Read an Excerpt
By Matt Christopher
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Matt Christopher
All rights reserved.
Whizz! Swish! Thud!
"Stee-rike two!" The home plate umpire made a fist in the air.
Liam McGrath, twelve-year-old catcher for the Ravenna All-Star team, plucked the baseball from his mitt and threw it back to pitcher Phillip DiMaggio. He licked his lips, tasting the dust that coated them.
"Okay, DiMaggio," he said under his breath. "Let's finish this now."
It was the early evening, top of the fifth inning of the final District tournament game, and the temperature was hovering in the mideighties. Liam was sweating buckets beneath his padded gear and mask. He wiped his damp palm on his pant leg before settling back into his crouch.
The Orchard City batter must have been feeling the heat, too. He mopped his face with the sleeve of his Little League uniform and then resumed his stance in the box.
Orchard City was up by one. It had two outs but also had runners on first and third. One good hit could sweeten its lead.
Liam had no intention of letting that happen. Too much was on the line. The winners of today's game would advance to the Sectional tournament, putting them one step closer to the ultimate youth baseball competition: the Little League Baseball World Series. The losing team would go home, its postseason run at an end. Liam had worked too hard, overcome too many challenges this season, to pack away his gear—and his World Series dreams—after this game.
At the top of his list of challenges was the boy standing on the mound. Liam and Phillip had a long-standing rivalry that dated back to the previous World Series. They'd been on opposing sides then, and battling for the U.S. Championship. Phillip's team won when he struck out Liam in spectacular—and, for Liam, mortifying—fashion.
If anyone had told Liam that one day he'd be Phillip's catcher, he would have said pigs would fly first. And yet here he was, readying himself for DiMaggio's next pitch.
But only because Owen got food poisoning, he reminded himself. Teammate Owen Berg had been slotted to catch. But before the second of a doubleheader, he got violently sick to his stomach.
So the catcher's job fell to Liam. Before the game, he and Phillip agreed to put their past differences aside. They'd stuck to their agreement—sort of.
After Ravenna's first inning in the field, Phillip told Liam there was a problem. "I can't see your signals. Your leg is hiding your fingers. Maybe you could try widening your stance?"
Liam shook his head. "Any wider, and the first-base coach might see the signals, figure out what they mean, and tell the batter."
Phillip gave him a skeptical look. "Are you kidding me?"
"It could happen," Liam said defensively.
Phillip frowned. "Listen, if this"—he bounced a finger in the air between them—"is going to work, you have to listen to me."
The two locked eyes. Tension crackled between them.
Liam looked away first. Few things, he knew, sent a team off course faster than friction between pitcher and catcher. He also knew that a big part of the catcher's job was putting the pitcher at ease. If doing what Phillip asked helped them win the game, then he'd do it.
As it turned out, widening his stance was just one adjustment Phillip asked him to make.
"Can you move your mitt into position sooner? It throws off my timing if I have to wait for the target."
"You're pretty noisy behind that plate. How about a little less chatter after an out?"
"Owen held his throwing hand behind his knee, not his back. Maybe you should try that."
Liam did everything Phillip suggested without complaint. But his temper was rising.
Now they were one strike away from ending Orchard City's scoring threat. Liam flashed the signal for a changeup. Phillip nodded, wiped his face on his right shoulder, and then wound up and unleashed the off-speed pitch. The batter started to swing but then stopped.
To Liam's eye, the ball had just missed the strike zone. So when he made the catch, he twitched his glove a fraction of an inch toward the center. He held his breath, hoping the umpire would think he had caught the ball in the zone.
The official hesitated. Then he made the call. "Ball!"
"Good eye, good eye!" the batter's teammates yelled.
On the mound, Phillip's mouth tightened. He nodded curtly when Liam signaled for another changeup, gave his face another swipe on his shoulder, and then sent the ball on its way. This time, its slow speed fooled the batter into swinging too early.
Fans for Ravenna and Orchard City applauded as the teams switched sides. In the dugout, Liam grabbed his water bottle and sighed with contentment as the cool water soothed his parched throat.
Then Phillip dropped down next to him and his contentment fizzled. Now what? he thought.
"You moved your glove too much on that catch," Phillip said.
Liam couldn't let that one go by. "Excuse me?"
"That first changeup? If you hadn't jerked your mitt when you caught it, the ump would have called it a strike."
Liam bristled. "He would have called it a ball, because that's what it was."
