Pickoff Moves

by Monica M.

Disclaimer: The M7 characters in this story belong to MGM. I've made no money here.

Notes: This is set in the Regents AU. Chris and Ezra are the only ones in this one, though Buck makes a nice cameo, and it's set in a baseball game. I realize not everyone shares my love of that particular sport so I have tried to explain the game to the best of my ability. Also, I am a diehard Houston Astros fan who still grins from ear to ear at realizing that my boys actually made it to the World Series for their first time ever. (And yes, I'm aware they got swept, but they were THERE!) So if any of the other ballplayer names look familiar, it is entirely intended. And yes, I have gleefully stolen a classic Nolan Ryan moment and given it to Chris at the end of the ballgame. (See note below) I have exaggerated high school baseball to suit my own purposes and enjoyment. <g>

Thanks: To Debbie for letting me write this story in our AU way back when we only had a story or two written in it. And for now letting me go back and touch it up so that it fits in a little better with how things have unfolded, and will unfold, in the Regents series.

Chris, standing atop the pitcher's mound, took a deep breath and blew it out slowly before leaning in to read the signs from his catcher Brad Ashby. He shook his head at the first pitch suggestion Ashby signaled to him. He respected the catcher a great deal and normally they were in agreement on what pitches to use against which batters. But tonight their communication was a bit off and to Chris' way of thinking it had nothing to do with either of them but with a certain sophomore whose irritating southern drawl could be heard from within the dugout.

Ezra just did not belong on his team. That was just the way that Chris saw it, despite the fact that over the last several weeks he had seen the natural athletic ability that had always been hidden by the devious hacker mentality. Baseball was his domain and now the southerner had intruded upon it. As a sophomore on the Varsity team, Ezra usually rode the bench as a backup shortstop so he rarely actually played in a game with Chris. But he was still there, wearing the Regents Lions uniform and irritating the hell out of the pitcher.

Ezra would say that his intent was to irritate the batter and judging from the look on Richard Reynold's face as he stood in the batter's box the southerner was doing a good job of that. Actually it seemed as if Ezra had taken it upon himself to annoy the entire opposing team as they made their way up to bat. At first it had seemed that he did it out of boredom, but now four innings later he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into harassing the batters with taunting that Chris would grudgingly acknowledge as humorous and creative. But even so it had gone on long enough and the pitcher was beginning to wonder what the penalty would be if he 'accidentally' let the baseball slip from his hand and it hit Ezra as he sat in the dugout.

Ashby finally signaled a pitch that Chris could agree on. He nodded and straightened up on the pitcher's mound, again taking a deep breath, but this time releasing it a bit slower. The fingers of his right hand, held behind his back so that it was hidden from the batter, turned the ball until they could grasp the seams in just the right way. He went into his windup and let fly with his best fastball. He was rewarded with the sight of Reynolds mistiming the pitch and nearly twisting full around as he swung through empty air.

With his trademark smirk ready to add insult to injury, Chris waited expectantly for the opportunity to gloat when Reynolds glared up at him in anger. But the glare never came his way. Instead the batter tossed the glare toward the dugout where distinctive, mocking laughter emanated. Removing his cap to run a hand through his hair, Chris also threw a glare in that general direction, but did not get to catch Ezra's attention as Brad threw the ball back to him. Stepping back off the mound, Chris bent and snatched up the rosin bag, clenching it in his hands to dry them of their sweat.

"Hey, Reynolds," Ezra called out to where the other player had stepped out of the batter's box, "can you swing a little harder on this next pitch? I could sure use the breeze over here!"

But the batter managed to ignore the comment as he stepped back up and waited for the pitch. This time Reynolds was able to get a piece of his bat on the ball and popped up to the catcher.

The next batter walked up straight into Ezra's commentary. "Good Lord! Don't they require drug testing at his school? Those biceps are obviously the product of steroids."

Craig Doran took a practice swing, looking over at Chris as if to ask 'where did you get this guy'. The pitcher shrugged and quickly began working to the batter as Ezra kept up a steady steam of insults while Doran fouled off several pitches. "Looks like you pumped up the arms too big. Why don't you let some air out?"

With the count 1 ball and 2 strikes, Doran asked for time from the umpire and stepped out of the batter's box. Turning to the dugout he yelled, "Shut up, Foghorn Leghorn!"

