Slowly but surely over the 18 years that I’ve played baseball, starting at ‘coach-pitch’ when I was 4, fastball velocities have increased year by year. The adjustment always takes a few at-bats to get used to, but soon it clicks. It was just last week, against the Minnesota Twins extended spring training team, that I faced a guy throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball. Brusdar Graterol was feeling himself that day, as he was 97-100 and touched 101 a few times.
I had two at-bats against him. The first one, I was looking for an outside heater just to shoot into right field, but he threw a 100 mph cheeseball about 2 inches above my hands for a slow roller to the second baseman and somehow my bat lived to tell the tale. The next at-bat I got to 2 strikes after he snapped off a curveball for a strike. I knew he was going to come with the fastball, so I was just getting geared up for it as early as possible. Somehow I got on top of 100 at my letters and hit a one hopper to the second baseman for a ground out, but I was at least pleased that I could get a decent piece of that kind of fuzz. A step in the right direction.
I was telling my Dad about the at-bats that day, and he really only had one question for me: “What did that sound like?” 100 miles per hour inside close to your knuckles sounds like a swarm of wasps hurtling towards you just for a split second. Then I told him I was just happy he had decent control and wasn’t all over the place like a lot of those young Latin pitchers with bazooka’s for arms tend to be.
He said “Well, you’re pretty much staring down the barrel of the gun hoping it goes over the plate and not at your face”. It’s true, you have to have a lot of faith in that guy on the bump to stay in there on heaters and curveballs.
Standing in on 100 for the first time brings me back to the blurs that were fastballs coming out of the hand of UConn teammate Wills Montgomerie when Sharon Little League faced off against Lakeville. He was bringing low to mid 70s when we were 12 years old, and even though I hit him a little bit, it was pretty horrifying for chubby Willy to hang in there for what was the equivalent of about 100 from just 45 feet as opposed to 60 feet 6 inches. When Wills and I both played on the same all-star team in Little League, (The Mid-County All Stars, possibly the greatest sports team in human history), Wills was firing mid 70s against La Grange and mowing guys down with strikeout after strikeout.
In an attempt to just get a base runner, one of the right-handed hitting La Grange players tried to get a bunt down, bringing his back foot all the way around and squaring up to Wills. The maneuver threw off Wills’ release point for whatever reason and he deposited a 75 mph fastball into the poor kids face. He didn’t stand a chance of getting out of the way because of how hard Wills was throwing and his choice of bunting technique leaving his face vulnerable. He walked off under his own power after some of his teammates helped him pick up some off his teeth and his mom brought him to the hospital. That kid from La Grange was tough as nails for a 12-year-old.
The Huskies saw some serious fuzz in the 2016 Gainesville Regional against Florida when we were given the task of facing AJ Puk as their Gators starting pitcher, who would eventually be the 6th overall pick of the draft that year to the Athletics. We were so fired up coming off a win against Georgia Tech the day before, that we didn’t have too much trouble facing his 98 mph fastball from the left side.
Who could forget the home run that Bobby Melley hit in the first inning that landed in Canada, giving us a lot of confidence early that we could knock off the number 1 team in the country.
I remember very well my first at-bat against Puk, watching the first pitch whiz just to get the timing down at 98. A friendly Florida fan with two total teeth chirped “just walk back to the dugout 6, you don’t stand a chance in hell against AJ!” I had a decent at-bat, fouling off a few pitches and taking one slider. The Florida fan continued “this is the greatest at-bat of your life! You’ve peaked 6! You’ve peaked!” I popped up to second base and jogged back to the dugout and looked over at the fan and chuckled. My third at-bat against Puk was real interesting, as I was up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth and he was losing confidence in his fastball. I got to 1-1 and he spiked a slider and a wild pitch brought us to within a run of Florida. The Gator skipper walks out and takes the ball from Puk with a 2-1 count in my at-bat to go to Dane Dunning, another first round pick that draft year to the Nationals. The scouting report was 91-93 with a pretty good slider, so I was going to sit on a slider the first pitch I saw from him to see if he was just trying to sneak a slow one by me for strike two.
Sure enough, he fires the stinky cheese painted on the outside corner and I look up at the scoreboard and it says 96. Scouting report was just a wee bit off, but with two strikes I just had to see it deep and try to get something into the air in the outfield to get the runner in from third. Luckily, Dunning hung a slider and I hit a sack fly to center to tie that game. Despite losing by one in a classic, the Huskies did pretty well against some soon to be professional fuzz.
High 90s can be hard to avoid when it comes up and in. Even a mid-90s fastball can clip your hand and lead to injury, as I learned six days before the beginning of my junior season at UConn when I broke my hand on a fastball up and in. A similar situation almost happened in the Gulf Coast League last summer against the Red Sox, but instead of a broken hand I got a base hit out of it.
We were facing a young Latin pitcher who was throwing mid to high 90s with a little bit of run. I was fighting off fastballs and curveballs with two strikes, just trying to put something in play. He proceeded to come up and in with a two-seamer. I was choked up a pretty healthy amount and it hit the knob of my bat square. It rolled out towards shortstop, past the pitcher, and no one on the Red Sox had any clue what happened. Of course me, sniffing any chance for a cheap base knock, took off running immediately. The ‘knob-knock’ is spoken of reverentially by teammates to this day.
Baseball’s so much fun and so damn hard all at the same time. In order to be the best you have to beat the best. Being able to reach a level where we see guys throwing mid to high 90’s, consistently, is an awesome challenge. I overcame the fear of a fastball near the ol’ coconut back in Little League. If it happens it happens, but I’m not scared of it, especially after I was pegged 13 times last summer. Hell, Colin Woody who I met this spring training and is now on the Frederick high-A team, wore 35 pitches in a full-season last year and he loved everyone one of them, mostly for the On Base Percentage. That’s the type of stuff a ballplayer will do to get an advantage and help a team win. I always think of one of my favorite quotes of all time from Honus Wagner: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer”.