Category Archives: Team defense

Spice Up Your Games with Some “Trick” Plays – Part One

As about every third online ad tells us, we are in the middle of pumpkin spice season.

Now, for those who love it this is the best time of the year, at least culinary-wise. And for those who hate it (there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground on this), hang in there; the holidays and all their sweet goodies are just around the corner.

Pretty easy to tell which side this guy falls on.

I think what those who are into it (including me and especially my daughter Stefanie) love about pumpkin spice season is that it’s something a little different.

We might not be so excited about it if it was available all year long. But since it’s outside the norm we can definitely appreciate it when it comes along.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to today’s topic: “trick” plays on defense and offense in fastpitch softball.

I am definitely a proponent of getting your fundamentals together first. It is absolutely critical for individuals and teams to learn how to field routine ground balls, make simple throws, cover bases, run the bases, swing the bat, etc. with near-100% reliability.

If you can’t do the fundamental things, no amount of trick plays is going to save you.

But if you can do those things, having a few trick plays in your arsenal can not only spice up practices and get your players pumped during games, they can also help you turn the momentum of a game around.

Following are a few of my favorites. Today’s post is focusing on defensive plays. Next week we’ll look at some on offense.

You can pick and choose one or two you think your team might like and be able to handle. Or you can try to incorporate them all to help you get out of a jam – or put the other team in one.

Again, just be sure you don’t spend so much time on them in practice that you neglect the fundamentals. It doesn’t take much to get the wheels to fall off the wagon – at which point the townspeople (parents) will be coming for you with torches and pitchforks.

How coaches see parents.

Defensive Trick Plays

Third Base Sucker Play

My formers players will recognize this one as “code blue” or just simply blue. It’s great for getting a critical out in a tight game with minimal risk.

The situation is there is a runner on third with fewer than two outs and it’s important that the runner on third doesn’t score. It should be a called play so everyone on the defense is prepared for what happens.

If a ground ball is hit to the third baseman (or the pitcher if the pitcher is a good fielder, or dropped right in front of the catcher), the fielder picks up the ball, LOOKS THE RUNNER BACK, then pretends to throw to first. Looking the runner back is critical to convincing her that once the fielder turns toward first she will throw.

Only she doesn’t. She pulls the ball down and immediately spins around to see where the runner on third is.

If she bites on the fake throw and takes off for home, the fielder can either tag the runner or get her into a rundown. If your team is any good at rundowns they should get the out while erasing a scoring threat from 60 feet away.

(The counter on this for the offense, by the way, is for the batter/runner to keep running as soon as she realizes the defense is focused on the runner on third. If she’s fast enough, or the runner on third stays alive long enough, she might even go all the way to third figuring the original runner on third will be out sooner or later anyway.)

You want to run this against an aggressive baserunning team – the type that is looking to take advantage of every opportunity to score. It doesn’t work so well against the cautious, the slow, or the ones who just don’t pay attention.

If you are worried about the ball slipping out of the fielder’s hand on the fake throw, have her keep the ball in her glove and throw with an empty hand. At most levels the runner is looking at the arm motion, not whether the fielder has a ball in her hand, and will go as soon as the throwing motion is complete.

Third Base Sucker Play with Real Throw

Ok, so your opponent got fooled once, either in this game or another, and has cautioned their runners to make sure of the throw before taking off from third. Does that mean you’re done?

Not at all. Same situation – aggressive runner on third with fewer than two outs.

This one works best on a ball hit to the third baseman, and again presents minimal risk.

When the ball is hit, the third baseman fields the ball, looks the runner back, and proceeds to throw it to the first baseman. Except the first baseman isn’t at first base; she is halfway up the first base line, in the perfect position to begin a rundown.

It’s rare that anyone pays attention to where the first baseman is, or where the throw is pointed. From the runner’s (and third base coach’s) point of view, the throw from the third baseman is going toward first.