Chris was amazed when silence actually descended over the baseball diamond. As Doran smugly stepped back into the box and the umpire set himself back up behind Ashby, Chris could not believe that Ezra had yet to respond. The pitcher made a mental note to remember that particular insult since it seemed to work so well. Chris put a bit more speed on his fastball and Doran merely stood there in awe, unable to even think about swinging, as the umpire called his strike out.

It was then, as Doran turned to return to his own dugout that the retort issued from Ezra in a thickened and slightly altered, but all too familiar, drawl, "I say, I say go away you're wasting my time, boy." Much to the annoyance of both Doran and Chris, both dugouts erupted in laughter at that.

Chris pushed his cap back on his head and scrubbed his arm across his forehead wiping away the sweat. He watched as Brad quickly blocked Doran as he took a menacing step toward their dugout and Ezra. Chris hoped this would lead Coach Hamilton to shut Ezra up. Not that the coach, or anyone else, had any luck in that department. But Chris would give it a really good try when he got back in the dugout, even if it meant ripping out that annoying tongue himself.

Either Coach was enjoying Ezra's routine or just decided it was not worth the hassle of trying to silence the sophomore, because as the next batter walked up, Ezra greeted him. "Hey, Bell, this at bat's gonna be like your last couple of dates. You ain't reaching first base!"

Chris was actually a bit surprised by that one. Somehow it seemed a bit juvenile after hearing some of Ezra's more inspired taunts. Maybe Standish was running out of material and would soon fall silent. He shook his head as he leaned in to take his sign. He needed to stop being distracted by Ezra and just pitch. Unfortunately Ashby took it to mean that he was shrugging off the pitch and they had to go through all the signs before coming back to the one Chris wanted. The lean pitcher wanted to throw nothing but fastballs; wanted to just reach back and hurl the ball with all that he had within. That was what pitching meant to him, it was a way to tap into the anger and grief that still lay buried within him. Tap into it and hurl it 60 feet 6 inches until it slammed into the catcher's mitt with a totally satisfying thwack.

Three pitches and Chris had Derek struck out and had retired the side. He did not even give the umpire a chance to call the strike out before striding off the mound toward the dugout and a certain southerner. Ezra caught the glare in Chris' eyes and stood up to move toward the water fountain at the end of the dugout. Chris blocked him, grabbing his arm, and marched him back to a spot on the bench that mysteriously had become free of other players. "We've got to talk."

Ezra twisted his head to the side, his impish smile playing across his lips. "Really, Christopher? And what manner of discourse are you interested in?"

"The type where I talk and you do as I say," Chris growled as he sat Ezra down on the bench and then sat beside him.

"Well if you plan on being the only one doing the talking, I can hardly see why you originally said, 'We've got to talk,'" Ezra stated with a shake of his head. "After all, we implies that both parties will be able to contribute to the conversation..." He was cut off suddenly by a point blank glare. His mouth snapped shut even as his head drew back as far as the unyielding wall behind him would allow.

"See, it's not so hard to shut up, is it?" Chris asked.

The southerner's mouth opened, but before he could speak, Chris shook his head in dismay. "What am I thinking? Of course it's that hard for you to shut up," the pitcher mumbled to himself.

"Now, Christopher, you did tell me yourself that I should take a greater interest in the game as I sit here on the bench," Ezra interjected.

Chris leaned back away from Standish, letting his head loll against the dugout wall as he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He had to wonder how Ezra had all his teeth intact when he even drove his friends to wanting to smash his face in.

Rubbing at his temples, Chris ground out, "Pay attention to the game. That's what I said. That you should pay attention to the game and not take bets about how many pitches it'll take to get someone out, like you did in the last game."

Ezra again opened his mouth, his intention to correct Chris clear in his sage green eyes. Chris shook his head, "I don't care what you were taking bets on, just don't do it! And quit harassing the batters! That's my job!"

The southerner grinned then, a true cat-ate-the-canary grin, "Oh, I see. So it's not that I'm harassing the batters, per se, it's that I'm not allowing you to harass them."

"No, that's not what I said. I'm the pitcher. I'm the one who deals with the batters. I don't need your southern-fried, trash-talking, bench-warming, smart-ass trying to help me out there!"

"You are quite intimidating, Christopher, I can very well vouch for that. And I am very much aware that you do not require my assistance in that matter. My only intention is to provide some contribution to the game since, as you so eloquently pointed out, I am nothing more than a bench warmer."

