijay said. “I noticed something. Did you see in the first inning how their catcher just blocks pitches in the dirt? He doesn’t even try to catch them. If we’re on base, we can steal when the ball gets away!”
“I guess,” Derek agreed. “That’s if we can get some men on base.”
“Yes. We can’t be swinging at the low pitches, for sure.”
Vijay had a good point.
“I’m going to pass the word.” Derek got up and spoke to Harry, who was leading off the inning. Then he spoke to the others, one by one.
It was good advice, though it didn’t result in any runs in the second or third. Still, the Yankees, by letting the low pitches go by, were working the starter for long counts. Vijay even managed to work a walk, becoming the Yankees’ first base runner.
Even though she had given up that extra-base hit to start the second, Avery had held the Pirates scoreless for three straight innings, giving up only that triple and two singles along the way. The Yankees were still down 2–0. But she’d turned her outing around, and because of that the team still had a fighting chance.
Take a strike…. Take a strike! Derek repeated the mantra inside his head as he stood in the batter’s box, leading off the bottom of the fourth inning. He knew he was so jacked up right now, he was likely to swing at almost anything, so it was important to keep reminding himself what his job was in this situation—to get on base. Period.
He let a fastball go by, right down the middle for strike one. But Derek noticed that it didn’t have the buzz it had had in the first inning. In fact, he was sure he could have caught up with it. If he throws another one…
He did, but it was in the dirt, and Derek just barely managed to check his swing. He proceeded to work the pitcher until he had a full count. Then Derek fouled off four straight strikes before finally being rewarded with a walk.
Success! he told himself. He was only the Yankees’ second runner of the game!
Derek hoped Pete would take a strike too, since the Yanks were two runs down and needed base runners. Pete, however, was not the kind of hitter to think about those things. It was pretty much “see ball, hit ball” with him.
Luckily, he got another so-so fastball, and hit it right on the nose! Derek scooted to third, hopping to avoid the screaming grounder that easily made it past the shortstop and into left field.
Harry was up next. He’d looked weak at the plate so far—no surprise. After all, he’d been passed over as the starting pitcher today because he’d spent three days the previous week in bed with a virus. Derek could tell he still wasn’t himself. Harry valiantly hung in there, making the pitcher waste seven pitches, but in the end he could only manage a weak grounder to second.
Still, that was enough for Derek. He took off like a shot for home, hoping the second baseman would try to nail him at the plate, instead of going for the easy double play.
Sure enough, the fielder took the bait. His throw home was high—and Derek slid in under the tag!
“SAFE!” yelled the ump.
Pete kept going, all the way to third! The catcher threw down there, too late, and that allowed Harry to pull into second, huffing and puffing.
One run in, men on second and third, and still nobody out! The Yankees’ bench and fans were going wild. Even Avery was cheering now, although Derek noticed that she still wasn’t cracking a smile as she stepped into the left-handed batter’s box.
The pitcher threw one into the dirt for a ball. Suddenly the ump called time and signaled to the Pirates’ coach. “That’s eighty-five,” Derek heard the ump say. “I’ll take the ball, son,” he told the frustrated starter.
The Pirates’ new pitcher was a lefty, Derek noticed. He wondered if their coach had put him in just to pitch to the left-hitting Avery.
If so, they were in for a shock. After watching the new kid throw his warm-up pitches, Avery calmly walked around to the right-handed batter’s box and took a few practice swings.
Derek smiled as he saw the coach’s eyes go wide with surprise. A switch-hitter! Oh, well, Derek thought with amusement. There was nothing the coach could do about it now.
Avery let one pitch go by, taking a strike. She might have been new to playing ball, but for years she’d watched every game her older brother had played. He’d been headed for a college baseball scholarship—until the car crash. That had been a year ago. Now Avery was playing to honor his memory. Derek knew that was why she took it so hard when things went badly.
Avery let another pitch go by, a ball that evened the count at 1–1. Then she lined a fastball right back at the pitcher, who ducked, protecting his face with his mitt.
Incredibly, the ball stuck right in it! Realizing he’d caught it, the pitcher threw quickly to second, where the shortstop tagged Harry before he could get back to the base.
“NOOOOO!” Avery screamed in fury, smacking her bat hard onto the plate, then kicking the dirt before heading back to the bench.
