MILWAUKEE – Then a regular guy finds himself standing in the batter’s box in October against a guy who’ll someday be a legend in spite of what’s about to happen.
It’s just that the game is blind like that. It doesn’t judge great from otherwise until afterward, not in the moment, not when the moment needs to be finished still, not when there’s a strike left.
Not when the moment, stacked as it is against a regular guy, predetermined as it seems to be, inevitable but for the act itself, happens to be sittin’ dead freakin’ red fastball.
Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff isn’t even sure, after all these years, ever since his big brother started flipping balls at him in a backyard in Mississippi, why he hits left-handed. He does everything else right-handed. He tried to hit a golf ball right-handed once and could barely get it as far as the end of the tee box. One day, he figures, he must’ve stood on that side and nobody corrected him, turned him around, not his dad Richard or his big brother Blake, and that’s just the way it happened.
A fluke that became a habit, he guesses. One that put him at a further disadvantage against Clayton Kershaw on that particular Friday night in October, leading off the third inning in the first game of the National League Championship Series. That and the fact he didn’t become a hitter at all, but a pitcher, so he hardly ever does that anymore.
It’s a funny thing about hitting, too, that when he does it he can’t help but think about Blake, five years older and a ballplayer too, right up until the accident. When Blake died on the back of that ATV two summers ago, Brandon went home to Mississippi for a while, mourned all he could, played some catch with his wife, and then had to go back to baseball. It was the routine that soothed him as much as it could, which wasn’t much, but just enough, standing on a mound and playing ball again. So he hurried back to his Double-A team and those guys who’d become more than teammates – not hurried, exactly, but when it felt right it just did – and in his first game back he pitched six shutout innings and, wouldn’t you know it, he hit his first home run as a professional ballplayer. That’s when he suspected he might be in good hands from here on, when that ball fought through the wind in Pensacola, Florida, and fell over the fence.
“I owe him a lot,” Brandon said of Blake late Friday night, a few hours after he’d pitched two scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers and homered off Kershaw.
Blake got him loving the game. He got him swinging a bat, throwing harder, all the stuff big brothers do, or are supposed to, Blake loving that Brandon loved it all too. And, man, would Blake have loved this, a full ballpark, a 1-0 game, Brandon carrying a bat up there against the best, even Brandon getting locked up on that curveball before the fastball came.
“It’s something, getting in the clubhouse after the outing was over, you think about it,” Brandon said. “You think about what he’d be doing.”
“Probably going crazy,” he said.
Like they were up in section 118, where the families sit at Miller Park, behind home plate. His father, Richard. His mom, Belinda. By the time it was over, the Brewers holding desperately to their 6-5 win, Brandon’s innings holding up, him even getting the win, his home run meaning something. It all meant something. Every moment. Stacked up. Their moment coming on a 2-2 count, on the sixth pitch.
“Just don’t strike out,” Richard thought. “Just put the ball in play.”
Kershaw looked OK, though. For two innings he’d been on the corners, leaning late in counts on that curveball. It looked like a fight, like Kershaw might be on his game.
The count was 1-2. Then Brandon took that curveball.
“Buckled me pretty bad,” he said. “I had no chance. And I don’t know how I didn’t swing or why I didn’t swing, and I just thought … you know, I just figured he wasn’t going to mess with that pitch again to go to 3-2 because he didn’t want to worry about getting into a full count with a pitcher. So I was just trying to look heater and trying to foul it off or put it in play and just got lucky.”
Maybe he knows better or maybe he doesn’t.
“Never saw him round the bases,” Richard said. “I just hollered, ‘Home run!’ I said, ‘It’s gone!’ I mean, when you look out at the center fielder and right fielder and they’re just doin’ this …”
Richard looked over his shoulder. Belinda, her eyes reddened, smiled.
“Very proud,” she said. “So proud.”
Blake, she said, he’d be, “Rejoicing.”
They recalled that other home run, the one in the minor leagues, how these things have a manner of happening now, how it sets them all free for a moment. How it thrills them so. How it reddens their eyes still and forever.
“Tough day that was,” Richard said. “Yep.”
They stood late Friday night into early Saturday morning downstairs in their WOODRUFF jerseys, just outside the Brewers clubhouse. The place was a madhouse of parents and brothers and sisters and kids and media and players emerging from behind the double doors to cheers. The stood to themselves, taking it in. Brandon told the story of his home run, his wild dash around the bases, how it felt to wake up a stadium on a Friday night in October. He said he was happy to help out what has become a special team, a new batch of teammates who’d become more than teammates, to be a part of their moment.
He said he was lucky. And maybe that’s so. But probably not. Because great isn’t sorted out until the moment is over. Until then, it’s anybody’s to have. And, so, it may as well have been Brandon Woodruff’s. After all, he was the one sitting fastball. He was the one who turned it around.
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