"Is that the problem?" The pitcher's tone was decidedly dangerous as he snapped his head to the side like a bird of prey suddenly realizing that its quarry was in striking range. "You want to get into the game? Cause I can get you into the game."

Ezra quickly attempted a verbal backpedal, "Not physically into the game. I'm quite content being a bench warmer. As a sophomore I believe that is my place, is it not? I would hate to step on someone's toes, tread on anyone's delicate sensibilities..."

"You're treading on some thin ice, Ezra, is what you're treading on," Chris threatened.

The younger boy sighed, suddenly the very picture of a beleaguered innocent. Chris could not help but wonder how often that amazingly innocent expression had gotten the teen off the hook with people who did not know him better. The senior was not sure if he was fortunate or unfortunate enough to be one of those who did know him better. "Don't say another word," Chris bit off every syllable and he again pierced Ezra with the patented glare that he had inherited from his father. "Remember Vin's away at that track meet and ain't due back until Sunday morning. That gives me plenty of time to hide your body."

Purposefully keeping his mouth closed Ezra raised a finger, and with just the smug expression in his eyes, managed to communicate his thoughts to Chris. Chris' own smirk was quite pleased as he responded, "Josiah and Nathan are at Nate's place for the weekend. Buck'll be on my side. I think he still owes you some payback for something or other, and if not he'll just help for the hell of it. And me and him can cut any protests from J.D."

The smirk crawled evilly up Chris' face, as Ezra's own expression turned defeated and downcast. But again the senior was underestimating the southerner's so called "God-given" (though Chris truly believed them to be Satan-spawned) talents to take a bad situation and turn it to his favor. Dimples flashed briefly as Ezra leaned his head back against the wall and deliberately pulled his cap down low over his eyes.

"What the hell are you doing?" Chris asked, disbelief and disgust equally evident in his voice.

Squinting one eye at Chris from beneath the brim of his cap, Ezra answered matter-of-factly, "Well, I thought that since you no longer wanted my participation in the game that I would take the opportunity to take a nap. As you just reminded me, Vincent will not be back this evening, and I will definitely like to take advantage of the opportunity this affords me." Shutting his eye again, Ezra relaxed back against the wall. Feeling Chris' eyes still on him, he added, "Shouldn't you be paying attention to the game? After all, as the pitcher, shouldn't you be interested to see if your teammates are able to give you any run support."

Chris shook his head, again wondering how he managed to have a conversation with Ezra where the sophomore completely ignored a thing he said. Starting to remind Ezra that his threat was still valid, Chris was cut off as the southerner, eyes still closed and hidden beneath the brim of his cap, raised a finger in the air and drawled out, "And never fear, Christopher, I will not direct another comment to any of the batters in this game. You have all the honor of intimidating the opposing team." He made a shooing motion with his hand, "So, please, return to your game and allow me to concentrate and plan my activities for this evening."

The pitcher heard several badly muffled snickers from his teammates and tossed them a glare as he stood up. Chris stretched his hands out in front of him, spreading his fingers wide as the desire to throttle Ezra nearly overwhelmed him. But the sharp look from Coach Hamilton reminded him that he would have to wait until after the game to take his revenge. Pivoting around, Chris stormed over to the water fountain. As if reading the thoughts of the other players, Ezra opened his eyes and glanced down at the dugout floor to see if the force of Chris' stride in his cleats had gouged furrows in the cement.

Chris took a sip of the fountain water not even noticing the tepid temperature. He stalked back and forth in the small area, looking every bit like a caged lion in a zoo. Coach Hamilton watched Chris carefully then leaned to his assistant coach, Garner, and said, "Those poor kids over there aren't gonna stand a chance against Larabee today." Glancing at where Ezra sat, an island of calm just feet away from the seething storm, Hamilton added, "I might have to get Standish to keep it up and we might make it to the divisionals this year."

Garner laughed, "And just who are you going to get to protect Standish from Larabee?"

Hamilton nodded. "Well if he survives until tomorrow, I'll have to think about that."

Chris stopped pacing and now placed one foot on the lip of the dugout, leaning forward to watch the game. But Garner caught how Chris still threw the occasional glare over his shoulder at the seemingly unaware Ezra. "Chances of that look pretty slim."

