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Michelle Willingham

Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

Click here to read Chapter 1

“Number 301, you’re up!”

Maddie Daniels took a deep breath and stepped onto the gym floor, flexing her fingers inside her softball glove. Her palms were sweating, and her heart pounded as she tried to ignore the whispers behind her.

What’s a girl doing at baseball tryouts? She should be playing softball.

I bet she’ll miss every ball.

She waited while the coach checked his clipboard, and crazy thoughts tangled up inside her. This had been a stupid idea. Why had she decided to try out with the boys instead of the girls? 

Anybody could try out for County baseball—there weren’t any rules against it. But now, everyone was staring at her. Her cheeks burned at the attention, and Maddie tried to act like she didn’t notice.

They stared at you in softball too, her brain reminded her. The girls who were on her team last year might as well have been from a different planet. They wore their hair in ponytails and braids with sparkly glitter bows. Their cleats were new, not from the thrift store like hers. Worst of all, nobody had talked to her in the dugout.

But the biggest reason why she wanted to play baseball with the boys was because her dad liked the sport better. He always went to her older brother Mike’s games. Last year, he’d even been an assistant coach on Mike’s high school team and had never missed a game.

Mom had been the one to drive her to all the softball games and practices. But she spent more time playing games on her phone than watching what happened on the field. Sports weren’t her thing.

Not like Dad. But maybe this year would be different. Maddie was sure that if she played baseball, Dad would switch with Mom and come to her games more often—especially since he wasn’t coaching this year.

She imagined her dad yelling from the stands, “Let’s go, Maddie! You got this!” He would stand along the outfield fence, and when she made it on base, he’d take off his baseball hat and wave it.

But first, she had to make the team—and not just any team. She wanted to be selected for the County Minor League team, the highest division for ten-year-olds. After watching some of the boys try out ahead of her, she was sure she could keep up with them. The question was, would the coaches think so, too?

“Are you ready?” the coach called out.

Maddie raised her hand and nodded. As ready as I’ll ever be. She punched her glove and got ready for round one. The low buzz of conversation grew hushed, as if everyone was staring at her. A line of coaches stood on the far wall, each one holding a clipboard, ready to judge her skills. On her back, she wore the number 301 safety-pinned to her T-shirt.

Her heart started pounding harder, and she took a shaky breath. You’re the only girl here. Nobody believes you can do anything.

She shoved back the wimpy thoughts and locked them up inside her brain. Then she turned and sent a little smile toward the line of boys as if to say, Watch me.

Maddie nodded to the coach, and he called out, “Go!” With the crack of a bat, he struck the baseball high into the air. She watched it sail toward her, and she lifted her glove high in the air. Thunk. A little smile of satisfaction crossed her face when she easily caught the ball.

The next pop fly went high over her head, and she had to run hard, glove outstretched. She barely caught it, nearly falling over as she lost her balance. But she kept it in the glove with her other hand. This time, she had to toss the ball farther, and she pointed her glove toward the coach as she pulled back and threw hard.

The low noise of conversation returned, and she was sure the boys were talking about her. Good. Let them talk.

She had a feeling that the coach would hit the next ball short, and she darted forward, moving her glove sideways to catch the last fly ball before it hit the gym floor. After she tossed it back to the coach, she returned to the ready position with her knees bent, her glove poised to catch.

All three caught. Let’s go.

This time, the coach hit a grounder across the gymnasium floor. She ran hard toward the ball, but it bounced off her glove and rolled to the wall. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, but the coach called out, “Stay with it!” She scooped it up, charged forward, and threw it back again.

The next ground ball went easier, and this time, she fielded it cleanly. The last one was a slow ball, and she raced toward it, zipping the ball back to the coach before she returned to the end of the line. The boys were whispering more than ever, but she pretended not to hear them. She’d done her best, and now, all she could do was wait for the batting.

Her nerves were starting to settle down, and she thought maybe she had a chance at making the team. But why couldn’t Dad be here to watch? Mom was sitting in the front row of the bleachers, her eyes intent upon her phone. She was jabbing at the screen, playing another game.

She hadn’t watched any of the tryouts. As usual. 

Maddie stiffened, reminding herself that this was typical. Mom didn’t like baseball or care about sports. But at least she’d agreed to let her try out. 

