The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

The Evster spends a day reffing 6th grade girls basketball

Two people who are not me.

It's not easy to take your pants off in the driver's seat of a 1999 Nissan Altima. But for some reason, that's what I chose to do on a cold, January morning, in the parking lot of a local suburban high school. Relax, the lot was pretty much empty -- except for one beat-up station wagon that belonged to the janitor -- and I wasn't so much taking OFF my pants as I was CHANGING them. You see, I had just purchased a fresh pair of nylon black track pants, because I, my good friends, am a 6th grade girls basketball ref.

There are few jobs in the world more thankless than being a ref. Friend to no one, enemy to all, wearer of ridiculous all-black sneakers. You never really get used to the outfit, going out in public looking like a loon, but you do it anyway, because you respect the game (and are desperate to make a little extra cash to keep your wife off your back).

Saturday was the opening day of the season and I arrived at my destination 45 minutes ahead of time. I did this partially because I grew up being late to everything, leading me to become a very punctual adult, but mostly because I wanted to give myself plenty of time to take a pregame smash.

Plenty of great seats still available.

Anyone who has ever showed up to a public school on a Saturday morning, when the wind is howling and ice covers the walk, knows that you never choose the right door to enter in on your first attempt. It's impossible. Pull the handle, locked. Go to the next one, locked. Then panic starts to creep in, and you try another, C'MON, and another, WHAT, and then you start to wonder if you're even at the right place. Is there an auxiliary gym? What time does this start? But then eventually one opens and the heat hits your face and all is right in this stupid, cruel world.

I was lucky enough to get in on my third try, and then quickly found a boys bathroom emptier than a cave (one of the benefits of reffing girls instead of boys). There, I handled my business and sent a few tweets, and after tucking in my shirt and testing out my whistle, I walked toward the gym with the sound of pounding basketballs guiding the way.

As game time approached, the players trickled in. One by one, they showed up with their parents, with basketballs bigger than their heads. Most wore fancy new sneakers -- a lot of Nike Kevin Durant's -- and those super-duper-padded socks, the $16 Nike jawns with the dotted lines on the heel that every mustachioed Delco teenager asked for this Christmas. One girl practiced doing splits at midcourt.

Meanwhile, I did some light stretching (which was pretty much unnecessary) while yucking it up with the kid at the scorer's table. In charge of the scoreboard that day was 14-year-old Max, a little guy who had a giant cowlick on the back of his head, making it obvious that his mom had just woke him up. He was a nice enough kid (his hair was honestly incredible) even though he had those weird colored braces that no parent should ever let their child wear. Max told me about his friend Kyle who was supposed to do the book, but he couldn't come because he had the flu, or was in Maine or something, I couldn't really follow because Max's hair was so amazing and he had so much food in his braces. Soon after, another guy came over wearing all-black New Balances. He introduced himself as Cliff, my new best friend.

Not only my best friend, my only friend. Sure, Max was cool, and he snorted when he laughed, but Cliff was my homeboy. Over the next three games, we would go to war together -- getting yelled at by coaches, questioned by parents, backing up each other's calls -- officiating together in a united front.

Soon the warmup buzzer sounded and it was time to tip off (something that was obvious to only me, Cliff and maybe three other people). The coaches and players just kinda stood there until we told the coaches to pick their starters. Then, ten pre-adolescent girls walked out on the floor, looking confused and nervous and absolutely adorable. The Black team immediately set up in a 2-3 zone defense. Like why even bother to jump it up, right? So I had to tell them to come to half court. "All right girls, let's jump it up," I said, but this meant absolutely nothing to them. I might as well have said, "All right girls, flibble-dee-floo!" So I tried again, "Need someone to jump here," but nothin. Eventually I had to coax the girls to come toward me. "Okay, we need a player from the Pink team and a player from the Black team. We're gonna have a jump ball. I'm gonna throw the ball up, and you're gonna try to tip it to a teammate. Are you wearing a necklace? You have to take that off. No jewelry," then all of a sudden 10 girls ran off the court, climbing into the stands to find their parents to help them take off their earrings. Eventually they came back and two girls finally stepped up. Cliff gave me a nod. Max gave me a wink with both eyes. We were ready to go. The season was about to begin.

Textbook defensive stance.

The key to success in 6th grade girls basketball is having a girl who can dribble. Just one, that's all you need. One girl who can successfully take a basketball and bounce it against the ground, over and over and over again. On this particular day, the Pink team had a STUD, a short girl with a side pony who cut through the defense like a hungry squirrel. She brought the ball up, popped it around, stole it from her teammates, and occasionally drove to the hoop and made a few bankers. She ended up scoring 14 of her team's 18 total points. I'm 95% sure she was a Lobo.

The Black team, they weren't so lucky. They had one redheaded girl who could kind of handle the ball, although every time down the floor she picked up her dribble. She also had no idea how to pivot, and sometimes bent over with the ball, hugging it tightly like she had the world's worst stomach ache.