Much as he would have hated to admit it, Chris was actually happy when their half of the inning was over quickly and he could stride back out onto the pitcher's mound. As he tossed a few warm up pitches to Brad, he immediately felt in control again and fell back into the rhythm of pitching. He watched as the first batter stepped over to home plate. Giving the batter time to take his practice swings and get settled in the box, Chris himself dug a little at the dirt edging the pitcher's plate so that his right foot would be firmly planted as he went into his pitch.

Hearing the familiar cry of 'play ball' Chris took his sign from Brad and went into his windup, all without so much as a mutter from the bench. But while the bench was quiet the solid clang of the ball against aluminum told Chris that he had just given up a hit. Unable to do anything but follow the flight of the ball, Chris watched as Ken Davis made it into second with a stand-up double. Spitting a curse Chris caught the new ball from Brad. As he clutched his glove between his arm and side, the pitcher rubbed vigorously at the new ball, stalking around the back of the pitcher's mound. Finally ready to face the next batter, Chris put his glove back on and strode on top of the mound.

He stood fairly facing third base so that he could keep an eye on Davis at second while going through the new set of signals from Brad. Again Chris found himself thinking about how quiet it was despite the cheering from fans on both sides. Damn that Standish to hell! Chris thought, even when he's doing what I tell him to do he's got me wondering what he's up to.

Working to Darryl Berkman, Chris found himself in a hole with the count 3 and 0. Missing the strike zone with a curveball, Chris walked Berkman so that he now had a situation with two men on base and nobody out. But it was these tense situations for which Chris lived. It might be an old sports cliché but it was all too true. He had to dig deep within himself and find that something extra that would allow him to emerge from the inning unscathed, without the other team scoring a single run. And while he might have eight guys on the field, all eager and determined to back him up, to Chris the world just shrunk to just him and Moises Cruz, the new batter.

His first pitch was a borderline call the ump gave to Cruz as a ball. Chris heard the chirping from his dugout as his teammates let the ump know that they thought he made the wrong call but the southern drawl was conspicuously absent. Not wanting to give Ezra the satisfaction of knowing that he had noticed his silence, the pitcher refrained from glancing into the dugout. Instead he moved back to the top of the mound and took his sign from Brad. He shook off the call for a fastball. He was losing his speed on that, he could feel it but was not ready to throw in the towel. Chris would never be called a finesse pitcher; his philosophy was to back 'em off the plate and then just fire it in. But on occasion he could manage a few truly wicked breaking pitches.

Moises fouled off the next several pitches, giving Chris a bit of breathing room as he went ahead in the count with one ball and two strikes, but wearing him out having to throw so many extra pitches. Chris knew Cruz, knew the guy was a hitting machine, and he had a hard enough time getting him out when he had his best stuff, let alone nothing much left in the tank. The next two pitches, the batter just took, his bat all but resting on his shoulder, as they were both called balls. Chris again stalked the mound, cursing Cruz for being so damned patient.

Brad strode toward the mound needing a moment to talk to his pitcher, to try and see if he really had anything left. He motioned for the infielders to join them so they could also work out how to play it, if the bases got loaded. Chris glared at Brad, but the catcher was not one to be intimidated. He had caught the majority of Chris' games and they had an understanding and a mutual respect. Shaking his head in anger, Chris again dug at the dirt atop the mound as if that were the cause of all his problems. His head snapped up suddenly as a mocking southern drawl wafted across the field, "Hey, Christopher, we all applaud your generosity in giving the Colts' batters so many balls, seeing as it's a known fact that they don't have any of their own. But really, you're just wasting them on 'em! They won't know what to do with them anyway!"

Chris brought his gloved hand to his mouth, covering the lower half of his face so that his teammates did not see the disbelieving grin on his face. The implications in Standish's words showed that he had indeed been spending way too much time around Buck. At the same time that the grin graced Chris' hidden face, a deep-rooted anger filled him, lighting his eyes with an unholy glare. He should have known better to expect Ezra to keep his promise. Chris growled into his mitt as he realized that Standish actually had since he had directed the comment to him and not the batters. That damned double dealer could weasel his way out of anything. The infielders all paused and only placed one foot on the base of the mound, too afraid to get too close to Chris. Craig Wagner, the shortstop, felt decidedly uncomfortable when Chris focused all of his attention on him.

"I want you out of the game, Wagner," Chris growled dangerously.

Craig's eyes widened with fear and surprise, and while he wanted to protest, he found that his mouth had gone suddenly dry and saved himself the embarrassment of merely squeaking. Fortunately Chris continued, "Once we get these guys out, I want you to tell Hamilton whatever it takes to get yourself out of the game. I want that southern son-of-a -bitch to get his ass out here where I can make sure that he keeps that goddamn mouth of his shut!"

