Little League Baseball players Liam and Carter are still adjusting to changes since Liam's family moved across the country to California. Liam is faced with having to prove himself all over again to his new teammates. Carter, on the other hand, is having his best season ever. His pitches are unstoppable and it looks like his team might just sweep the competition. That is, until a new pitcher hits the scene.
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By Matt Christopher
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Matt Christopher
All rights reserved.
Look who's here."
Liam McGrath, starting catcher for the Pythons in their game against the Cobras, glanced sideways at his teammate Rodney Driscoll. Rodney ran his hand over his tight black curls and then jerked his chin toward the bleachers. Liam looked over and his mouth tightened.
"Phillip DiMaggio," he muttered. "Great. What's he doing here?"
Rodney shrugged. "Taking in a game? Checking out the competition? Trying to decide who to vote for as an All-Star?"
Liam flinched at the mention of the vote. He'd been an All-Star last year and wanted to be one again this year. But he didn't think that was likely. Last year he'd been a leader, a player teammates turned to when the pressure was on. Now he was the new kid in town, an unknown. Or worse, known for something he wished no one knew.
He twisted his Pythons baseball cap around so the brim covered his neck and pulled his catcher's helmet into place over his face and throat guard.
He knew he shouldn't be surprised to see Phillip. After all, they lived in the same town now. Played in the same local Little League, too, although for different teams, thankfully. If he had been assigned to DiMaggio's team, he didn't know what he would have done.
Yes, I do. I would have played, he thought, because I'm not a quitter. But it wouldn't have been easy seeing his nemesis at practices every week, and having to cheer him on during games, and maybe even—Liam gulped at the thought—catching for him.
Liam and Phillip had first met the previous August at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. At that time, Liam was still living in Pennsylvania, close to his cousin and best friend, Carter Jones. That summer, he, Carter, and their All-Star teammates had accomplished an amazing feat: They had beaten all the other teams from the Mid-Atlantic Region to earn a berth at the World Series. They had won the majority of their games in the World Series tournament, too, and advanced to the U.S. Championship.
Their opponent in that game was a Southern California team representing the West Region. The West's pitcher was Phillip DiMaggio.
Liam had no clue who DiMaggio was then, but Carter did. He'd had a run-in with the pitcher during Little League Baseball Camp the summer before. And two days before the United States Championship, Carter told Liam all about it.
"Because of his last name, I thought he was related to the great Joe DiMaggio." Carter scrubbed his hands over his face. "So I asked him to autograph my camp jersey. But of course, I had forgotten Joltin' Joe doesn't have any direct heirs. Phillip called me Number One Fan the rest of camp—he thought it was hysterical. I thought it was humiliating."
When Carter told him the story, Liam didn't get mad. In fact, he said it probably helped Carter to use his anger at Phillip as motivation to become a better pitcher. Still, he didn't like the trick Phillip had pulled. The first time Liam came face-to-face with DiMaggio, Liam played a prank of his own. He poked a spot on the pitcher's shirt and told him he had a stain. When Phillip looked down, Liam jerked his finger up, bopped Phillip in the nose, and chortled, "Made you look!"
That innocent prank came back to haunt him during the U.S. Championship Game.
Mid-Atlantic was down a run in the bottom of the sixth. Phillip was on the mound. Liam came up to bat. There was a runner on third, two outs. Liam let the first pitch go by for a called strike. He nicked the second for a foul and strike two. Determined to hit a game-winning homer off DiMaggio, he took a monstrous swing at the third pitch—and missed.
Worse than missed. He swung so hard that he corkscrewed around off-balance and fell face-first into the dirt. In front of thousands of spectators. On live television.
Moments later, Phillip offered him a hand to help him up. To the viewers watching at home, the gesture looked like the epitome of sportsmanship. But the cameras and microphones missed something. With a flick of his outstretched finger, Phillip brushed Liam's shirt and then touched the batter's nose.
"Hey, McGrath," he whispered, pointing at Liam. "Made you whiff!"
Back home, Liam had tried to remember everything good that had happened during the World Series and to put that one bad moment behind him. But that was easier said than done. First, he discovered that a video clip of his strikeout was available for viewing by anyone who had access to the Internet. Second, he learned that his family was moving across the country to Southern California. Third, and most unbelievable, he found out that he would now be living in the same town as Phillip DiMaggio.
Liam risked another glance at the stands. He panned over the spectators—an older man with a stern expression and almond-shaped eyes, a pair of girls giggling together, a group of parents—then landed on Phillip. His brown eyes met the pitcher's jet-black ones for a brief moment. Then Phillip looked away.
Liam adjusted his leg guards and hurried out onto the field.
He'd survived moving across the country, leaving all his friends. If he'd been put on the same team as DiMaggio, he would have survived that, too. No, better than survived. He would have succeeded.