 “Why’d you decide to play baseball?” the boy in front of her asked. He was bigger than the other boys and had an air of confidence. His brown hair was buzzed close to his skull, and there was a slight frown on his face. “You’re the only girl here.”

Maddie shrugged. “I just wanted to do something different, that’s all.” With a grin, she added, “At least, in baseball, the boys don’t cry if they strike out.”

“Yeah, they do.” The boy nodded toward the end of the line. “At least, Dylan does. He strikes out all the time.”

Maddie glanced over at the skinny kid with bright red hair. “Why does he play if he’s so bad?”

“His dad makes him play, because he’s one of the coaches. Dylan doesn’t want to, but every year, it’s the same. His dad signs him up whether he wants to play or not. So he’ll be on Minors this year.”

Maddie didn’t think that was fair. “Shouldn’t he play rec league instead?” At least then, he’d be with other boys who were just playing for fun. “Won’t he get killed on the field?” Some of the boys were throwing at fifty-five miles per hour. And at a pitching distance of forty-two feet, it felt more like seventy miles per hour.

“Tell that to his dad.” The boy turned around, and Maddie realized he was wearing an Elite jersey with the last name Pinkney on the back. She vaguely remembered him catching pop flies right before her turn, but she’d been trying to calm down and hadn’t paid attention. If he’d been on Elite last season, then he’d definitely make the Minors team—unless they drafted him up to Majors with the eleven and twelve-year-olds.

The coaches called out for everyone to get their bats and batting helmets. Maddie ran over to her mom and reached for her bag. The moment she unzipped it, horror washed over her.

“Mom, what did you do?”

Inside the athletic bag was a bright pink batting helmet. She hadn’t worn it since she was seven years old, back when she’d actually liked pink. There was no way she could wear pink, or all the boys would laugh at her. It was why she’d packed Mike’s old black helmet.

“Where’s the helmet I put in here?” She gripped her bat hard, praying that it was somehow in the car. But when Mom looked up from her phone, Maddie knew. 

No. Oh, no, she didn’t.

“Maddie, there’s nothing wrong with your own helmet. Mike’s doesn’t fit you. It’s too big, so I put it back in the garage.”

“But this one is pink!” She would rather go with no helmet at all than wear a pink one. Or even a boy’s disgusting sweaty helmet.

“You wore that one all last season. It fits you fine, and besides, it’s cute on you.”

Cute? Was she crazy? Cute was for fuzzy bunnies or puppies. Never baseball.

“Mom, please. I’ll go to the end of the line,” she begged. “Please, please, please drive home and get the black one.” They only lived ten minutes away from the gym. There was still time to switch the helmets. “I’ll scrub toilets for a month, if you’ll do this for me, I swear!”

But her mother only sent her a hard look. “Why would you wear a helmet that makes it hard to see, when you’ve got one that fits you fine?”

Because I’ll look like a walking piece of bubblegum. No way could she do this. In desperation, she blurted out, “Then I’m not wearing a helmet.”

Her mother’s expression shifted to the No-Nonsense Look of Death. In a quiet voice, she said calmly, “You’ll wear the pink one, Maddie, or we go home.”

“They’re going to make fun of me,” she muttered.

Her mother only sent her a tired smile. “The color of your helmet’s got nothing to do with the way you bat, Maddie. You’ll be fine.”

The boys were lined up, and her stomach twisted as if she were about to throw up. Maddie picked up the pink helmet as if it were a dead cockroach and trudged back to the end of the line.

Why would Mom do this to me? Doesn’t she know what they’re going to say? She wanted to die right now. Maybe a tornado would hit the gymnasium and they’d have to reschedule tryouts. Or maybe she could accidentally (on-purpose) lose the helmet before it was her turn to bat. Should she throw up in the helmet? Then she’d never be able to wear it again. Maybe…

The skinny redhead named Dylan came up behind her. “Pink, huh?”

“Mom packed the wrong one. I’ll trade if you want.” She held her helmet by two fingers, grimacing.

But Dylan handed her his own. “You could wear mine.”

Maddie thought about it. She even took it from him until he added, “I just got rid of the head lice last week. It should be fine.”