Wagner nodded, unsure of what else to do. He would much rather keep Chris' anger focused on Standish than on himself. Besides it probably would not be so bad to sit out the rest of the game. Coach Hamilton would probably even prefer it. At least it would keep Chris from killing Standish outright in the dugout.

Seeing Wagner's nod, Chris stepped back to the top of the mound and glared down at them. "Now let's get these guys out."

Brad and the others exchanged glances, the catcher knowing that there was no way the Colt batters were going to touch Chris' pitches now. Larabee would not let anything extend the inning and delay his revenge. Not a base hit, not a walk. Brad would even be willing to take a bet with Standish that it would only take nine more pitches for Chris to get out of the inning. Brad always mentally compared Chris to Randy Johnson, after all both of them had intimidation as their trademark. And now he believed that he might get a better idea of how catching Randy Johnson's near 100mph pitch would feel like. If he had thought that Chris had run out of steam, Standish just stoked the fire.

Brad would have lost that bet, because Chris actually managed to get the three outs on only four pitches. His next pitch to Cruz cost Chris a run, as the infield hit allowed the runner to score, but he also got a double play out of it. Then Alan Ward struck out looking on just three pitches. Brad immediately turned to see where Standish was in the dugout so he could avoid that area himself. But he did not find Ezra anywhere in the dugout, instead the sophomore was running through some stretches and warm-ups just on the other side of the dugout. Apparently Coach Hamilton already came to the conclusion that the only way to save Standish's hide was to get him out of the dugout and onto the field. And fortunately, Wagner would have been the next up to bat. Brad laughed when he saw the batting helmet, gloves, and bat lying on the ground next to Ezra. Obviously the younger boy was hoping to make it to the on deck circle without having to deal with Chris. But the way Brad looked at it, Chris might not be Ezra's worse problem. There was a whole dugout on the Colt's side that was just itching for the southerner to walk up to the plate.

Ezra managed to contain the grin that threatened to spread across his face as he walked over to the on deck circle to get in his warm up swings. He also managed to avoid catching Chris' glare as he walked past the pitcher sitting on the bench. He had not found a more enjoyable pastime (at least one that was legal) than pissing off Chris Larabee. There was just something about the senior that seemed to cry out for it. Maybe it was the way he took things far too seriously most of the time. Chris was always trying to rein him in and Ezra was always trying to push Chris further. The game they played sometimes had rather explosive results, but deep down the southerner bet Chris enjoyed it as much as he did.

The sophomore was fully prepared for the barrage of taunts that greeted him as he stepped into the batter's box. After all one of Maude's favorite sayings was "Turnabout is fair play." And Ezra learned long ago that if he was going to dish it, he better be able to take it. And so the words and comments hollered at him had no affect on him as he waited for the pitch. Besides, the southerner got a bit of perverse joy out of knowing that his lack of response was simply further infuriating the Colts' bench.

Just on principle, Ezra took the first pitch for a ball. Shane Miller was about as opposite a type of pitcher from Chris as one could possibly get. Shane was a true finesse pitcher, flirting with the corners of the strike zone, getting the batters to swing at pitches that were unhittable. With fastball pitchers, like Chris, it was a matter of timing the swing, but with pitchers like Miller it was anticipating where the ball would end up when it made it across the plate. Ezra enjoyed the challenge, and contrary to popular belief he was indeed a good player. Those few short years that he had been allowed to play little league had been some of his happiest. His coaches had bandied about the words "natural born player". And he truly enjoyed every aspect of the game, the way that it was as mentally challenging as it was physically.

The next pitch Ezra stroked up the third base line for a single. The southerner could not resist tossing a mock salute back to Chris on the bench as he stepped on the first base bag. He ducked his head with a grin, flashing dimples, as he read the curse Chris mouthed to him.

Inside the dugout, Coach Hamilton motioned for his pitcher to join him. "What's up, Coach?" Chris asked as he walked over.

"You got anything left for the rest of the game?" Hamilton questioned bluntly.

Chris had his pride, but was also aware of his limitations, all of which Hamilton was aware of. It was the reason the coach even bothered to ask. Chris laughed a hard exhale of air, "I seem to have found my second wind. I'll take it as far as I can."

