TV Review: ‘Pitch’

Maureen Ryan

Pitch” has swagger, for good reason. It gets the big things right; the Fox drama about the first female baseball player in the Major Leagues is one of the year’s most assured and exciting debuts. But part of what impresses about the pilot is also the way it confidently strings together so many small but telling details.

Rather than drowning its characters in speeches and explanations, the show uses a well-timed sigh at a press conference to answer the question of how a game went. Occasionally the dialogue veers toward the kind of TV patter that has a slightly contrived sheen, but so much of the show steers clear of unnecessary exposition that it usually has a streamlined feel, and much of what occurs in the first hour simply flies by.

Yet “Pitch” makes time for small moments that take on significance as the drama gains momentum. In a flashback, when youth pitching prodigy Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) is euphoric after a big win, her father’s shoulders are squared and his jaw is set in a very specific way that does not connote satisfaction. As Bill Baker (Michael Beach) stalks away from the baseball diamond where Ginny has excelled yet again, he mutters, “We ain’t done nothing yet.”

Ginny, of course, wants to please her exacting dad, who, like a lot of overly involved sports parents, isn’t great at doling out praise. Bill also isn’t above doing cruel things to get his daughter to keep her eye on the ball, and yet one of the show’s accomplishments is that the love between father and daughter remains palpable throughout. Yet nothing about their relationship is sugar-coated: Ginny is right to wonder if he asks too much of her, and Bill is not demonized but portrayed as a believably difficult man who happens to think his daughter is exceptional. On that score, at least, he’s right.

Ginny is the first woman to be called up from the minors to the big leagues, and no show since “Friday Night Lights” has done a better job of portraying the internal and external pressures that weigh heavily on young athletes asked to do much more than merely succeed on the field. Ginny is a symbol, but she’s also a person, one capable of cracking under intense scrutiny. Training with Bill has made her tough, but is anyone resilient enough to endure the volume of attention she receives, without becoming a monster or an anxious mess? That’s one of the questions “Pitch” sets for itself, and the answers in the opening hour are understandably ambiguous, fueling a thoughtful and entertaining first inning.

Early on, there’s a scene set in a clubhouse storeroom that has been half-heartedly turned into a solo locker room for Ginny; a brief overhead shot reveals that it’s still packed with supplies and odds and ends. The partly refurbished state of that room — which also holds a custom-made jersey with special significance — reflects the mixed feelings her teammates and coaches have about her arrival at San Diego’s Petco Park, home of the Padres. Her presence sells tickets, sure, but it’s not long before she overhears members of the team deriding the decision to start her as a stupid P.R. move, one that’s sure to backfire.

Two sequences depicting Ginny on the mound provide master classes in editing, perfectly weaving together commentary from sports announcers, crowd reaction shots and the rhythms of play that can, by some magic, put tens of thousands of people into the same shared mental space. The communal aspect of the game flows through these scenes, but the group dynamics are elegantly intertwined with snapshots of Ginny’s internal battles; she veers from nervous to focused to panicked and half a dozen emotional states in between. It’s easy to see why she’s rattled; everything she does, right or wrong, is being shown on the stadium’s jumbotron.

At one point during a brief break in a game, catcher Mike Lawson comes up to Ginny and begins to mock the whole idea of inspirational sports-movie speeches — and then he gives one, much to his own surprise. Mark-Paul Gosselaar so completely disappears into this role that it’s almost shocking to learn that Fox did not find a former ballplayer who could actually act, and that it’s Gosselaar under that bushy beard. The actor brings an authentic and arrogant jock-bro charm to Lawson, while also giving the character shadings of doubt and even hints of compassion. Lawson is a star, but he’s not getting any younger, and like it or not, his fortunes are tied to Ginny’s. Gosselaar doesn’t just have fun running with this role’s possibilities, he subtly depicts it beginning to dawn on Lawson that Ginny might actually be talented.

Everything is tenuous in “Pitch”: Ginny’s place on the team is by no means secure, despite the pop-culture wave of “Ginnsanity.” The team’s manager, Al Luongo (the perfectly cast Dan Lauria), is not cruel or impatient, but he wears the tired expression of a man waiting for his bosses — the team’s wealthy owner and calculating general manager — to tire of their new toy. Ginny has a powerful agent, Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), who barks protective commands to anyone in the player’s orbit, but Slater would probably drop her like a rock if Ginny’s career stalled.

How ironic and yet satisfying that all these unstable situations and wavering relationships are sketched out within a story that boasts such a solid core of dependable craftsmanship. “Pitch” also has a few curveballs in its arsenal, but they are so effective that it’s hard not to wonder if the show will be able to keep up the momentum of its pilot. For the comparison to the “Friday Night Lights” TV series to hold up, “Pitch” must be able, week after week, to wring thoughtful and effective metaphors and emotional payoffs from the hoopla surrounding sporting contests. And it must build a thriving array of relationships and characters around Ginny, who is played well by Bunbury.

“Pitch” will likely do a good job of getting viewers to root for it. The hope is that the show won’t be an impressive, short-lived curiosity, but rather a long-term phenomenon. Like Ginny herself.

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