Last August, it was game over, he thought. From here on out, it's game on.CHAPTER 2
Carter Jones bagged the pile of leaves he'd been raking and carried it to the parking lot. It was Little League Cleanup Day, and along with dozens of other players, parents, and Little League coaches, he was getting the baseball fields ready for the upcoming season.
"Hustle over, everyone. Team meeting!" Mr. Harrison, coach of the Hawks, called. A wiry man with thick black hair, he had been Carter and Liam's coach last year and throughout the All-Star team's run in the postseason. Carter counted himself very lucky to have been drafted to his team again this time around. It took some of the sting out of being separated from Liam.
Some, but not all. Until Liam moved, he and Carter were inseparable. They were the same age, had the same friends, and went to the same school. They slept at each other's houses, shared meals, and celebrated every birthday and holiday together.
They played baseball together, too, and were teammates from Little League Tee Ball all the way up through the Major Division. When Carter began pitching regularly on their Majors team, Liam became his catcher. They proved to be a formidable duo on the field.
"It's like you can read each other's minds," a fellow player once marveled.
Carter thought that wasn't far from the truth. Maybe he and Liam didn't have an actual psychic link like in science-fiction books, but they did share a connection that was stronger than most. And now that the Little League season was about to begin, Carter missed his cousin more than ever.
In the dugout, a blond-haired boy named Ash LaBrie waved Carter over. "Got room here."
Carter hesitated before taking the seat. He liked Ash but felt disloyal to Liam whenever he hung out with him. For one thing, Ash and his mother had moved into Liam's old house. Now Ash ate in Liam's kitchen, hung out in Liam's living room, and slept in Liam's bedroom. As if that wasn't weird enough, he had also taken over Liam's position as Carter's catcher. Ash was good behind the plate, no doubt, but ... well, he wasn't Liam and that was that.
Coach Harrison opened the meeting by thanking them for their hard work. "The concession stand now has a nice new coat of paint. And apparently, so do some of you!"
The players who had been painting looked at their blue-flecked clothing and laughed.
"Hmm," the coach continued, noting a similar smudge of paint on his arm, "guess I should have said 'some of us.' And now some more good news. The Hawks are adding a new player to their roster."
He looked toward the parking lot. "Ah, there's your new teammate now!"
He pointed to a person jogging across the field. The kid's cap was shading his face, so it was only when he reached the dugout that everyone realized—
"It's a girl!" shortstop Arthur Holmes blurted out.
Carter was surprised, too. He knew Little League Baseball was open to boys and girls; still, actually having a girl on the team was unexpected.
"Everyone, please welcome Rachel Warburton," the coach said. "She just got called up from the Minors."
That's when Carter finally recognized her. They'd been in the same class in fourth grade. Back then, she had worn her long brown hair loose and had a quick, easy grin that invited everyone near her to smile back. Her hair was shorter now and tucked through her cap. But when she saw him, that same grin lit up her face.
"Hey, Carter!" she said. "Got room for me?"
Carter blushed, embarrassed at being singled out, but said, "Uh, sure." He nudged Ash. Ash gave him a look and then slid over.
Rachel sat between them and whispered, "I watched the whole World Series last year. You were awesome!"
Carter reddened even more. "Thanks."
"I was sorry to hear Liam moved away. That must be terrible for—"
"Hey, do you guys mind?" Ash interrupted tersely. "The coach is talking."
Carter immediately snapped his attention back to Mr. Harrison. The coach reminded them they were expected to attend all practices. He also assured them they would each see playing time in every game.
"Finally, remember that win or lose, you support your fellow Hawks and congratulate your opponents. Understood?"
Cheers rose from the kids on the bench.
The meeting ended then. But before Carter could return to his job, the coach called him over. "You too, Ash," he added.
Then he said something that took Carter completely by surprise. "I've been thinking about your curveball."
At Ash's urging, Carter had experimented with that pitch. He thought he was throwing it well, too, and hoped to add it to his pitching arsenal when the season began.
When Coach Harrison found out about it, however, he'd made his disapproval clear. He told Carter that the curve could damage a young pitcher's arm. While Little League didn't outright forbid the pitch, he let Carter know that he certainly didn't want any of his pitchers throwing it. Carter had dropped the curve then and there—much to Ash's displeasure.
"I still don't want you to throw the curveball," the coach said now. "However, I wonder if you'd like some help on your knuckleball instead?"
Carter's green eyes widened. He'd tried the knuckleball before without much success, but he was sure he could master it with Coach Harrison's help. "Absolutely! You tell me when and where, and I'll be there!"