Hamilton laughed at that. "Yeah I noticed," he nodded. "Alright, but if Ashby tells me that he thinks you're fading again, I'll pull you."

Chris nodded, though it angered him to think that someone else could have a say in if he was able to continue or not. But that was all part of the job of being a catcher, knowing better than the pitcher sometimes if he was through for the night. And Chris respected Brad and knew he would not recommend pulling him unless he was absolutely sure that the pitcher had nothing left.

They both watched as Ezra took a large lead away from first base. Hamilton cursed, "I specifically told him not to steal!"

It was Chris' turn to laugh softly. "It's hard to stop Ezra when there's any kind of theft involved."

Hamilton eyed Chris in confusion over that comment, but decided it was not worth questioning. He had always known there was something shady about Standish. "Well if he gets caught, I'll have his hide!"

Chris gave him an appraising look out of the corner of his eye, "Well, Coach, you'll have to wait in line for that."

Miller's snap throw to first almost caught Ezra off the bag, but the sophomore dove back in, snaking a hand around the first baseman's tag to touch the base. Both Chris and Coach Hamilton exhaled suddenly as they realized they were holding their breath during the play. Chris had to admit that Miller had a great pick off move and was impressed that Ezra made it back to first at all. The senior allowed a wry grin to cross his face as he shook his head. He realized that he should not be surprised at Ezra's ability. The southerner lived his life watching for the tell tale signs of someone attempting to throw him out of their lives. And just as he was now taking steps back off first base, moving closer to second, daring Miller to try and throw him out, Ezra always seemed to be daring people to throw him out of their lives.

Chris thought about how Ezra was always irritating him, taunting him. It was almost as if the sophomore wanted to be thrown out of the friendship they shared with the other five students who attended Regents. He probably believed that if Chris could not accept him then the others would follow his lead. All these months Ezra had probably been trying to learn the senior's pickoff move. The question was if he was trying to avoid it so that he could advance and truly become part of their friendship or was he just waiting to get thrown out so he would not have to deal with it anymore.

For just a minute, Chris wondered what it was like to be Ezra. The teen's life seemed to be colored by suspicion and cynicism. He had very little trust in anyone but himself. And yet he managed to enjoy himself, to live his life to the fullest. Chris eyed Ezra on the base path, noting the sophomore crouched low, his weight evenly balanced so that he could either dive back to first or run forward and steal second; duck for cover or boldly move on. Ezra was the only one who knew which was he would go if he saw that pickoff move coming. But that was only true in this baseball game. Outside of that, Chris was the one who controlled whether he used a pickoff move of his own or not. It was something he would have to think about.

As Ezra ran on the next pitch to the batter, Coach Hamilton noticed that Chris tensed right along with him as it was a close call at second base. They both visibly relaxed as Standish was called safe. They watched in silence for a moment as Ezra attempted to brush himself off from the headfirst slide he was forced to make.

"I'll say one thing for him, he's a slippery son of a gun," Hamilton said, trying to remember that he was supposed to be the role model for these kids and not use foul language around them.

Chris nodded, "But too damn cocky by half. And that's about the only time we'll see the bastard get dirty. Just to make a point." Hamilton again nodded in agreement and thought, 'so much for being a role model'. After a pause, Chris added, "And you can bet that he ain't done. He'll try and take third and home, too, if he can manage it."

Hamilton stared at Chris in disbelief before swiping his own hat off and scratching furiously at his balding pate. "That boy's gonna give me an ulcer. If I don't already have one."

Tossing a smirk at his coach, Chris moved to return to his spot on the bench where he would be better able to watch Ezra on the bases. Fortunately, he did not have to watch the southerner's attempted larceny as Brandon Ensberg hit a solid double and Ezra scored easily. The sophomore was one huge grin as he skipped down the dugout steps and tossed his batting helmet back in its cubbyhole. He came and boldly sat next to Chris on the bench, but the pitcher ignored him. Even so, the two boys were oddly comfortable in their silence as somehow it communicated that there was no hard feelings between them.

The inning produced another run, giving Chris a lead of 3-1 to work with. He would have loved more of a cushion, but figured that was enough for him to finish off the game. He almost rescinded that thought when Tony Castillo got lucky with a bloop single that Scott Barker, his right fielder, lost in the sun. But Chris took comfort from the fact that his infielders simply set up for a double play. And Richard Hayes played perfectly into that scenario with a ground ball right to where the second baseman, Kent Jackson, was positioned between first and second. Kent fed the ball to Ezra who was covering second. The shortstop caught the ball keeping his foot firmly on the bag then, stepping off to get out of the way of Castillo, moved to throw the ball on to first. But Castillo changed the path of his foot first slide so that he swept the legs out from under Ezra. The sophomore managed to get the throw off and on target enough that a stretching first baseman, Jay Everett, was able to make the out.