“Ew!” She dropped his helmet, her skin crawling at the thought. The idea of wearing a helmet with tiny lice eggs grossed her out.

But Dylan only laughed at her. “You actually believe that?”

“That’s nasty.” The idea of wearing his helmet was creepy, so she put the pink helmet under one arm.

“Nah, I’ve never had lice. And I’m Dylan Carter, by the way.”

“I’m Madeline.” She didn’t tell him that most people called her Maddie. Her brother called her Mad Dog when he was in a teasing mood. But a secret part of her liked the name Madeline because it was pretty.

“Can you bat as well as you field the ball?” Dylan asked.

“Sometimes.” The nerves were coming back. It looked like the kids were batting off a tee into a net at the first station. Then at the next station, one of the coaches would soft toss the ball, and they had to hit it into another net.

“Hey, you’d better get back to your spot in line. They don’t like it when we get out of order. It makes it harder for the coaches to draft us.” Dylan pointed, and Maddie saw that the Elite kid named Pinkney was heading for the tee. His bat connected with the ball with an explosive hit. Three times, he sent the ball rocketing through the net.

He was one of the best hitters she’d ever seen. Her stomach gave another leap, and Maddie hurried back to her original place in line. Before she realized it, they were calling out, “301!”

This was it. Her big chance to prove that she was every bit as good as the boys. She put on the horrible pink helmet and took her stance, ready to smack the ball off the black rubber tee. With a solid whack, her bat bumped against the tee, and the ball fell to the ground.

Oops. The ball rolled a few feet away, and the coach put another one on the tee. “Try again.”

This time, she missed the tee entirely, swinging wildly. Panic rushed through her, and she wanted to screech at herself. What’s the matter with you? You hit off the tee all the time! Stop freaking out and hit the ball!

The last swing connected with the ball, but it wasn’t good. She bit her lip, trying not to let her feelings show. All hopes of making the Minors team were gone now. She was sure the coaches were crossing her name off their clipboards. Who wanted a player who couldn’t even hit off the tee—an unmoving target?

No one, that’s who.

Numbly, she walked to the soft toss station and waited for the first ball. She made contact, but it was a baby hit that landed in the net. 

All of a sudden, her frustrations gathered up into a tight knot. She saw that her mom was playing on her phone again. The pink batting helmet seemed to clench her skull, and when the ball released, Maddie swung as hard as she could. A loud crack resounded, and the ball flew into the back of the net. There. That was better.

The last hit ricocheted off the metal frame and bounced back into her stomach. She didn’t even know how it was possible to foul a ball off the net, but her gut ached from where the ball had hit her.

“You okay?” the coach asked, and she nodded, returning to her place in line. The last part of tryouts was the running. She was reasonably fast, so she wasn’t worried about that at all. 

But she knew her batting had been awful. Only Dylan’s was worse, because he missed every ball. He went to the end of the line, and his teeth were clenched. Maddie hung back from the others, and he came to stand beside her.

“I hate this game,” he gritted out. She didn’t know what to say, especially after the Elite boy, Pinkney, had told her that Dylan’s dad was one of the coaches. It didn’t matter if he liked or hated the game. He was going to play baseball on the Minors team.

“It can be fun,” she ventured. “Especially on a sunny day.” She’d always liked the feeling of wind on her face as she ran around the bases.

“I suppose you actually want to play.”

“I was hoping to make Minors,” Maddie admitted. “But it’ll never happen. Not with the way I batted.”

“Couldn’t be worse than mine.” He let out a frustrated sigh.

That much was true. But she offered, “I suppose there’s one good thing, though.”

“What’s that?”

“At least you don’t have head lice.” Turning back, she returned to her place in line and got ready to run.

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Full Description

When Maddie Daniels tries out for a County League baseball team, she’s worried about being the only girl. She wants to play at the highest level so her dad will finally notice her—but none of the boys will talk to her. And when someone starts playing pranks in the dugout, she knows they want her to quit.

But Maddie is determined to show the boys what she’s made of by becoming an amazing pitcher. Despite their tricks, she won’t give up, because play-offs are around the corner. Can she prove to the boys that she has what it takes to be the best? Or will their lack of trust cost them the championship?

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