"You need to pass the ball, okay? You can't just hold it. Or I'm gonna have to call Five Seconds on you."

She nodded and said "okay," and seemed to understand, but frankly I'm not sure she spoke English.

Honestly though, I'm being a little harsh. The girls were not that bad. A few could dribble and catch and rebound, and some could actually run up and down the floor without crashing into the scorer's table. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, some even had decent instincts and could read the flow of the game. Still, it was painful to watch, and even harder to ref, because their movements were so all over the place.

In my short time reffing (I've been doing it for two years) I've realized the key to making the right call is just to act like you're right, all the time. No matter what happens, or what you may or may not have seen, just make a call in the most convincing way possible. "OFF BLACK'S KNEE! PINK BALL!" with very dramatic arm motions. Then grab the rock and get ready to inbound. Was it really off Black? Who knows. There's no reason to live in the past.

I have no doubt that it'd be easier to ref a Final Four game in a hostile arena than run up and down the floor with 6th graders. With boys (or men, or women at a higher skill level) the game is fluid, and you can read the action and anticipate players' movements. With 6th grade girls, it's a non-stop tornado. Heaps of girls crashing into one another, tumbling over, and slamming onto the ground. You have never heard a thuddier thud than the thud created by a 12-year-old girl on a one-woman fast break. There's no grace. No ability to control their bodies. Just a bunch of young women falling to earth like a sack of potatoes. I've never even seen (or heard) a sack of potatoes hit the ground before, but I can guarantee you that it's the perfect analogy for this particular situation.

The last few minutes are always a shit show. In this particular matchup, Black had come back, cutting the lead to three points in the final two minutes. This caused every person in the gym to lose their minds. At one point, I looked to the Pink team's bench and a girl was just jumping in place, spinning around like goddamn ballerina. A father in the stands kept screaming, "THAT'S HOW WE DO. THAT'S HOW WE DO." He was wearing khakis. On three straight possessions, the players just took the ball and jacked it. Not even looking, they just inbounded the ball and hurled it toward the basket. One girl took a closely contested 35-foot fadeaway jumper. Not one shot came close. One airball actually bounced under the hoop and landed in a bucket. Not THE bucket, not the bucket they were supposed to be shooting at, but a bucket that was sitting on the floor against a nearby wall. I don't even know why the bucket was there. Maybe there was a leak in the roof? Or maybe the janitor left it? Either way, at one point toward the end of the game, there was a basketball stuck in a bucket.

As the clock ticked down to 1:15 left in the 4th, a crazy woman started screaming, "STOP THE CLOCK. STOPPPP THEEEE CLOCCCKKKKK, OMG STOPPPP THE CLOCKKKKKKKKK." She actually said, "OMG." Like, those words actually came out of her mouth. And of course Max, who is a CHILD, stopped the clock because an adult told him to. The thing was, that in this particular league, the clock only stops during the last minute of the game. So I had to blow my whistle, calm everyone down and explain to the parents that the clock would run until the last minute. The screaming woman didn't get it. "It IS the last minute!" she said, which made me question if I knew what a minute was. Finally, I realized that she was in fact that crazy one, which made me strangely more attracted to her.

In the game's final moments, Pink's point guard hit a game clinching three (YEAH, AN ACTUAL THREE) that put the game out of reach and saved me and Cliff (and Max) from three more minutes of hell overtime.

After the buzzer, the girls all shook hands, while Cliff and I collapsed against the bleachers.

"What a whirlwind, huh?" Cliff said.

Absolutely bonkers, I replied.

Then we both just sat there in silence. Reflecting on the game, hoping we kept it fair, wondering why Max took his shoes off.

"You know where the bathroom's at, Ev? I gotta take a Hulkster."

Yes I do, best friend.

I certainly do.

Follow The Evster @TVMWW.

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

Don't be shocked if Pete Mackanin gives Odubel Herrera the Maikel Franco treatment this weekend after Herrera's epically bad game Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, batting third for the first time since May 9, went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in the Phillies' 2-1, extra-inning win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five Ks and the first Phillie to do so since Pat Burrell in September 2008.

(And no, that doesn't mean the Phillies are winning the World Series this season.)

Herrera is in a very bad place right now. He's hitting .226 with a .275 on-base percentage, and he has 28 strikeouts with one walk in May.

But you wouldn't know it from talking to him after the game Thursday. Herrera wasn't downtrodden or beside himself. He was typical Odubel, flashing a few smiles and remaining positive.

"I feel that I am making good swings but I'm just missing the pitches," Herrera said. "But I feel I am swinging the bat well. 

"I don't really know what it is exactly. But I am seeing the ball well. I don't know if it's when I charge at the ball or the timing of my swing. It's definitely at that point. Maybe it has something to do with the balance of the bat and my body. 

"Besides being positive, I have to check the video to see what I'm doing wrong and make some adjustment. But I'm staying positive, for sure."