Chris only registered that fact in the back of his mind. What filled his vision was the sight of Ezra lying on the ground rolling slightly in pain. The southerner had hit the ground hard, most of the impact taken on his right shoulder. Chris ran over to Ezra's side, noticing for the first time the blood that stained the small tear in his uniform pants from where Castillo's spikes caught him. As he knelt down next to Ezra, Chris threw a lethal glare at Castillo who wisely backed away.

"Ezra?" Chris called as he hesitantly leaned in to get a glimpse of the younger boy's face. Ezra's eyes remained squeezed shut but he answered, his drawl even thicker in his pain, "It's my shoulder. Think it's dislocated."

Chris nodded as he looked over to where Coach Hamilton ran out to join him. "Coach is coming," he paused a long second, "Ya done good, Ezra."

Standish managed to force one eye open in surprise even as his face remained a grimace of pain. Chris gave him a weak smile, which Ezra managed to mirror ever so slightly. Patting Ezra's uninjured shoulder lightly, Chris added, "And don't worry. I'll make those bastards pay."

Again Ezra managed a weak grin, "I have no doubts to that, Chris."

Coaches Hamilton and Garner ran up then and knelt on either side of Ezra. As they talked to him, Chris stood and stepped out of the way. After a brief consultation, Hamilton and Garner stood and between them were able to get Ezra to his feet, which brought a loud cheer from the crowd. Supporting him as much as possible and trying not to further jar his shoulder, they walked Ezra off the field and over to Garner's car so that the coach could drive the sophomore to the hospital. Chris wandered back over to the pitcher's mound as he watched them.

Shaking his head, Chris mulled over what drove Standish to do the things he did. Then what was even more amazing to Chris was that Ezra did not hold a grudge when people retaliated. Oh, he would get revenge if he could, but more often than not, he just took things in stride and just kept on going. It was like he just returned to first and looked for another opportunity to advance himself, ever mindful of those pickoff moves that would put him out of the game. Chris took his cap off and again ran his hand through his blond locks. No, he did not think that he would ever be able to figure Standish out, and he truly irritated the hell out of him, but he just did not think that he could pick him off, could not throw him off of the team of seven that they had built in their lives. He would probably come to regret that, but for now he knew it was the right thing.

But for now the pitcher could not understand why Ezra had felt the need to antagonize the entire Colts team. Chris had never known Ezra to do anything so risky that would not benefit himself. Well, there had been the time when the school was being held hostage but that was an unusual situation with lives on the line. And even then no one was more surprised than him to find out the truth behind what Ezra had done to save J.D. and all of them. Chris found a great deal of respect for the southern sophomore that day. Problem was that every day afterwards Ezra seemed to work at discarding that respect. Like today, the only benefit Ezra could have gotten from his ribbing of the opposing team would have been the fact that he succeeded in pissing Chris off.

And it had worked all too well. It had led to Ezra being put in the game and put in a situation where the other team could retaliate against him. Chris smiled, as he rubbed hard at the new ball Brad had tossed him. Chris liked retaliation and he only had to go through seven more batters in the next three innings until he got back around to Tony Castillo. Chris figured he could then teach Castillo that no one took out one of his players, or one of his friends, without having to then deal with him.

Larabee finally got to face Castillo again in the ninth with one out and nobody on the bases. The score was still 3-1 and there really was not much hope that the Colts would be able to come up with a couple of runs. Coach Hamilton told the team during the eighth inning that Ezra's dislocated shoulder had been reduced and that Garner already took him back to the school where he was doing fine. Chris became unhittable, but mysteriously developed a bit of a wild streak. And while it did not cost him any runs it did send a few of his pitches sailing away from Brad. When the catcher went to the mound to see if everything was okay with Chris the only reply he received was, "I'm just setting 'em up." Brad had left it at that and was really looking forward to the end of this game because he sensed that Chris' meaning was that he was intentionally appearing wild so that he would have an excuse if any of his pitches "accidentally" hit someone.

