"You could definitely play," Hotta is saying to Shinooka. Her laugh is more a bark than anything else. Shaking her head, she continues putting her gear in her bag.
They're in Kisaragi Girls' clubhouse, clearing out after practice.
After their astonishing season last year, Kisaragi Girls is playing a tough circuit of practice games in order to sharpen their skills for another try at Koshien. Last week, Nishiura had been invited to participate. They'd all watched some videos of Kisaragi Girls' previous games and agreed that this would be a good challenge. Momoe, Hanai, and Shinooka had gone to meet their Kisaragi counterparts to discuss the matter. At the time, Shinooka assumed Nishiura's attendance meant that the practice game was all but confirmed -- she'd read a news article or two about some teams that had refused to even entertain the notion of a game against girls, despite the way they'd proven themselves, over and over, on the field. On the other hand, some schools seemed eager for the novelty of playing girls. In any case, Shinooka was right; the meeting turned out to be a formality.
What had surprised her, though, was being invited to watch their practice the day before the game. The captain, Hayakawa, had stopped Shinooka on the way out, bowed, and said they would be honored to have her there.
She'd imagined it was some reverse psychology tactic: she would take back tales of their prowess and end up demoralizing Nishiura into defeat. Or possibly she'd just been letting Shiga influence her thinking too much. Nevertheless, Momoe had encouraged her to attend.
"Make sure you take lots of notes!" Tajima had said, elbowing her yesterday afternoon when he heard. Abe had immediately shot that down -- "They'll see if she's taking notes, you idiot" -- before telling Shinooka that of course she should use all her powers of observation and then as soon as she got home, report back.
Today, arriving at Kisaragi Girls, she'd felt awkward. But Hotta herself had made a joke about how much knowledge Shinooka was going to bring back for the next day's game. They seemed unworried by the possibility.
As they brought out balls and bats, Hayakawa asked Shinooka if she'd played baseball at all. She shook her head and murmured something about softball.
"That's great!" one of the other players -- Yoshimoto, Shinooka thought her name was -- said. "I was a softball player too." Mita, their shortstop, smiled at her when she told them what position she'd played. And they'd dragged her out onto the field and assigned her partners for drills.
She'd been rusty, of course. She was strong. Cutting the grass and hauling bags of rice and equipment all over the place built muscle. But she was out of practice.
Despite that, the sturdy thunk the ball made as it sank into her mitt made her giddy. Her softball instincts stirred and she couldn't wait until she got a turn at bat.
The Kisaragi team was impressive. The videos had made that clear, and practice only reinforced how skillful they were. Shinooka was loyal to Nishiura, and not a betting person besides; even so, she wouldn't have liked to call the outcome of tomorrow's game.
Hayakawa's pitching was strong, certainly faster than Mihashi's, but Shinooka knew by now that speed wasn't everything. She'd heard about the lightning ball, and Nishiura had replayed the footage of it numerous times. Hayakawa wasn't throwing it today, though. Maybe that was the one thing they didn't want her to get a closer look at.
"How many people do you think will show up tomorrow?" Tokashiki asked during a break. She was the prettiest girl on the team, even prettier than Ochi -- the one who wanted to be a model. She was, Shinooka thought, the weakest athlete, but did manage some competent plays.
"If there are any scouts," Morimura said, grabbing Tokashiki in a headlock and knuckling her skull, "they'll be baseball scouts. Not your kind of scouts! No one's going to make you an idol out of this game, Yoko," she scoffed.
Tokashiki broke free and scowled. "I've already got an agent!" she huffed. "I'm just making him wait until after we win Koshien, remember?" She flipped her hair and added, "It never hurts to get my photo in the paper, though."
Practice continued to feel joyously familiar to Shinooka. Afterwards, when Hotta started suggesting she join their team, the offer was almost unremarkable, the logical result of being back on the field as a player.
"Seriously," Hotta says again to Shinooka, breaking her out of her thoughts. "You could definitely play with us. Don't you think, everyone?" Whether it's because they're polite or they really mean it, they're nodding. "Why do you run around washing their uniforms? Nishiura has a softball team, right? Why didn't you do that?"
Shinooka looks at the ground. She's a little offended. It's not like being the manager is easy, physically or mentally, and she takes pride in doing difficult things well. There's nothing for her to be ashamed of; it's an important job. She's needed. But there's more there, if she's being honest. She can't explain it, even to herself: something about getting burned out, and needing a break, and wondering if she would've been good enough, anyway.
Being the manager isn't giving up, just a different kind of challenge. And she's drawn, like Momoe, to the opportunity to help the new team succeed. Now they're asking why she didn't want that opportunity for herself. But it's too late, she wants to say, I'm settled. I made my decision. I can't abandon the team now.
