NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) -- They tell you hard work pays off, but sometimes it's hard to keep believing.
University of Louisville senior Matt Helms hadn't logged an at-bat for 16 days when coach Dan McDonnell called his number to pinch hit with the game tied, bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning of the Cards' 5-3 NCAA Super Regional-opening victory at Vanderbilt.
On the season, Helms had totaled just 40 at-bats, when many classmates had gotten 200-plus. He had one hit in the month of April, and one hit in May.
Helms was facing a new pitcher, sidearmer Brian Miller. He took the first pitch, a strike, just to get a look at the unorthodox delivery. He took a ball, and fouled another pitch to the opposite field down the third-base line.
"I knew he wasn't going to give me anything inside, and I knew he wasn't going to give me anything straight," Helms said.
Push pause for a second. There's a reason Helms knew those things. He grew up the son of a baseball coach, and played for him at Eufaula (Okla.) High School. And there's another reason. Even though he hadn't been to the plate in more than two weeks and hadn't had a hit since May 23, Helms had been in this situation before.
That's right. Helms had been in that situation inside the walls of the University of Louisville's Shad Mason Hack Shack.
"Yes sir," he said, when I had to ask him a second time. "I set up our black box machine to throw, and I stood in there, and in my mind, I stood in there with the bases loaded and two out against Vanderbilt, and just looked at pitch after pitch, every kind I could see. Or I'd put it on the outside of the tee and tell myself, two outs, bases loaded at Vandy, put a good bat on the ball. Repeat. Until I felt comfortable."
Now, press play again. The fans on both sides on their feet for the two-strike and two-out pitch, Helms kept his stance wide, didn't even stride into the pitch and put the bat on the ball hard, turning his swing inside out and arced a hit over the left side of the infield and into left, bringing home two runs, including the one that proved to be the game-winner.
"When I came up to bat, I felt like I was back in the hack shack again," Helms said. "I felt like it was 0-0 the whole time. See ball, hit ball. I was more nervous in the press conference after the game."
As he ran down the first base line, Helms pointed his bat then raised his arm to his mother, father and sister sitting along the first base line. Helms' family made the 11-hour drive to see his Senior Day game, though they didn't get to see him hit. His mother and grandmother flew to Tampa from Oklahoma for the Big East Tournament. The family made the drive again to Louisville for the NCAA Regional last week, and here they were in Nashville.
"I was wondering myself, because I've always told him again and again that hard work will pay off," Stacey Helms, Matt's father, said after the team got onto the bus following Saturday's win. "But you know there's no guarantee. You just can't quit believing. Everybody in Louisville tells me he works just about harder than anybody, and that's probably why Mac gave him that chance."
Nick Ratajczak, who had to leave the game in the third inning because a separated shoulder was too much to overcome, said that the talk about Helms and his work ethic wasn't just a father talking.
"After we won the regional last week, a lot of us were heading to our cars to go home, and we passed Matt on the way into the hack shack," Ratajczak said. "When he got that hit, it was a special moment for all of us, because there was no player on that field who probably deserved it more."
As a senior at the end of his college career, Helms probably had more reason than anyone to take a day off here and there, to shrug his shoulders and figure that his role was to sit back and support his teammates. But Matt Helms never saw it that way.
"I always tell these guys, the bus pulls up at everybody's stop," U of L coach Dan McDonnell said. "You have to be ready to get on it and I had no doubt that Matt was going to be ready to get on it. I am happy for him."
Instead of coasting home, in fact, Helms said he has gone harder. He goes to the batting cage after every game. He has learned to value opportunity. When tornados hit his home state in Oklahoma, he wrote "Pray for OK" on his wrist bands before heading to the Big East Tournament. He saw that Oklahoma University is wearing blue t-shirts under its uniforms and wondered what gesture he could do, but figured as a lone player, he'd let it go.
His inspiration, instead, comes from the game. McDonnell always tells his players, "the game sees." It's a way of saying that it rewards those who are deserving in the end. It's a nice thought, but who knows if it really gets borne out. Helms just knows he loves the game, and that's why he works so hard at it.
"I always think of that quote from 'Moneyball,'" Helms said. "Some of us are told at 18 and some at 40, but eventually somebody is going to tell you that you can't play this game anymore. I love the game too much to not be prepared for any situation that comes."
Before getting on the bus, Helms, who is a certified Scuba diver and wants to take up underwater photography when his baseball days are over, hugged his mother and greeted his father. It takes a lot of faith for a family to keep traveling cross country to see a son that doesn't play much. But in the end, it's not about seeing him play so much as wanting to see him. At least, that's how Matt Helms described it.
"I lived with them 18 years, then went to junior college an hour away," he said. "It's tough being apart. When they can come see me it's just a blast. I was waiting for them in the hotel lobby when they got to town (Friday) night and sat with them a half-hour before curfew. It means so much to me. For them to be here for that hit was a great thing, because I wouldn't be here if not for them."
And Louisville wouldn't be one win away from the College World Series without a guy who refused to stop working, or believing.
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