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I always was a writer. But never did I believe that I would find myself becoming a sports journalist. I began to follow the athletic teams at my school. Honestly, most sports didn’t really do much for me. But I liked doing the interviews, just for the practice.
When Seven-Pitch season came around, though, I saw what these girls were really like. They were tough, they were competitive, and they were fierce.
The Seven-Pitchers loved standing around in packs. They would giggle as boys and other girls passed them by, teasing them behind their backs. Oftentimes, they said rather nasty things that I did my best to ignore. I started to wonder what the pro Seven-Pitch players were like. From what I knew, Clair wasn’t like that.
At least, I was pretty sure she wasn’t like that. In public, she was a princess in shining armor. But I figured, even a girl with a squeaky clean image like her had to have her warts. Everyone does, right?
If she ever had any weakness, it was her pride. But it was that same pride that made her such a force on the field.
Clair was the ace hurler on the local Seven-Pitch club, the Veri City Ocelots. Not every player on the team was an Ocelot, of course, but it was fortunate to have such a face as Clair as the face of the franchise.
One of the Ocelots’ main problems for years was the fact that they were pretty much always “also-rans” in what fans called the Great Race. It was just a fancy name for the playoffs. But the Great Race captured more world attention than even important political elections.
The primary problem for the Ocelots was that they almost always finished just a couple games out of the division lead. Even if they captured one of the two “wild-card” spots in the playoffs, they were summarily bounced out in the first round of playoff games.
But not if Clair couldn’t help it.
The World Seven-Pitch League is divided into six divisions of five teams, with a total of thirty teams. The Ocelots are in the North Division, one of the most competitive divisions in the whole sport. All but one of the five teams had winning records in five out of the past ten years.
There were very rich and devoted owners in the North. Somehow, they always made enough money to spend quite freely. They didn’t always spend it wisely, but more often than not, their teams won more than lost.
The first year I seriously followed Seven-Pitch was a very good one for the Ocelots. It was a long-fought tough campaign of 142 games. In the end, the Ocelots finished two games back of the Lynx and grabbed one of the two wild-card spots. But this time they would get a bit further.
Veri City was a madhouse when the Great Race began. Their beloved Ocelots finally looked like they would get somewhere this year. They had loaded up on veteran hurlers that had kept them barely hanging on in the race to the finish. Unfortunately, Clair would miss the first two games of the series with a sore arm from a long season.
That being said, the first playoff series didn’t start well for the Ocelots, as they dropped the first two games against the wild-card winner from the West, the Ragdolls.
All Seven-Pitch games have been televised for years. But since the Ocelots had begun the series on the road, it was tradition that the home team had their main announcer call the game. The molly from the Ragdolls was stuffy and uninteresting and called a dull, boring game. Tora, and his parents, complained the entire time. It was more amusing to watch them taunt and heckle the broadcaster than to watch the Ocelots get kicked around, to be honest. It looked like another failure right out of the gate in the Great Race.
But returning home to beautiful Paradise Stadium in Veri City, things would turn around. Not only was the Ragdolls announcer bad to us, but the network asked the voice of the Ocelots, Rockwell Harper, to take over the call for the rest of the series. I knew the real reason. They wanted to keep the ratings up. With the Ocelots already down 2 games to none in a best of seven series, Harper was both good luck and pleasant on the ears.
It was also well known that Clair was returning for game three. Harper had a thing for Clair. He was always a great announcer, but calling a Clair Sureclaw game was what he lived for. It was only then that I truly began to appreciate the game within the game, and the stories that would unfold before our eyes as the Princesses of the Pitch fought and clawed for victory.
“You got this, Sureclaw!” I could hear Clair’s long-time stopper Mira Belli shout as the game began. She was a portly molly, but she had quick reflexes for her size. She was also one of the best strikers on the team and a key part of the Ocelot’s offense.
In the field behind her were a mish-mash of has-beens and never-weres. At least they could usually score enough runs to win more than they lost.
I’ll never forget how that game began. Clair rocked back and delivered her first pitch with her violent sidearm action. The first striker for the Ragdolls just took a look at it. While the ref called it a missed strike in favor of Clair, it was clear that her pitch didn’t have the usual life on it.
Tora was concerned from the get-go. “Come on, Clair! Bring it!”
Evaine gave Tora a puzzled look. She seemed strangely disinterested in the game. It had been on my mind for awhile that this bit about teaching Clair everything she knew about the game had never come up publicly. If Clair hadn’t mentioned it at the pitch signing, I would never have known.
But for the past few weeks since then, Evaine had always dodged the question. She’d try and change the subject to how my father was doing or how my studies were progressing. But tonight, she was a lot more receptive.