Hotta shakes her head. "Listen," she urges, "think about it. Give me your e-mail address." She takes out her phone, and, somewhat startled, Shinooka complies.
"Great! I'm going to ask you again, you know," Hotta says, grinning. And Yoshimoto gives Shinooka a thumbs-up.
"Most of us didn't want to play on this team at first. With that idiot coach, who would?" Morimura says. "But we all ended up here in the end. It worked out pretty well!"
Hayakawa's protesting that she actually did want to be on the team, garnering a fierce look from Himuro. There's something there; Shinooka can read it in the freeze in the air.
"Anyway," Yoshimoto says, "thanks for practicing with us!" They finish packing up and Hotta walks her back to the train station.
At least she knows now why they asked her to come. She wonders if they've invited every manager they've encountered so far, if they urged them all to join their team. She stiffens a little at the thought. It would be sheerest hubris to imagine she's special enough to be the sole focus of their attention -- not to mention it would be foolhardy, if they truly are recruiting, to limit their efforts. And yet she had felt special, with their encouragement, Hotta's repeated insistence that she could make a place for herself.
It makes her squirm to admit it, but she doesn't want to not be special, to have those hours spent today be meaningless.
Later that night, she's sitting at her desk, notebook open, pen in hand. She's ready to write down her impressions of the team.
The things coming back to her most aren't things that her team would be interested in. Kisaragi Girls are a unit, more so than being a team would imply on its own; they belong together. They shine with confidence, those girls, radiate it, with each other. That's what she noticed. But also: how strong Hayakawa's arm is. How Hotta is a match for Tajima, both of them small but fiery. She isn't sure that Himuro should be cleanup over Hotta, but maybe they were conscious of the limitations of Hotta's size. Mita's got a tendency to sit at bat, waiting for that one perfect pitch in her favorite spot. Well, Shinooka thinks, beginning to scribble, those are useful pieces of information, after all.
She gets up and makes a cup of tea. Once she's done drinking it, she sends a few messages to some friends on subjects that have nothing to do with baseball. Then she goes to see if perhaps her grandmother wants some tea or a snack. It takes an impatient text from Abe before she types her hasty notes into an e-mail and presses send.
The next day Shinooka wakes up with trepidation. This often happens on game mornings, so she doesn't realize for a while that something's different.
It comes to her while she's in the shower.
She isn't sure she wants Nishiura to win.
This has never happened before; she is loyal. Didn't she compose that long e-mail to Hanai and Abe with her thoughts on the Kisaragi team?
She's done her duty and no one can complain. Yet there it is: she's rooting for the other team.
How can she hide this fact from everyone? She fall backs on cheerfulness, hurling herself into overdrive at the clubhouse: double-checking towels and equipment and fussing until Hanai freezes her with a suspicious look.
Tajima notices and lets out a hearty laugh. "Shinooka doesn't know who to cheer for," he says, undisturbed but much too loud.
She protests, of course, though the blush staining her face undermines it. In the end, Hanai just tells everyone to leave her alone, because it isn't like she's shirking her job or anything.
Right before the game, Momoe pulls her aside and says, "I think I understand." Faced with that intense, sympathetic scrutiny, Shinooka can't say anything. She swallows hard and nods.
"Thank you," she manages in a low tone, a heartbeat later, but Momoe's already turned away to her next task.
The first inning both teams are trying to feel the other out. The pitchers are competent, more than competent, but holding back. They're pitching just strongly enough to get the other team to worry. The batters, too, are cautious; the inning ends with nothing on the scoreboard and each team grudgingly respectful towards the other.
The next two innings are an unbroken chain of strikeouts. Hayakawa shut out all their opponents last season except for their brother school, Kisaragi High. Shinooka thinks that Mihashi's doing well keeping up.
The stalemate breaks in the fourth, with Morimura getting on base. She isn't that ferocious of a hitter, but she can run. Shinooka's heard she'd been in track and field, some kind of star, and wonders how she was persuaded to join the baseball team. At any rate, she's much faster than Izumi. Her legs alone are probably taller than him.
Yoshimoto flubs a sac bunt; Morimura, speedy as she is, doesn't dare budge. Their coach looks kind of grumpy but otherwise doesn't stir. He hasn't been giving signs or advice; he's just slumped there in the dugout, inert. Bizarre. Shinooka feels grateful for Momoe.
Next, Hotta strides to the plate with a cocky greeting. She hefts the bat and grins, a predator. Mihashi looks taken aback, which only makes her grin wider.