It isn’t until the rundown starts that they realize it didn’t. Again, if your team is good at rundowns it should result in an out (versus just holding the ball, which will rarely produce an out), but worst case it will prevent the runner from scoring.

Pickoff to Third

For this one you need a catcher who has a quick transfer and is good at throwing from her knees. And by good I mean she not only throws hard but is accurate.

Most coaches will teach their baserunners on third to lead off as far as the third baseman. Makes sense, because the closer they can get to home the better chance they have to score on a ground ball.

You can take advantage of that. When the ball is pitched, assuming it’s not hit the catcher makes and immediate transfer and quick throw to third.

The third baseman gets the ball and immediately sweeps a tag to her right, preferably all in one motion. The suddenness of the moves can catch a runner napping and allow her to be tagged before she can react. And the presence of a right-handed batter helps cover the catcher’s movements, making it hard to tell that she’s throwing down to third.

If you execute it well it can be a game-changer. One time I was coaching a game where we were clinging to a one-run lead.

In the seventh inning the leadoff batter on the other team hit a triple, completely changing the momentum of the game. But we ran this play and she never even moved. Got the out, wiped her off the board, and the momentum shifted back to us for the win.

Understand, though, this can be a medium-to-high risk play. Because if your catcher chucks the ball into left field instead of to the third baseman, well, see the graphic above.

But if you do it right it’s a thing of beauty.

Pick Behind the Runner at First

This is a great way to get a quick out in a tough situation, such as when bases are loaded. The lowest-risk version is when there are two outs, because if you execute it successfully you’re out of the inning.

But you can run it on any number of outs, especially if you’re willing to trade an out for a run.

As I said, the situation is bases are loaded. You notice that the runner on first is taking a decent leadoff but not really paying attention to what happens after the pitch if the ball isn’t hit.

For example, she drops her head and turns around to walk back to the base figuring no one is paying attention to her.

For this play you want to have your first baseman move up the line so the runner (and first base coach) figure the runner is totally safe. You call an outside pitch so the catcher is moving a bit toward first and the hitter doesn’t hit it.

That last part is important because as soon as the pitch is thrown and all eyes are on home, the second baseman is going to sneak in behind the runner to cover first. The catcher then throws down immediately to first, the first baseman gets out of the way, and the second baseman places the tag. She may even have to walk out to the runner to do it because the runner is so shocked (I’ve seen it happen).

There is a risk, of course, of the catcher chucking the ball into right field and allowing one or even multiple runners to score. But if you work at it you can pull this one off and have some fun doing it.

Sneaky Catcher Pick to First

This is a variation of the last play. It relies a lot on deception and definitely requires a catcher to practice it diligently. But again you can catch a runner napping pretty easily if you can execute it.

The lowest-risk situation is bases loaded with two outs to prevent the runner on first from just taking off. But you can do it in a first-and-third situation if you think either the runner on third won’t go on the throw or she’s slow enough that you can recover if she does.

Here’s how it works. The pitch is thrown, the catcher receives it, and she starts running the runner on third back to the base.

Once that runner goes back, the catcher CASUALLY turns toward the pitcher and takes a step toward her to throw. She also looks right at the pitcher – all’s quiet on the Western Front.

But instead of throwing back to the pitcher, she opens her shoulders a little more and fires to first without ever looking. If it is done correctly it will catch the runner and first base coach off-guard enabling an easy tag.

Of course, done incorrectly it will either tip off the runner to hurry back or sail into foul territory in right field starting up the merry-go-round of baserunners.

This is why catchers have to spend some quality time learning to make this no-look, awkward throw. But if they can learn to do it properly they can catch a baserunner even if she knows it’s coming. I’ve seen it happen.

Continuation Play

This is one of those things that I’m sure most coaches love when their teams do it and are really annoyed when other teams do it. You know the one.

There is a runner on third and the batter walks. She starts trotting down to first base, and as she gets there she takes off for second base.

