Masks of October

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Tucker Alexander Gentry, known throughout the baseball universe as Tag, squatted behind home plate. His thigh muscles burned. He glared at the pitcher on the mound.

The entire season had come down to this moment. Game seven of the National League Championship Series. Top of the ninth inning. Two outs. The Columbia Gems were up by one, and Tag meant to keep the score that way. The tying run was on second base—some cocky wiseass New York had recently called up from Triple-A for the postseason. The go-ahead run was on first.

And Adam Chrestler, the Gems’ closing pitcher, was shaking off Tag’s signals. The oversize digital scoreboard played stupid cartoon graphics behind Chrestler’s head. The ballpark was so silent Tag thought he heard the hot dog vendor on the third-base side of the stadium scouring his grill.

Tag thrust his hand between his splayed thighs and flashed the sign for a slider. Do not pitch a fastball. Chrestler’s slider was working. And the batter at the plate could knock a fastball out of the park.

If that happened, the Gems would hang up their cleats until spring. If not, the team would go to the World Series. Only one out away.

Don’t think ahead. One game at a time.

If Chrestler threw a fastball, Tag would personally break a couple of the pitcher’s fingers.

Chrestler released the ball. The hitter swung. The bat met the ball—loud as a firecracker—but not with the distinctive sound only made by the sweet spot on a maple bat connecting with cowhide. The batter had gotten under the pitch. Long fly ball. Leisurely sailing toward right field. The sole shooting star against the black backdrop of the nighttime sky.

The right fielder adjusted his cup and positioned his body for the catch. The play should have resulted in an easy out, but the ball smacked his glove before it bobbled to the grass.

The fans groaned, but Tag barely heard them. He focused on the punk who tagged up at second and headed for third. Tag threw off his mask and readied himself to protect home plate. Yep. The New York third-base coach was waving the punk home.

Shit, he was fast.

Tag stood directly behind the plate, silently cursing the rule change that prevented him from blocking the base. He wasn’t taking any chances the out would be overturned because he’d messed up. Because he was going to make the out. Ensure his team would go to the World Series.

The ball rocketed in from right field. Punk’s teeth flashed in a cocky grin the second before he went into his slide

Tag stretched himself to catch the ball that was zooming toward him. The punk was sliding. Dust and chalk from the base path were like a jet contrail pluming behind him.

The ball landed in Tag’s mitt, stinging his palm ever so slightly. He lunged forward, twisted ever so slightly, and tagged Punk’s foot before it touched the base. The ump called the out.

Punk’s cleats connected with the back of Tag’s right knee where his leg guards didn’t cover. Retracted ever so slightly, and then slammed the spot anew with the full force of Punk’s body behind it.

It didn’t matter. The game was over. The Columbia Gems had won the National League Pennant and were World Series bound.

Tag’s teammates burst from the dugout and jumped him. Pounded his back. Danced around home plate. Fireworks exploded in the no-man’s land behind the scoreboard, and a sulfuric stench from the gunpowder wafted into the stadium.

Tag’s throat was dry from the billowing dust and all the whooping. He couldn’t wait to get into the clubhouse and pop open the champagne management had on ice for just this occasion. It was sure going to taste mighty fine.

His teammates finally decided to let him up. He tried to stand.

His first clue something was wrong was the way his right leg wouldn’t support him. The second indication was the pain that stole his breath and a sense of wetness. He hadn’t been doused with the water bucket—that honor was reserved for the manager—so he looked down. And nearly puked.