By Jacob Rudner
The players quietly boarded the bus crested with two Pilots logos on the front windows. They sat down, the lights turned off and the soft, gentle, hum of the engine replaced the group's silence as the bus began its journey from Wilson, North Carolina back to Hampton driving the two and a half hours away from the team's 10-3 loss to the Wilson Tobs.
But, through the darkness and disrupting the engine's buzz was the Pilot's manager, Hank Morgan. He stood quietly and walked to the center of the bus.
"Let's talk," Morgan said gently. "I'm not here to lecture you. I told you we'd work to treat you like professional ballplayers. Sometimes though professionals need to do some housekeeping and we have some housekeeping to do."
His message was sharp and succinct. It talked about the nuances of the game and how best to deal with a loss: where to pull lessons from and how to leave certain parts at the field. He addressed respect for the game in the sense of togetherness.
"We are a team and need to work like one a little better sometimes," Morgan said.
The message on the dark bus was universally heard. The words were clear and the players, faceless in the darkness, nodded their heads in agreement with their manager.
The Pilots were tasked to play baseball with their ears for each game they lost they strayed from the path set by Morgan. They needed to take control of each game.
"Baseball is the only game on the planet where the defense possesses the ball," Morgan said. "The ball is in your hands so let's take control of this ball games."
As that night gave way to the next morning, the sun rose to signify change and forget. The loss the night before was lost with previous night's moon and the task at hand became the Wilmington Sharks. However, the opponent was half the battle, a clean ballgame was the simple yet complicated other half of the equation.
It would begin on the mound.
The pitching performance that struggled with control and getting outs the night before would have to throw strikes and command the plate. Hank Morgan's nightmare had come in the form of walks for the majority of the previous week. Against the Sharks and after his speech or control on the diamond, he wanted to see none of it Wednesday night.
Second to the pitching would be the bats.
In Wilson it was a swing and miss show. The Pilots struck out nine times in the first five innings alone and the swings for the fences came up as empty as a Chick-Fil-A on a Sunday. On Wednesday the hope was for level headed at-bats, swings that worked for the player before and after the one at the plate and something that would just put the ball in play.
They did all of that.
The Pilots won the game 11-5 and improved to 3-3 on the year. Their six hits and 19 batters reaching base on either a walk, a hit by pitch, error or strikeout in the dirt.
In many ways it was a vast improvement over the previous day and it became abundantly clear that the nighttime speech on the bus had an effect on the team.
The win also, however, brought the question of team identity into the spotlight.
The Pilots have played with dual personalities in the very juvenile 2019 season. In some games, like the one in Wilson, the swings have been for the fences and each player in the lineup appeared to play separately and on a different page than the next.
But, in a lot of ways a baseball lineup is like a sentence. Each word or player needs to work with the next to form a cohesive group of words. There are no periods in a middle of a sentence and if there were it wouldn't work.
A lineup works in the same way. When there are periods in between the words or the players, the lineup, like the sentence, is dysfunctional.
Put the words and the players together, have the hitters working to move each other over and in, and the team works with no breaks in the order.
So, for the Pilots, these next few days will be about discovery and learning. How can they win ball games and maintain a fluid and coherent sentence like approach at each ballgame, not just a few games in a row. On Wednesday, the day after a nighttime talk from their coach, they appeared to figure that out.