Short of lives depending on you, it’s hard to imagine more pressure than being on the mound in the final inning of a pivotal World Series game. You’re aware that millions are watching, you’re playing in a packed stadium where the energy and tension are palpable, and your teammates’ fate depends largely on your performance. Even for an experienced player like Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara, it’s a lot to face.
In their last inning at bat in Game 4 Sunday night, the Cardinals were trying to close up a two-run Red Sox lead. With two outs, they had a speedy runner, Kolten Wong, on first and a great batter, Carlos Beltran—potentially the tying run—at the plate with a ball and a strike already gone.
Uehara needed one more out for the win. Focused on the batter in front of him, waiting for the sign, he made a blindingly fast pivot and fired off a throw to first base, picking off Wong for the game-ending out.
Pickoffs aren’t something Uehara is known for, and it wasn’t what he had in mind when he made the throw, he explained later. “I was just trying to change the rhythm, and it just happened,” he said. “I was just trying to change the rhythm of my pitching.
It was an example of adaptive energy at its best. Uehara was focused on the most likely path to his goal, the textbook solution of a strikeout, but he kept his thinking open enough to take a step off the path. He knew that doing so would help control the tension and expectations—his own and the batter’s.
But he also knew to carry out even a rhythm-changing diversion with all the accuracy, speed, and skill he had spent years building. He made the routine throw to first as if the game depended on it—which, as it turned out, it did.
Even if most of us have no prospects in professional sports outside of being spectators, we can learn by watching the way these athletes face the work before them. Remember Uehara the next time you’re facing a crisis or a tense situation: find a way to change up the rhythm.
Take a step off the path that leads to the straightforward solution, but without losing your focus and commitment. Trust the instincts that are grounded in experience, and you’ll give your team every chance to win.
photo credit: Keith Allison