The first pitch to Castillo was a low slider that was so far off the plate that Tony danced out of the way of it. He glared over at Chris as he stepped back into the box. Chris met his glare and held it for several seconds before going into his windup. This ball sailed high and Castillo did an undignified dive into the dirt to avoid it slamming into his batting helmet. He did not stay down for long. Scrambling to his feet, too fast for Brad to stop him, Castillo charged the mound. Chris dropped his glove in the style of a hockey player prepping for a fight, but did not budge from where he stood on top of the mound. He just stood there, arms loose at his sides and a well satisfied and mocking smirk on his face. Castillo did not stand a chance but came on anyway. As he approached the mound, Chris moved quickly and grabbed him in a headlock and then landed a few hard punches to the other boy's face. Castillo struggled to free himself, but his wild swings were easy enough for Chris to avoid. But by this time both benches had cleared and the field was a swarm of bodies.

Not many more punches got thrown and the brawl was dispersed fairly easily. When the press of bodies was cleared, Chris and Tony were still in the middle of it. If Tony's nose was not outright broken, he was bleeding profusely from it and Chris had a bloody lip but no other marks on him. The umpire took one look at both boys and yelled, "You're both out of here!", throwing them out of the game for their conduct.

Chris and Tony exchanged looks and Tony would have rolled his eyes but even that hurt too much. Instead they helped each other to their feet. Tony looked at Chris and mumbled through swollen lips, "Good game. Just get that guy to shut up next time."

Chris smiled then winced as that pulled on torn flesh. "Yeah, good game. And you've got a better chance of ever getting another hit off of me than I do of shutting Ezra up."

Tony nodded, deciding it was best to ignore the jibe in Chris' statement. There would be a next game and they could start it all up fresh there. Right now he just wanted to go soak his entire face in ice. As he walked off the field, he reminded himself that if there were a next time, he would have to remember that trick of throwing his helmet at Chris first. Maybe that would distract the pitcher enough that Tony could get some actual punches in. Maybe.

Not a word was said to Chris as he made his way into the dugout and gathered up his stuff. His players could respect his protection of them. Ezra might have deserved some retribution from the Colts, but a bad take down like that could have led to a serious injury. But then getting hit by a 90+ mph fastball could lead to a serious injury as well, but only Chris knew if he was actually trying to hit Castillo or not. The bottom line was that if one team was going to play rough then they had to expect the other team to answer. And while Hamilton would officially chastise Chris, he applauded him as well; a pitcher had to protect his players. As he stepped out of the dugout, Chris nodded to his coach, knowing that there would be a lengthy discussion about this later. Right now he just wanted to get back to the school and see how Ezra was doing.

+ + + + + + +

Chris strode down the hallway of the sophomore floor and was not surprised to see Buck waiting for him outside Vin and Ezra's room. "How's he doing?" he asked.

Buck shook his head, a small admiring smile gracing his face. "Sleeping. Docs gave him something for the pain and it took him out like a light. But he'll be fine. Little sore for a while, but I doubt that'll slow him down."

Chris nodded gratefully. "Where's J.D.?"

"He got bored with waiting so I think he's down in his room, probably on the internet. I told him not to go to any of the good sites unless I was there." Both boys laughed at that. Chris again winced as the laughter pulled open his split lip.

"Looks like Ez wasn't the only one who got into something there at the game," Buck commented with a knowing smile.

"You want to hear all about it?" Chris asked teasingly.

"You know I do, pard, you know I do," Buck answered clapping Chris on the back and steering him back over to the stairwell. "Let's just get you cleaned up and then you can tell me how it is that you and Ez can manage to come back from a sissy baseball game looking like shit when Josiah and I play the real man's game of football and come out without a scratch on us."

Chris pulled the uninjured side of his mouth up in a wicked half smile as he tilted his head to the side, "Well, obviously you're doing something wrong."


Comments To: mercurialfire@mail.ev1.net

On August 4, 1993, Nolan Ryan, then playing for the Texas Rangers, hit Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox with a pitch. Ventura, who is 20 years younger than Ryan, charged the mound. Ryan waited for him, grabbed him in a headlock with his left arm and punched Ventura's head with his right fist until the Rangers' catcher Ivan Rodriguez was able to pull Ventura away from Ryan.

For a picture and an interesting take on the subject please read http://z.lee28.tripod.com/sbnsperspectives/id13.html

For a better understanding of what exactly a pickoff move is please read this explanation on Wikipedia.com. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pickoff_move