There was no consoling her. She angrily shook off pats on the back, then plunked herself down at the very end of the bench, alone and despairing.
“Hey, we’re not done yet!” Derek called out, meaning it for her, even though he didn’t dare look her way.
Ryan came to the plate, with Pete on third and two out. Ryan was their season RBI leader, and once again he came through in the clutch—lashing a double down the left field line! Pete scored easily to tie the game, 2–2.
After JJ popped out to end the inning, Coach K offered Avery the ball. “You good for one more inning?” he asked. She nodded, took the ball from him, and marched out to the mound for the top of the fifth.
After getting the first two outs, though, she seemed to tire. Her pitches were all over the place again, like in the first inning. She walked two, then gave up a double that scored both the Pirates’ runners!
Coach K walked slowly to the mound, took the ball from her, and motioned for Harry to come in from third to pitch. Tre’ entered the game to play third, and Avery walked slowly to the dugout, never once looking up from the ground. She sat down so heavily that it seemed to Derek she never meant to get up again.
He wanted to tell her that he understood, that he was feeling a different version of the same thing. He wanted to tell her not to give up, that the Yanks still had plenty of fight left, and that a 4–2 deficit wasn’t an impossible mountain to climb—not with six outs left!
But there was no time to talk. Harry was done warming up, and the game was about to resume.
Harry threw one pitch, and it was enough. The hitter smashed it just to Derek’s right. He snagged it, planted his foot, and threw a BB to first for the final Pirates out of the inning!
In their half of the fifth, the Yankees brought the bottom of their batting order to the plate, to face yet another Pirates pitcher—a righty this time. Derek saw that this one’s pitches started off looking good but then faded, winding up in the dirt. They looked tempting, but they were more like fish bait.
After two strikes, the Pirates’ pitcher finished Elliott off with a high floater that dropped in for a third strike. Derek took careful note.
“Hey, Vij,” he said to his friend in the on-deck circle. “Don’t bite on those fastballs. Wait for the high, slow pitch.”
Vijay gave Derek a nod and a wink as he walked to the plate.
“Come on, Vij,” Derek muttered under his breath. “Keep it going, man…. Get me an at bat.”
Vijay took two balls in the dirt, then swung hard at the floater. He cued it off the end of the bat—just a dribbler, really—but it took a crazy bounce, and Vijay wound up beating the throw, for a single!
Derek clued Mason in too, and he worked a walk. Suddenly, with men on first and second, it was all up to Derek!
This time he didn’t just need to get on base. He didn’t need to take a strike. He needed to hit one as hard as he could and tie up this game!
The first pitch he saw was the floater—the pitcher had obviously decided to trick him by changing his pattern. Derek waited on it, then leaned in and whacked it to left.
He took off running like a shot. Vijay and Mason raced around to score ahead of him, and Derek wound up on third with a super-clutch, game-tying triple!
The Yankees and their fans were going wild with excitement. Even Avery was up and shouting now.
Derek could feel the blood pounding in his head. He’d done it! Now, if only they could finish the Pirates off…
The pitcher, clearly rattled, hit Pete in the butt with a slow curve. Pete yowled comically, rubbing the sore spot as he limped to first. The Yankees laughed and clapped, enjoying themselves now. The Pirates, meanwhile, stood staring glumly as their playoff dreams evaporated before their eyes.
Harry put the icing on the cake by creaming a double to right, scoring Derek and Pete easily! Even though Tre’, hitting for Avery, then grounded into a double play to end the inning, it was now 6–4, Yanks! Only three outs to go to nail down a playoff spot!
Harry proceeded to take care of business, finally looking like his old, healthy self in retiring three discouraged Pirates in a row to seal the victory.
All the Yankees rejoiced together. To Derek, it was as if a ten-ton weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Whatever happened next, at least they’d made the playoffs. No one could say their season had been a failure.
He looked over at Avery, who was finally smiling. “Hey, you! Up top!” he said, and she gladly high-fived him. They even exchanged hugs, as if the tension and testiness had never existed.
“You okay?” he asked.
Her smile vanished, replied by a quizzical look. “What are you talking about?” She looked at him like he was crazy.
“Uh… nothing. Forget it,” said Derek, shrugging. “Great game, huh?”
“Hey, we made it,” she said. “That’s all that matters!”
Derek let it go at that. Whatever her problem had been, she seemed all right now. He went to find his mom and celebrate some more.