119. Final Inning

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It was the final inning, and the Pioneers were down by a score of five to two.

Henry paced the dugout like a nervous rooster, his left ankle now wrapped in a cloth bandage that had already turned crimson. He had faced this scenario only once in a youth league. The dread of that loss made him want to puke the bacon and eggs he ate for breakfast.

Out of the corner of his eye, Henry saw Big Willy, sitting on a dugout bench that bowed under his massive weight. His lips moved in a silent meditation as he rolled rosewood prayer beads between kielbasa-sized fingers.

The fans were on their feet, their galvanized cheers rising like lava in a volcano ready to erupt.

Jake climbed out of the dugout and started to take practice swings in the on-deck area, and you could hear his bat, whipping lightning through the air.

The tuxedoed announcer raised the megaphone to his mouth. "Now batting for the Pioneers, Jake 'The Cowboy' Westin!"

Jake marched into the batter's box, looking as serious as a Wall Street broker about to close a major trade

The Wolverines' pitcher was Hunter Malone. He'd played professional baseball for two years before joining Giant Steel for almost five figures. With wavy brown hair and that arrogant expression, he looked like the type of cocky bastard who bullied little kids in his younger days.

Malone got set on the mound, leaning forward as he swung his throwing hand behind his back, rotating the ball between his fingers. He flashed a quick smirk and threw a wicked curve ball.

Jake pumped his arms and gave the bat a rip. He knocked a bullet to right field and sprinted to first base.

Henry blew the air from his mouth. The Pioneers still had life.

Up next, Garrett Hayes readied himself for the pitch, giving the bat two pumps before settling into a stance as steady as a Roman statue.

Malone fired one of his patented fast balls—so fast, a red streak seemed to trail from behind.

Garrett caught a good chunk of the ball, sending a line drive to the Wolverines' shortstop, Will McFarley.

The game should have been over, but McFarley bobbled the ball.

Henry pumped his fist and uttered a near-silent, "Yes!"

The opposing crowd threw their arms up in disappointment, as the black and white fans let out a collective cry of relief.

There were runners on first and second base.

The Pioneers fans started to get louder. Fans tooted horns and whistles. Kids banged pots and pans. And one farm girl, wearing overalls and blond pigtails, jangled a cow bell as if that might bless the Pioneers with good luck.

After the windup, Malone threw a spit ball to Marshall Young.

Marshall hit a low-flying ball that looked like a smooth stone sailing over the surface of a pond as it zipped towards the pitcher's mound. Malone made a futile grab for it. The ball pinged off the left edge of the mound and ricocheted out to left field.

Marshall waltzed to first base, and the other two runners advanced to second and third.

This was the childhood dream of every baseball player!

Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Bases loaded.

Henry headed over to the plate, bat in hand. He told himself that he could do this. He'd hit plenty of home runs before. But then, as he stepped into the box, he began to feel twinges of doubt.

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