Things have not gone as expected and hoped for here in the Lithuanian Championship for the Kaunas Lituanica squad.
Just a little background; in 2006 (last year), Lituanica won the championship easily losing only three games all season and winning the final series 3 games to 1.
At this point last season, the team was 6 and 0. Right now our record stands at 2 and 4.
True—we are not the same team as we were last year. Three of our best players are not playing, others are injured and only half-strength. In addition it appears that the other teams in the championship have improved. Also, more than half of our team are hitting with wooden bats to prepare for the European Championship; Utena and other teams in Lithuania all hit with metal.
All that being said, there is no good explanation for how poorly we have started the season. There is something missing, something that is the difference between a group of solid players (which Kaunas continues to be) and a strong team. I have not yet been able to figure it out yet: is it team chemistry? Are we too confident? Too relaxed? Are we not prepared and not practicing hard enough? Are we thinking too much? Are we too tense? Are we fatiged from too much baseball?
I don’t know.
This year’s championship will be three games per week, two seven-inning games on Saturday and one 9-innings on Sunday. This differs from last year when we played only two days a week. Though I was excited when I learned this at first, I see now that it may be a bit much. On our first day of games we played 22 innings; both 7-inning games went into extra innings. The first game we won in 12 innings, the second we lost in 10 innings on an errant throw to first (not just over the head of the first baseman, but over the fence) with two outs and the bases loaded. By the end of the day the guys were in bad spirits, many cursing the fact that we had to play two games in one day. They were hot, tired, and pissed off. I was no different, having pitched 14 innings over the two games that day because we had no one else to pitch and the game was tied. What is more, I strained a muscle in my right shoulder diving back into first base which prevented me from playing in the games on Sunday.
The next day we fared even worse. We were unable to hit, pitch, or play defense. It was as if we had expended all of our energy the previous day in those 22 innings. Even Mantas, our catcher and team captian who is always an example of enthusiasm and hustle on the field, looked fatigued and drained. We lost 21-4 in 7 innings, the worst lost that anyone on the team could ever remember.
Sigitas gave the team two days off and we resumed practice on Wednesday.
The following Sunday in our games against Utena in Kaunas, we came out with a much better attitude and more energy, but still had trouble hitting the baseball. We lost both games on Saturday, as a result of poor hitting and one poor inning of defense in each games that was responsible for most of the runs allowed. I pitched (though could not hit because of my shoulder) in the second game on Saturday giving up 1 earned run in seven innings, but three more were scored on errors in the first inning; we lost 4-2.
Sunday was the hottest day I have ever experienced in Kaunas. It was about 32 degrees Celcius, which is about 90 degrees farenheit. The Kaunas stadium has no trees and is essentially a huge concrete slab with some grass in the middle that serves as our baseball field. It was hot. Starting on the mound for us was Aivaras, a lefty whom two years ago was the best pitcher for Kaunas (and in all of Lithuania), but did not pitch last season because of shoulder surgery. This would be, then, his first start on the mound in almost two years.
Aivaras pitched a gem, giving up four runs, 3 unearned and 1 earned, in 9 innings. Yet still we were unable to hit the ball. In the bottom of the ninth we were losing 4-2 with the bottom of our lineup up to bat. We managed to scrape out two runs on a double, a single, and two errors, tying the game with one out and Aivaras at bat.
Aivaras strikes out.
I get up. I am 1-4 on the day, not feeling very confident at the plate. On a 2-1 count, I hit an outside fastball, a line shot to the left-center gap. This is the one place in the stadium where a triple is possible; right field is shortened by the track encircling the field, and anything beyond that is a double. To left field is about normal distance.
So the left-center gap is the place to hit the ball. In addition to it being deep and in-play, there are numerous obstacles including poles, concrete slabs, shrubs, and high grass, and a soccer goal that can obstruct the fielder but are in-play as well.
In short, it was the perfect location. And I ended up making it third, and then scoring because the relay from the outfield was not played cleanly. We won the game 5-4, everyone—the whole team, Sigitas, and the handful of spectators in attendance-- went crazy. We had stolen a win from Utena.
Utena’s team name, ‘Vetra’, means storm. It was only fitting after this bizarre comeback that, as we were sharing a drink in the parking lot of a nearby shop, clouds came in from the direction of Vilnius and it started to pour.
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