After a couple of balls, a strike, and fouling off another ball, Hotta gets a double. Mizutani's just a bit too slow to reach the ball as it drops behind him; Shinooka can see him shaking his head. Maybe he's realized that he's been playing way too shallow out there in left field. She frowns. He saw the data and the videos. What was he thinking? She nods as Mizutani moves himself a bit further back.
Himuro strides up to the plate: nothing but ice, focused and unafraid. When she gets a single, driving Morimura home, she doesn't even smile.
The next two batters are struck out without fanfare; Mihashi seems to be recovering his composure. Nishiura is still not at the top of their game, though; at the bottom of the inning, Izumi strikes out and Sakaeguchi's pop-up arcs directly into Hayakawa's mitt. Suyama manages to get to first, and Tajima bumps him to third, but then Hanai chokes and strikes out, with a huge, ambitious swing that fails to connect. He looks like he wants to crawl under the bench as he walks off the field.
In the fifth, Nishiura defends well and doesn't let Kisaragi increase their lead. Perhaps they've regained their equilibrium; in the sixth, Suyama hurls himself into an acrobatic leap to end a rally from Kisaragi that loaded the bases, and Hanai gets a sweet triple that puts two runs on the board.
The game churns on, with Kisaragi pulling ahead and Nishiura clawing their way back to a tie. Shinooka's developed a nail-biting habit. Two of her fingers are bleeding.
Momoe is giving solid advice as always, but seems more amused than usual. Every now and then she glances over at Shinooka, as if gauging her reaction to the game. Shinooka blushes and darts her eyes away. She still feels guilty about the scene in the clubhouse. What if she'd made the boys feel unappreciated, and it was affecting their play?
In the pause between batters, Shinooka scans the crowd, who now seem more accustomed to their opponents. Early in the game, there were audible gasps of surprise when one of Kisaragi Girls' players made a difficult play or had a good turn at bat. Now the crowd just seems enthralled, raucously cheering for first one team, then the other. At least that's what it sounds like to Shinooka; although they're in Nishiura territory, either Kisaragi Girls' fans have followed them on what is, after all, a highly publicized tour, or they've convinced some to switch allegiance.
The ninth inning begins with the score tied at three runs each. The boys' mood is intense; they're putting in every bit of determination they can. Who will win? Who did she want to win? She still can't decide.
Kisaragi Girls pulls ahead again: Himuro, who's been razor-sharp all game, hits a double. Next is Azuma, the quiet left fielder. Hayakawa's seen her formidable batting, but today Azuma hasn't been able to get on base. The count is 0-2 after two pitches. Azuma's expression is as closed as ever as she fouls off twice, though she pats at her waist in a funny sort of reflex. Mihashi's next pitch is a ball. He's in good shape, not tired despite the tug-of-war the game's been so far. So it's a surprise when the following pitch gets slammed into the outfield. They manage to keep Azuma to a double, but the damage is done as Himuro makes it home. The stadium is roaring; whether the majority is cheering for Kisaragi Girls or coaxing Nishiura into another comeback is anyone's guess.
Mita, the shortstop, keeps the momentum going and singles, but after that, they're stuck. Tokashiki's their weak spot, and strutting up to bat, while a good show of fighting spirit, won't change that. She manages to hit Mihashi's pitch, but slaps it right down the first base line. Oki catches it easily. Daidoji, the catcher, is a more competent batter, but her lack of speed makes whether or not she gets a hit irrelevant. This time, Mihashi strikes her out in three pitches. He's still not sweating; his face is a little pink, but Shinooka thinks that their latest training regime has definitely paid off in increased stamina.
Shinooka blinks as Hayakawa steps up to bat -- the pitcher's practically snarling. Determination rolls off her in almost palpable waves, and Shinooka can guess what she's thinking: a one-run lead isn't enough. It's never safe, and today has been nothing but a back-and-forth challenge to stay ahead. Azuma and Mita are still on base. If Hayakawa can send even one of them home, the team's victory will be that much closer. It's not beyond imagining for a pitcher to save the day, to pull a homer out of nowhere, but it's not happening today. Full count, then a couple of fouls, then Mihashi tricks her into swinging at a ball outside the strike zone to retire the side.
Now Nishiura is also heading towards the bottom of their lineup. Hayakawa, as if feeling regret for breaking the flow of the game, is businesslike but fierce; she doesn't even need the lightning ball. The ending is almost anticlimactic: Abe, the final batter, looking stunned and furious as the third strike on him is called.
Kisaragi Girls have won.
Everyone -- crowd, teams, coaches -- seems to pause for a moment, one slow breath while this sinks in. Then Morimura throws her arms in the air and shrieks. Her legs get her to the mound before anyone else, and she tackles Hayakawa, the pitcher's arms flailing as she topples backwards.