"Oh, yeah? Well, I say it could have gone either way."
Liam was about to tell Phillip he was dead wrong when he noticed a few of their teammates watching them. So he bit back his words and turned his attention to the game.
Second baseman Matt Finch had singled. Now slugger Rodney Driscoll was up. He let the first pitch go by but took a big cut at the second.
The Ravenna players and fans leaped to their feet. The ball soared over the outfield fence—a two-run homer! Ravenna had the lead!
The team looked good to add even more to its side of the scoreboard when Phillip and Liam singled one after the other.
Then Orchard City changed pitchers and the new hurler got the next three batters out in order. When Orchard City's own hitters tried to erase Ravenna's lead, however, Liam and his teammates denied them. Final score: Ravenna 3, Orchard City 2.
The boys filed quickly through the "good game" hand-slap. Afterward, all the players received a special trading pin to commemorate their participation in the District tournament. Then the Ravenna teammates gathered for a photo with the District Champs banner. Finally, they headed to the dugout for a postgame team meeting.
Up until that moment, the boys had held their happiness in check so as not to add to Orchard City's disappointment. But now they broke out in cheers.
"We're going to Sectionals!" Rodney whooped loudest of all.
Just then, Rodney's brother, Sean, ran over with his father's cell phone. "Call for you, Dad," he said breathlessly. "It's Owen's mom."
Dr. Driscoll was the team manager and Rodney and Sean's father. He took the phone from Sean and had a brief conversation. When he hung up, his expression was grim.
"Owen didn't have food poisoning. His appendix ruptured. He's had an operation and will be fine, but he's sidelined for the season."
Liam's heart started beating faster. If Owen's out, does that mean ... I'm in? And if I'm in—his gaze flicked to Phillip—is that good or bad?CHAPTER 2
Carter Jones tossed a pink rubber ball from hand to hand.
"So, doofus, what's your big news, other than your team is going to Sectionals, too?"
Carter was in his bedroom, video-chatting with Liam. Cousins and best friends, they used to hang out together all the time. They used to play baseball together, too, with Liam behind the plate and Carter, a top-notch southpaw, on the mound.
Then last winter, Liam and his family moved from Pennsylvania to Southern California. Now the boys caught up through texting, phone calls, and video- chats. Baseball was the main topic of many conversations—especially now that both of their teams were heading to Sectionals.
"I might be Phillip's catcher from now on," Liam said.
The ball dropped from Carter's hand and rolled under his bunk beds.
Liam had had his trouble with DiMaggio, but so had Carter. Two summers back, Phillip played a practical joke on him during Little League Baseball Camp. At the end of the session, Carter had left bearing a huge grudge against the California pitcher. The idea that his cousin might be catching for Phillip left him cold. He felt even more uneasy about it when Liam told him about Phillip's "corrections."
"Are you kidding me?" he fumed. "Who does he think he is?"
A sharp knock on the bedroom door cut into their conversation. Carter twisted around in his desk chair. "I wonder who that could be."
"Only one way to find out," Liam said.
"Open the door?" Carter guessed.
"No," Liam said, and then bellowed, "Get in here, quick! I need help!"
The door banged open. A blond-haired boy about Carter's height rushed in. "What's wrong?" he cried, his brown eyes darting around wildly.
Liam laughed. "Is that Jerry? Or Charlie? Tell him to get in camera range so I can say hi!"
Jerry Tuckerman and Charlie Murray had played on the Forest Park All-Star team last year with Carter and Liam. But the blond boy wasn't Jerry or Charlie. His name was Ash LaBrie. Liam had never met him—not officially, that is, although he certainly knew who Ash was.
Ash had moved into Liam's old house with his mother last winter. He was the same age as the cousins and, like them, played baseball. This past season, he'd taken over Liam's spot as Carter's catcher.
While no one could ever replace Liam as his favorite catcher, Carter couldn't deny that he and Ash made a good pair. He believed Liam accepted that fact. Still, he couldn't help squirming inside when Ash moved into Liam's view.
Ash spoke first. "So you're Liam. Nice to finally meet you."
"Yeah." Liam's voice was cool. "And you're Ashley."
"Liam," Carter broke in hurriedly, "I told you he goes by Ash. He's just kidding around," he added to Ash. "He does that."
"Oh, right." Ash looked back at Liam. "Congrats on getting on the All-Star team after all. Too bad you're not catching, but outfield is important, too."
Liam's eyes narrowed. "As a matter of fact," he said tersely, "I could be starting at catcher in Sectionals."
