Every week this series gives hardcore baseball lovers a little something to chew on while still managing to be thoroughly entertaining. This time the subject is “hiding the ball” – which is one of the practical implications of Eijun using Kataoka’s “build a wall” mantra with the towel drill. It’s not the hidden ball trick, which someone actually tries about once a decade, but the way a pitcher uses his arm swing to hide the ball behind his body and keep the hitter from seeing his grip and release point for as long as possible. Some guys are better at it than others, but for those that are really good at it this can be a real advantage.
Of course what we see in this episode is that the catcher also has a hard time picking up the ball, and for a second-year high schooler who’s never caught a pitcher using the delivery Eijun is using here that’s a major problem. Not that Eijun is throwing strikes anyway – the hard truth is that throwing a baseball is a lot different than pretending to throw a towel. Taking the long way around, all of this is a conspiracy of events that lead up to the long-awaited return of Chris to the diamond at long last. It’s a pretty dramatic moment when he dons the mask and takes the long walk onto the field, much to Eijun’s delight – but the truth is, Chris isn’t willing to do that until he’s reassured by the guys who’ve been practicing every day that it’s OK for him to leapfrog over them and get into the game. Such are the personal politics of Japanese high school baseball.
It’s at this point when Ace of Diamond has what I’d call a “Shounen Jump moment” – probably its first. Chris’ gambit of calling in all the outfielders is a pretty far-fetched one (it certainly gets a rise out of his young teammates) – you’d only ever really see it in last at-bat situation where one run will win the game – though I did get the psychology behind it immediately. With a wild pitcher on the mound (two walks, one HPB, no strikes) goad the clean-up batter into being overanxious by disrespecting him. As unrealistic as it is this is the sort of stunt that might actually work with high-schoolers, and it does here – after Chris has Eijun show the batter another wild one with the towel drill delivery, he has Eijun serve up a fastball down central using his old delivery, and the off-balance hitter taps weakly into a double-play (started by the brilliant Haruchin). After that Chris picks the runner off third, taking advantage off the fact that he’s straying far off the bag hoping for a wild pitch.
Chris’ shoulder certainly looks fine here, but I have an uneasy feeling about where all this is going. Once word gets out that Chris is playing in the second-string game most of the first-stringers rush over to watch (led by Miyuki) – all except for the current #2 catcher and Haurchin’s brother Ryousuke, who reveals that the real reason for his hostility is that his “shadow” of a younger brother is always threatening to eclipse him. Miyuki seems genuinely hopeful that Chris will miraculously win his old job back from him, but I don’t see much chance of that happening – and it’s very possible that Chris’ father is going to pop a vein next week after he sees what’s been going on.
The bottom line for Eijun is simple – he’s made a convert of the coach with his persistent determination and spirit, and intrigued him with the potential of his unique set of baseball skills. The trick now is that he’s going to have to actually be able to “build a wall” with his right arm and throw strikes with his left, and not even Chris can do that for him. But it does seem a virtual given now that Hariuchi and Eijun will be the two rookies called up to the first-string. I’ll repeat, though, that if Chris really were to be returning to action, that would seem to present a numbers crunch – I suppose he could simply replace the backup catcher who’s already part of the 18 first-team players, but it seems more likely that it’s evidence he’s not going to be playing with the first-string in the Koshien qualifying.