“So, Evaine, you taught her everything she knows, right?” I asked her, hoping to finally catch her off guard enough that I’d get something out of her.
The look she shot me at first said, just mind the game. But after a moment, and a few more pitches from Clair that were clearly not her best, Evaine spoke up. “She doesn’t have it tonight.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. I understood the basics of Seven-Pitch, but not all of the ins and outs just yet.
“The Ragdolls are letting her work it out. They’re not even trying.”
After 5 pitches, Clair seemed to be getting frustrated on the hill. The next pitch the striker slammed the pitch with her swing deep into the outer parts of the field. Fortunately, one of the Ocelots’ chasers was able to run it down before it dropped over a hundred meters away.
“Good. Pitching to contact,” Evaine said. “I always taught her to conserve herself. But no, she keeps just throwing it as hard as she can to blow it past them.” She shook her head. “And that’s why her arm’s so worn out.”
With Clair’s return, shaky as it was, the Ocelots won a close third game. Her stuff wasn’t what we were used to seeing, but she was good enough to only give up 3 runs, and the Ocelots won 4-3.
The fourth game was a blowout, with the Ocelots’ defense getting destroyed 14-3. It wasn’t their pitching, even though they went to a reserve to start the game. The defense literally seemed to forget how to field the ball, committing a staggering, and record-setting, nine errors in one game. The three Ocelot runs all came on a pinch-hit home run by back-up stopper Emelie Tekki. The manager Jemina Williams liked what she saw so much out of Tekki, she was tabbed to catch game 5 for hurler Deidra Loewen.
The fierce Leona was a great hurler, one of the best in the league. She’d been a steal in a trade with one of the poorer Western teams, and actually came along with Tekki. After a strong start to the season, the last month of the season she’d been terrible. She’d been blown up in her first start of the playoffs taking Clair’s place.
Again, Loewen was blasted for 7 runs. All looked hopeless after Deidra came out in the third inning. Then something strange happened. The manager called on Clair out of the clowder. As it turned out, Clair had told the manager that she was willing to come in mid-game if she had to. And in she came, with a 7-1 deficit in the fourth frame.
It was obvious that Clair wasn’t herself, throwing change-of-paces almost exclusively. She threw nothing quickly. But the location and the movement of her offerings were perfect, and the other team stood no chance. She threw three frames and struck out eight of the nine batters she faced.
That was all the Ocelots needed to come back. Tekki hit a grand slam in the fifth and Clair, not known for her batting prowess, hit a two-run single in the sixth as the Ocelots batted around and took a 9-7 lead. Clair came out for the seventh, but the other girls in the clowder were able to finish the game. Although it was an adventure with some antacid-inducing moments, the Ocelots held on for a final score of 9-8.
Going back home, Clair was sent to the bench to save her for the next series. Deidra Loewen started and gave up 5 runs in the first inning, but settled down to pitch a complete game and the Ocelots won 6-5. In the last game, their third-best starter, the aging veteran Brie Erstaunlich who had left the game early after struggling in game two, lived up to her name and pitched a shutout, 2-0, with the Ocelots star catcher, Mira Belli, driving in both of the game’s runs with a double.
The next series didn’t go so well. It was against their bitter division rivals, the all-time champions of Seven-Pitch, the Lynx. Clair pitched magnificently in game one, but came out after the seventh as her velocity dropped from its usual 100 ticks to 95 to 90 and line drives were being smashed all over the diamond.
Fortunately, her defense held up and she only allowed one run on a homer to superstar outfielder Nelli Duro. At one point, Clair had called Duro the “bane of her existence” with her tongue clearly in cheek.
The rest of the series was a lost cause. The Ocelots were bashed 8-1 in game two, although Loewen only gave up three earned runs out of the seven she allowed due to the defense once again falling apart. Erstaunlich left in the third inning of game three with shoulder tightness and the clowder was rocked for 10 runs, with the Ocelots being on the wrong end of a 12-7 score. Game four was a 16-1 blowout, with the lone run because of an errant throw where one of the Ocelot’s fastest runners was able to score from second bag.
Game five was Clair’s game to pitch. She was only kept in for five innings, as her fast-pitch didn’t break 92 ticks. She only gave up one hit, but three walks, as well. She wasn’t missing bats by much and her manager pulled her. Clair was furious and as it turned out, the clowder already bashed around the night before got mauled again. The Ocelots lost the final game of the series 22-3, as two position players from the bench finished the game on the hill in wildly ineffective fashion.
The Great Race had its moments for us, but in the end, it was just another time to wait for next spring.
And the once invincible Clair wasn’t looking so good.