STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When stepped in at home plate and stared out toward the mound, he wanted to smile, to laugh, to maybe give a hug to the kid out there in the middle of the diamond with the heater hiding in his powerful right arm. Lavisky had stepped in 252 times already this season, in Ohio and Michigan and Kentucky, in Indiana and Wisconsin, even right here in Pennsylvania, but this one was a little different.
He was looking out at Stetson Allie, his old friend, his old teammate.
But 60 feet and six inches away, Allie had no plans to smile or laugh or trot in and give a hug to the young man who reined in his fastballs on the way to a state championship. Allie had already blocked out the music that blared over the speakers in Lubrano Field, had blocked out the sound effects from cartoon shows that squeaked between every pitch. He paid no attention to the fans, to his fielders, even to the faces on the batters who dared to get a hit off him.
Allie knew he was going to pitch last Friday night to Lavisky, but, to be honest, he had no idea.
Such is the difference between starting pitchers — creatures of habit who rarely talk with the media, their teammates or even the trainers loosening them up in the clubhouse or out in the outfield during the hours leading to their turn on the mound — and every other player on the field.
Lavisky had a desire to slap his friend on the back, then slap a hit down the line.
Allie had a desire to get another out.
That Lavisky and Allie managed to face each other at all during their rookie seasons as professionals out of is a small miracle.
Lavisky was drafted in the eighth round last year by the Cleveland Indians and opened the season with the Lake County Captains in Eastlake, the organization’s Low-A full-season affiliate. Allie opened his in extended spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates down in Bradenton, Florida. Every day, they walked onto playing fields thousands of miles away from each other.
But Lavisky struggled with the Captains. He hit eight home runs and 10 doubles in 49 games, scored 19 runs and drove in 24. His power was obvious. But he hit just .207 and drew nine walks against Midwest League pitching. Indians officials wanted him to tighten his swing.
Eventually, he was sent down to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in Niles.
Allie, on the other hand, was drafted in the second round last year by the Pirates and remained in extended spring training to harness the raw speed of his fastball, rated among the best in the draft, and further develop his slider and his curveball. Pittsburgh media speculated that he might receive a call to open with the West Virginia Power, a Low-A full-season affiliate, but Pirates brass insisted they planned to develop Allie slowly. He had, after all, pitched for only a little more than a year.
Eventually, he received the call up to the State Valley Spikes in Pennsylvania.
The Scrappers and the Spikes both play in the expansive New York-Penn League, the highest level of short-season baseball anywhere in the minors. The league stretches from Vermont down to Connecticut, through Brooklyn and Staten Island and across Pennsylvania, all the way to Ohio. It is old and storied. More than 100 teams and tens of thousands of players have been a part of it over the last 72 years.
Lavisky and Allie are two of the latest.
“It was awesome catching up with him,” Allie said. “I haven’t been home in forever, and seeing someone from home, playing with him — in a different uniform — it was pretty awesome. We definitely have a good friendship, but we’re definitely competitive when we play each other.”
“It was more exciting,” Lavisky said. “My smile turned into a big glare when I got in there. You have to take it seriously. I don’t want him to get me out and he doesn’t want me to go yard on him. So it was definitely different, more serious, but at the end of the day, we’re friends.”
The two former Eagles had faced each other one time previously, at the 2009 Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field. “We got split up on different teams and he came in to close and he walked me,” Lavisky said. “From then to here, he’s a lot better.”
That much was clear during almost every pitch Allie fired during his four innings. The Pirates are keeping him on a strict pitch count this season — because he is so new to pitching, he will rarely, if ever, top 60 pitches in any start — but he is now far less a thrower than he is a pitcher. Against the Scrappers, he allowed an earned run on five hits over four innings; only two of the hits left the infield. He struck out five and hit a batter.
He also forced Lavisky into a grounder to short in the first and a swinging strikeout on three straight sliders in the third.
“It was just like facing any other batter,” Allie said. “But it meant a lot to me to get him out.”
By the time the Spikes won, 4-3 in 12 innings, Allie was long out of the game.
Will Lavisky have another crack at Allie this season? The teams are scheduled to play July 19 and 20 in Niles, and July 21 and 22 in State College, but there are no guarantees for another couple of at bats. Allie pitches only every five or six days. Injuries are always a concern. But even if those two at bats, all of five pitches, over in a couple of minutes, were it — for this season or for the rest of their professional careers — they provided a moment to remember. One night together on the same diamond in a college town.
Lavisky wants to climb back to Lake County, on to the Carolina Mudcats, the Akron Aeros, the Columbus Clippers and the Indians. Allie wants to move up to the Power, the Bradenton Marauders, the Altoona Curve, the Indianapolis Indians and the Pirates. Each stop is the equivalent of a passport stamp, proof of your worth on the road to the Majors.
Both Lavisky and Allie are young enough, just 20, to remain optimistic. The odds are against them — the odds are against every minor leaguer, even the most heralded of prospects — but there are, every season, 750 spots on active Major League rosters. Maybe in 2014, in 2015, somewhere in the future, their names will be on them.
Until then, Lavisky said, “It’s awesome to see how much progress he’s making, and to see how much progress I”m making.”