2-1 in 18 innings..a Sport Psychology Dream

    The spring has had a challenging start to it thus far.  Our team has had six injuries of varying severity with three guys out for the year so far.  Without going into too much detail, it has changed the complexity of our team significantly.  More importantly, it has ended the high school careers of at least two of the players.  That is something that has been very hard to deal with.  Regardless, I do not think anyone within the state of South Carolina feels bad for us and plans on spotting us any runs when we play them!  The challenge has been to keep the same high aspirations the team had before the year as the names in the lineup have been changed.  Something I think has helped with this transition is our clear expectation for everyone in the program and a goal we set of, "Being as good as we can be each day."  Guys getting hurt hasn't changed that a bit.  It was kind of cool to see John Calipari has the same expectations for his team in pursuit of history.  I saw a quote prior to the tournament starting where he said, "All I want for my team right now is individually to be the best version of yourself."  That is really all any of us can and should expect.  That best version may change over time and may even fluctuate daily, but it's a great perspective.

        The injuries have made the start a bit of a roller coaster ride as our team searches for its identity, and that roller coaster continued with an eighteen inning game on Tuesday night against one of our rivals.  The game, a tense one for all involved because of the numerous up's and down's that an eighteen inning game will bring, was a sport psychology dream with all of the story lines that developed.  It would be impossible to mention every one, but I will discuss a few general thoughts I had and hope to incorporate some concepts that will help others in the future.

1. The Toughest Moment in Baseball History That Wasn't:  Somewhere around the 5th inning or so, we were locked in a 1-1 tie.  We pinch-hit a kid with freakish athletic ability who has worked to try to play catch up with some baseball skills and knowledge of the game over the last couple of years.  He worked the at-bat and got drilled in the arm.  After advancing to second base on a bunt (I think?  18 innings remember!), he stole third.  The player slid extremely late and crushed his ankle on the bag as the ball scooted away.  "Score!" was the call and the goal of the player as he proceeded to do the unthinkable.  With his left foot dangling to the side, he hopped on his right foot in a perfectly straight line and scored ahead of the throw.  The player then collapsed in agony and had to be carried off the field.  Unfortunately, he got the bad news of having a severe leg and ankle injury that required surgery Thursday.  That is much more important than the result of a game, but the focus of the blog is the game so back to it.  As the player is lying in agony, the opposing coach is discussing the play with the umpires.  The umpires walk off several times to discuss what happened.  Any coach knows this is never a good sign and is likely going to result in 50% of the people involved in the game being extremely upset with the end of the conversation.  The umpires decided that one of them had blown the play dead because of a "concern for safety of the player" (never mind that he had been standing on third and decided on his own to go home).  I've never seen this happen in a baseball game in my life, but the decision was indeed made.  Our team was upset (about the player and the play), the hitter ended up striking out to end the inning, and little did we know the night was just getting started.  Regardless of the result, the player who hopped home showed unbelievable courage with his effort on the play.  It was the toughest individual effort I have ever witnessed in person and something I will never forget.  Moving past it proved a tough challenge.  Much thought was spent on how we should have scored instead of how we would do so again in the present moment.

2. Hitting In the Dark:  Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in baseball.  We've all heard the axiom about hitting a round ball with a round bat square.  Well something that can make it even harder than normal is attempting to hit in the dark.  Once we got into the seventh inning or so the sun was down completely, and any light would be of the man-made variety.  The lights at the field we were playing at were better served for listening to a little Barry White and making some moves than hitting.  This led to 11 innings of pitchers looking like they are all throwing 7-10 mph harder and an unprecedented amount of fist pumps as they threw fastball after fastball past hitters on both sides.  This was a major challenge to hitting.  When broken down to the most fundamental of levels, one must see the ball to hit.  The lights made it tougher than normal.  What made it even tougher, however, was if the hitters allowed the lights (uncontrollable) to take away from their focus on the task at hand (controllable).

3. Separating Elements of the Game: This relates to some of the inevitably gross offensive lines that occur in an offensively-challenged eighteen inning baseball game.  As hitter after hitter went back to the dugout or ended an offensive threat shaking their head after a strikeout or weakly hit ball, the challenge was to then move on and play defense.  Both teams did a really good job of this.  Guys did a really good job of separating different elements of the game and moving on.  Again, both teams did well with this and are to be commended.  Although it has been said that experience is the best of teachers, my hope for the offensive players is that they do not have too many opportunities to learn like this one!

4. How to Pitch in the Dark: It was at least as fun to pitch as it wasn't to hit during this one.  The confidence of three guys in particular who threw during the "Dark Ages" portion of the game was great to watch.  They threw like nobody was going to hit them and pitched through some tough spots.  The hitters did a poor job of placing proper value and effort with each pitch of each at-bat.  What I mean is all too many times one strike quickly became three, and swings were either of the gorilla or puppy variety.  There was very little free and easy to anything offensively.  The pitchers were the direct inverse of this.  "Here it comes.  See if you can hit it!" was the attitude on the mound when one run was probably going to win the game.  I'd encourage these guys to "pitch like you're in the dark" every game by throwing each pitch with the same conviction.

5. Every Moment Is as Big as We Make It:  This is perhaps the greatest lesson I think a game like this can teach.  In sports, so often we place an added emphasis on "crunch time."  This could be the final two minutes in a football game, the last inning of a baseball game, or the closing minutes of a basketball game.  My questions would be this: "What makes the final out of a baseball game any more valuable than the other twenty-six?"  "Is a touchdown in the final two minutes worth more than six points?" "Why do basketball teams change the way they have successfully gotten the lead in the first fifty-nine minutes in hopes of hanging on to a game?"  With this in mind, everyone will remember one or two plays from a 2-1, 18 inning game that "made the difference" in the game.  That difference, in reality, isn't any greater than every other play.  A baserunning mistake to start an inning is just as important as one to end an inning.  A great defensive play is still only worth one out.

In my opinion, the greatest of both athletes and teams are those who are able to best approach every pitch or every play with the same intensity and focus.  Consistent behavior yields consistent results.  Why would you then purposely have a completely different approach to the end of the game?  That only creates discomfort and likely hurts performance.  Now, if you are the rare player who seems to perform better in these "clutch" situations, then I would challenge you to reevaluate where your focus is during all of the other situations.  Chances are an adjustment in doing so would help you to be a better overall player.

Those are just a few of the topics that stood out to me in this marathon game for the ages.  There were certainly others like guys battling through 0-6's to get big hits late in what proved to be the deciding inning (we won 2-1).  It was a great game though and one I will never forget being a part of.

Have you ever participated in a long, extra inning game?  Were there moments or lessons that stood out to you?  I'd love to hear about them.  Tweet @Coach_Ehrlich, or shoot me an email atehrlichb1@gmail.com.  Win now!

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