Herrera and Franco, batting third and fourth, went 1 for 10 with seven strikeouts Thursday. They're both hitting below .230. They're supposed to be cornerstone pieces for the Phillies, so it's extremely troubling. Even if the Phillies were winning games recently it would be troubling.

Mackanin was elusive when asked if he'd consider benching Herrera Friday. But there's no real reason to believe it would do any good anyway. There's a fine line between giving a player time to clear his head and preventing him from having chances to bounce back.

"You know what, let me enjoy this. We'll discuss that tomorrow. Let me smile for a while," Mackanin said. 

"It's a tough decision. That's a tough decision. You wonder if he needs to be in there seeing pitches and batting or does he need time off? I'll think about that."

Herrera did say that he and Franco have leaned on each other during this rough period. They talk and try to motivate each other every day, but right now the results aren't there. Both are swinging wildly at too many pitches out of the strike zone and just making it too easy for opposing pitchers. When that's coming from the middle of your order, you're going to have problems scoring runs. 

On this date a year ago, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. Franco was hitting .260 with a .748 OPS.

Some of the struggles are because of pitchers adjusting to Herrera and Franco as the book on them expands. 

When asked if that's the case for his two young players, Mackanin referenced the Phillies' own adjustment to Rockies slugger Charlie Blackmon.

"I was pretty happy we got to Blackmon, that guy is a heckuva hitter and we pitched him really well today. There's an example of what you're talking about," Mackanin said. "Little by little, we're going to get there. We're going to start playing better."

Like Herrera and Franco, Mackanin has no choice but to think positive and hope for the best. It's a long summer, after all.

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday to score Michael Saunders and snap the Phillies' five-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over the Rockies.

The win is their first victory in a game not started by Jeremy Hellickson since May 1. It also prevented the Phillies from being swept by Colorado.

At 16-29, the Phillies have the second-worst record in the majors. The Rockies, 32-17, have the second-best record in the majors.

Starting pitching report
Vince Velasquez pitched well, allowing one run over five innings to a stacked Rockies lineup, but he again had a short outing because of a high pitch count.

Velasquez put nine men on base and struck out seven. He threw 94 pitches, 70 for strikes.

After Velasquez's last start in Pittsburgh, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said the right-hander's secondary pitches simply need to improve, that he needs to be able to show more than just a mid-90s fastball.

On Thursday, Velasquez threw 72 fastballs, 14 curveballs, four sliders and four changeups. The Rockies swung through only two of those 22 off-speed pitches and went 4 for 6 when putting them in play.

Mackanin left Velasquez in to hit for himself with runners on first and second and no outs in the bottom of the fifth and Velasquez popped out on a sacrifice attempt. Many fans have already questioned the decision, but let's keep in mind Velasquez has handled the bat well. He's 6 for 17 (.353) on the season and tied for the major-league lead in hits among pitchers. He had an infield single in his first at-bat.

Rockies left-hander Tyler Anderson continued the theme of mediocre starting pitchers stymying the Phillies. Anderson allowed just one run on six hits over seven innings with seven strikeouts.

In the series, Rockies starting pitchers allowed three runs in 27 innings. They had a 1.00 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning. And these four starters — Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, Tyler Chatwood and Anderson — entered the series with a combined 5.27 ERA.

Bullpen report
Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez each pitched one scoreless inning. It's understandably been overlooked during the Phillies' skid, but the bullpen is finally in a groove. Over their last seven games, Phillies relievers have allowed just two earned runs in 22 2/3 innings for a 0.79 ERA.

Neris threw 10 pitches, all of them strikes. He's allowed one run in 9 2/3 innings since his meltdown at Dodger Stadium.

At the plate
Before the walk-off hit, Joseph stayed hot with a home run off the ivy wall in dead-center to start the bottom of the seventh.

Joseph is hitting .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

Joseph has now played 148 games with 498 plate appearances in the majors — slightly less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. Those numbers are just above the league average for first basemen over that span.

Batting third, Odubel Herrera went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts. He's the first player in the majors this season to do that and the first Phillie since Pat Burrell in September 2008. Herrera is hitting .226 with a .275 OBP. 

Maikel Franco returned to the lineup after a two-game benching and went 1 for 5, singling up the middle in his first at-bat and flailing at a low-and-away, two-strike breaking ball to strike out with two on and one out in the eighth inning. He then struck out on three pitches to lead off the 11th.

Cameron Rupp walked three times, raising his on-base percentage from .330 to .345.

Up next
The Phillies start a three-game series at home against the Cincinnati Reds, who they haven't seen since the opening week of the season.

Friday, 7:05 p.m. — Aaron Nola (2-1, 3.52) vs. Bronson Arroyo (3-4, 6.75)

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. — Jerad Eickhoff (0-5, 4.70) vs. Scott Feldman (3-4, 3.99)

Sunday, 1:35 p.m. — Zach Eflin (0-2, 5.36) vs. Amir Garrett (3-3, 6.00)