"It won't be me," Mr. Harrison corrected. "A new volunteer in the league, Mark Delaney, is running a pitching clinic Monday evening at the high school. He needs catchers, too," he added, looking at Ash. "If he likes what he sees, he'll spend time with you on the knuckleball. So, I take it you're interested?"
"Absolutely!" Carter said again.
"Me too," Ash said.
Carter turned in surprise. He hadn't heard Rachel approach, but there she was, standing behind him and looking at the coach hopefully.
Ash narrowed his eyes. "You want to pitch?"
"Heck, I want to try playing anywhere and everywhere," she said, "except 'left out'!"
The joke was completely lame and yet Carter laughed. So did the coach.
"Then you should attend, too," Mr. Harrison said. "Never hurts to have another hurler in the bull pen. Right, boys?"
"Right!" Carter said.
Ash murmured something, too. But whether he was agreeing with the coach, Carter couldn't be sure.CHAPTER 3
Ball three!" the umpire behind Liam called.
"Time!" Coach Driscoll shouted from the dugout.
The umpire stood up and waved his hands through the air.
Liam pushed his mask back and jogged to the mound to talk to Spencer Park. The pitcher was on the verge of walking another batter, his fourth in three innings. There were two outs and the Pythons had a two-run lead. But it wouldn't take much to even out that score.
"Hey, man," Liam said, keeping his voice calm. "Take a moment. Get your focus back and—yo, you with me?"
Spencer's almond-shaped eyes had shifted toward the bleachers. Now they darted back to Liam. "I just get nervous when he's here," he confessed. "I want to impress him, you know? But every game he comes to, I pitch wild."
Liam figured Spencer had been looking at Phillip DiMaggio. After all, who else in the stands could make him so jittery? Well, it was up to Liam to take those jitters away. He laid a hand on the pitcher's shoulder. Spencer was shorter than he was by at least two inches, a reminder to Liam that he was a year younger—and in his first season with the Majors.
"Listen," Liam said, locking his gaze with Spencer's, "you're not here to impress anybody. You're here to get these Cobras to swing at your pitches. So put him"—he nodded toward DiMaggio—"out of your mind. That's what—"
"Let's go, Pythons," the umpire cut in.
Liam had been about to say that he'd been trying to put DiMaggio out of his own mind. At the umpire's call, however, he immediately hustled back to the plate. He knew that some officials appreciated a quick response to their commands. Sure enough, this umpire gave him an approving nod.
The brief pep talk seemed to have helped, for Spencer's next pitch came right down the heart of the plate. Liam assumed the Cobra would let it go by—the first three pitches were balls, after all, so the odds of a fourth were in his favor—but the player swung and connected for a weak grounder toward Clint Kelley. The husky shortstop fielded the ball cleanly and threw to Reggie Zimmer at first base. The Cobra was out, and the top of the inning was over.
Reggie, first up for the Pythons, strode to the plate. An on-again, off-again hitter with a perpetual slouch to his shoulders, Reggie blasted the second pitch into right field for a double that drew whoops from his teammates. Alex Kroft and Robert Hall made outs, and then Spencer clipped four fouls down the first- base line.
But on the fifth pitch—pow! Spencer may have been short, but his hit went long, a sizzling line drive that found the right-center field gap. He raced down the base path, touched the bag, and kept going. Luckily, Reggie had abandoned second for third. When the dust settled, both runners were safe.
Then Rodney came up to bat. It was almost impossible to see his expression beneath the protective helmet, but Liam bet it was full of determination. The chatter from the bench rose to a fever pitch.
"Here you go, Rodney. Here you go!"
"Knock the cover off that ball!"
"Bring 'em home, man. Bring 'em home!"
There was power behind such cheers, Liam knew. He used to hear them all the time back in Pennsylvania—especially last year. He'd been one of the most feared hitters in the league. Whenever he came up to bat, his teammates would stomp and yell, the outfield would back up, and then, when the pitch came in—
For a brief moment, Liam's daydream had been so real, he thought he'd hit the ball.
"Yes, sir, that's my bro!" Sean Driscoll bellowed, leaping up and punching the air with a freckled fist.
Rodney's scorching blast scored Reggie and Spencer. Then he crossed home plate and trotted into the dugout, where the Pythons swarmed him.
As Liam slapped his friend on the back, he caught sight of the Cobras pitcher. The boy's shoulders were bowed in defeat. Liam felt a stab of sympathy for him.
Not everyone on the team felt the same way.
"Man, I can't wait to take another crack at him."
Robert's voice was low but full of glee. A big kid with a thick neck and wide mouth that turned down at the corners, he reminded Liam of a bullfrog. He was Liam's least favorite teammate, a complainer who pointed fingers at everyone but himself when something went wrong and reveled in other people's weaknesses.
Excerpted from District Doubleheader by Matt Christopher. Copyright © 2013 Matt Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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