Himuro, Shinooka notices, doesn't join the throng. She casts a glance at them that starts frosty but warms to the tiniest of smiles. Hovering a few steps away like she doesn't quite know how she's gotten there, she looks down at Hayakawa, now under a pile of her teammates.
Hayakawa's smile, Shinooka had noticed the day before, is infectious and almost cringingly open, like a child's. Hayakawa turns this beam on Himuro. Shinooka can see her thawing.
Hayakawa pushes her way out of the tangle of bodies and stands, holding out an arm. Himuro ducks her head, a muddled gesture of reluctance or embarrassment or something else Shinooka can't parse. But she steps in and allows the pitcher to enclose her in a one-sided hug.
Shinooka thinks it's a bit much. After all, this is only a practice game. Then again, so much of the team's history has been stained with uncertainty and hostility. Maybe it's worth celebrating every game, because they know what it feels like to think that each one might be their last. So does every team reaching for Koshien, but at least they can be confident that the team itself will continue the following year. It would be horrible publicity for Kisaragi Girls High School if their team was disbanded now, but Shinooka can well imagine that the players might not feel secure. Maybe it's not gloating, what they're doing on the field, after all.
With a jolt, Shinooka turns her attention to Nishiura, ignored until now. Guilt floods her stomach. They're her team. And yet she'd been more interested in seeing Kisaragi Girls celebrate their victory than offering them condolences. They're quiet as they head out to the field. Kisaragi Girls manage to tamp down their glee enough to bow, but as they stride away they dissolve into hugs and fist pumps and high fives again.
Shinooka hurries after Nishiura as Hanai leads them over to the ouendan. She makes her way to the end of the line just in time to join them in giving thanks. Maybe none of them have noticed her distracted state of mind. She gives her post-game duties extra vigor, picking up towels and dispensing drinks with great energy; belatedly she recalls how obvious that tactic had been that morning, but it's too late to change course.
The team isn't inclined to chatter or linger. That's understandable. They'd lost, after all, never a happy occurrence.
Momoe's post-game analysis is brief. "What do you think was the biggest factor in the score?" she asks. Hanai, clearly feeling like he needs to start the self-deprecation as captain, explains that he'd misjudged Hayakawa's pitching, that he once again got struck out because he'd been too vain, dreaming of a home run when he needed to play small ball.
Momoe puts up a hand to stop him. "That's true, Hanai, and I think all of you need to review your performance carefully. But what was the most important reason you lost?" She turns her head slowly, meeting all of their eyes in turn -- or trying to. Mihashi, no doubt convinced the bulk of the blame is his, won't look up.
"Maybe you thought their hits wouldn't reach you," she said, giving a nod to Mizutani, "or you were sure Hayakawa's pitches couldn't be that hard to get the knack of, after all" -- here she nods at Hanai -- "despite our data. They're a very strong team. You did well to keep the score down as much as you did, but it could've been even worse. Think about why we lost some more. We'll talk about it at practice." Momoe stands up, the conversation over.
Shinooka is relieved that none of the boys look at her as they close up their bags and head for home. It's absurd to feel somehow responsible for the loss. But at the same time, she remembers Tajima seeing in an instant how conflicted the game made her feel. Maybe she undermined Nishiura, somehow, by making them feel unappreciated. Then again, it's not her fault if Hanai keeps trying for the home runs Tajima can't get, or the fielders can't judge how deep to play.
Momoe's waiting for her outside the clubhouse; she's the last one out. "Shinooka," she begins, and suddenly Shinooka is petrified of what Momoe will say, whether it's condemnation or commiseration. She sputters, "I have to go!" and bolts away.
At home, she takes a long bath, closing her eyes and sinking herself down in the tub and trying not to think about anything at all. It's not working very well; her mind's flooded with images from the game. Not of Nishiura's players, but Kisaragi Girls'. Hotta, unflappable, brandishing her bat and waging psychological warfare on Mihashi. Himuro, chilly elegance and power. The way Hayakawa was the heart of the team, as a captain should be. How they'd welcomed her without reservation, assured her she was no different from them. She remembers the camaraderie of her junior high school softball team. They were like that, but more intense; they'd been through the fire already, and would go through it again.
She thinks of their victory hug. She sighs and steps out of the bath.
Afterwards, she's sitting at her desk contemplating homework when her phone beeps. It's a message from Hotta.
"Just keep it in mind," it says, and Shinooka wants to throw the phone across the room and wail, because yes, now she knows she won't be able to keep it out of her mind.