"Really?" Ash raised his eyebrows. "No offense, but what are your coaches thinking switching things around like that in the postseason?" He turned to Carter. "I mean, wouldn't it be hard for you if Coach Harrison replaced me as your catcher now?"
Carter bit his lip. Ash was right; it would be a big adjustment for him to make. But he felt caught in the middle. Agreeing with Ash would make it seem as if he thought Liam's playing catcher would be a liability for his team. So he just shrugged.
Ash seemed satisfied with that. "By the way, Liam, what do you think about Carter's killer pitch? Pretty tough to get a glove on it, isn't it?"
Now Carter squirmed even more. His "killer pitch" was a knuckleball, a pitch that practically bounced through the air as it approached the plate. The movement fooled batters but was also tough for catchers to follow.
Ash had learned to handle it after lots of practice. But last month, when Carter had paid a surprise visit to the McGraths, Liam had bobbled every knuckleball he'd thrown.
Carter hadn't told Ash about that, of course. But the look on Liam's face made it clear he thought Ash was making fun of him.
"No offense, Ash"—Liam repeated Ash's own words and emphasized the name with sarcasm—"but Carter and I were having a private conversation here. So ..." He circled his hand in an impatient, tell-us-what-you-want-already gesture.
Ash blinked. "Oh, right. Carter, your mother sent me up to get you. She's in the kitchen with my mom."
"Okay. Liam, I guess I better go." Carter held his fist up to the screen. "Sectionals, man."
Liam glanced at Ash but then raised his fist, too. "Sectionals." Together they bumped the screen three times. Then Liam signed off.
"What was that?" Ash asked, imitating the fist-bump gesture.
Carter shrugged. "Just our way of wishing each other good luck. Come on. Let's go see what our moms want."
Mrs. Jones, a petite brunette with light brown eyes, was pouring herbal tea for Mrs. LaBrie when the boys entered the kitchen.
"Hi, Carter," Mrs. LaBrie greeted. Blond like her son with an athletic build and shrewd blue eyes, she had a slight southern accent that always reminded Carter of a Civil War movie he'd once seen. She took a sip of tea before explaining the reason for the visit. "I'm here to tell you that I had asked your mom for a favor. It seems the person I'd hired to run the Diamond Champs summer programs can't take the job after all."
The Diamond Champs was an indoor baseball facility with state-of-the-art pitching tunnels, batting cages, a full turf infield, and much more. Carter and his friends practically lived there on rainy days.
"I can run the programs myself, of course," Mrs. LaBrie continued. "But that means I can't go to Sectionals."
"So Ash will be staying with us instead," Carter's mother said.
The upcoming tournament was in a town that was three hours away by car. Carter, like most of the players, was staying with his parents at a nearby hotel. Ash and his mother were booked at the same place.
"We've changed the reservation to two adjoining rooms," Mrs. LaBrie said. "You boys can stay in one and Carter's parents in the other."
"And Mrs. LaBrie will take care of Lucky Boy while we're gone," Mrs. Jones put in, referring to Carter's small black-and-tan dog. "So everything's worked out just fine."
"I guess so," Carter replied. Deep down, though, he felt a prickle of apprehension.
Ash could be pretty intense when it came to baseball. Assuming Forest Park advanced to the final game of the tournament, they'd be together for at least three days, maybe four. What would it be like spending every minute of that time—meals, games, practices, free time, bedtime—with someone that intense?CHAPTER 3
Don't say another word until I get the camera rolling!" Melanie McGrath exclaimed.
Liam put his head in his hands and groaned as his sister ran from the kitchen. Well, that was a huge mistake! he thought.
It was Thursday morning, the day after the District win. Liam and Melanie had been having breakfast when Liam mentioned he might be catching for Phillip.
I should have known better, he thought. To her, my problem is just another scene for her movie.
A dark-haired, attractive sixteen-year-old, Melanie was an aspiring actress. Since the move to California, she had attended a private high school that specialized in theater, movies, and television. As a summer assignment, she was making a documentary of Liam's All-Star team. The movie would include clips of postseason games and practices as well as profiles of the coaches and players. But its real focus was Liam and Phillip's "former rivals, now teammates" story. The merest hint of a new angle to that story sent Melanie running for her camera.
Melanie returned a moment later, video camera on and aimed at Liam.
Excerpted from State Showdown by Matt Christopher. Copyright © 2013 Matt Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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