Your team is confused, you as a coach are embarrassed, and your opponents now have runners at second and third.

Indeed.

How bad it actually is kind of depends on your team’s skill and level of play. In many cases it’s not really that bad because the batter/runner was just going to steal second on the next pitch anyway. It just made you look bad that she did it.

But if you do want to try to prevent it you have a couple of options.

The first is to have your catcher throw the ball to the first baseman instead of the pitcher when the walk occurs. The first baseman then stands between first and second so if the runner tries to go she will be tagged out immediately.

She just has to keep an eye on the runner on third (and be able to make a good throw home if she goes).

The second is to have your pitcher walk to the back of the circle with the ball and stand there. Your shortstop then covers second and your second baseman stands about 10-15 feet to the first base side of second.

Under the Look Back rule, once the ball is in the circle and the batter/runner reaches first, the runner on third either has to go forward or go back. This is providing the pitcher doesn’t make any moves toward either runner.

If the batter/runner takes off for second, the pitcher waits until the batter/runner is fairly close to the second baseman and then turns to throw. In the meantime, the catcher is laser-focused on the runner on third in case she decides to take off, which she can do once the pitcher turns toward the batter/runner.

If the runner on third stays put the second baseman puts the tag on the batter/runner. If the runner on third tries to score, the second baseman starts running in to get a rundown started and throws ahead of the runner if necessary. If she can put the tag on the batter/runner first even better.

There are a few variables in play here. For example, if your team is up by a few runs forget the runner on third and get the batter/runner.

The same goes for if there are two outs and you can get the batter/runner quickly, before the runner on third scores.

But in a close game the runner on third remains your priority. Even if you don’t get the out at second this time you’ve at least given the other team’s coach something to think about.

The Dreaded First and Third Situation

In this situation there are runners at first and third with fewer than two outs. You know the other team is going to try to move that runner on first up to scoring position and you’d like to get her out if you can. But you need to keep the runner on third from scoring too.

There are a few different plays you can try. One is the fake throw from the catcher. It doesn’t work most of the time but if you have an aggressive (and probably inexperienced) runner on third she may fall for it.

You can also try just throwing the runner out at second. Teams have gotten so good about being aware of the runner at third and trying to fake her into running into an out that most are pretty cautious these days.

That hesitation can cause her not to run, even if you do throw.

But if you really want to play with the big kids here’s what you do. On the steal, the shortstop goes to cover second and the second baseman moves up to a cut position between the pitcher’s rubber and second base.

This is sometimes called a “Pattern Defense.” Here’s a diagram to help make it clearer.

I drew this myself. No, really.

The catcher throws down to try to throw out the runner going from first to second. You now have a couple of options.

The easier, safer play is that the second baseman steps in to cut the ball off as a planned play. If the runner on third takes off she throws home and either a tag or rundown ensues. If not the runner stole second just as if you did nothing.

The bigtime play is that the second baseman ONLY cuts the ball if the runner on third takes off for home. This requires someone to keep an eye on the runner on third and to call it out if she’s going.

A logical choice is the third baseman but it could also be the first baseman. Or both.

You need some smart players with strong arms and quick reactions to pull this off. But if you can it can be a thing of beauty.

Plenty to Work On

These plays should give you some fun things to work on at practice. I wouldn’t start with them, but they can definitely help you change a game. And even if you never use them in a game they can inject a little extra fun into your practices.

Next week we’ll be looking at some offensive plays to help you generate more runs when you can’t just bash the ball. In the meantime, if you have any defensive plays you’d like to share leave them in the comments below.

When Designing Your Scheme, Be Sure It Fits Your Players

Today’s topic may seem completely self-evident to some of you – to the point where you say “Duh!”

Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a game (in person on TV) or spoken with players and/or parents and realized what should be a cardinal rule of softball has been violated yet again.

This rule is particularly important in middle school or high school ball, where coaches don’t get to choose their teams from a vast pool of players but instead must make the best out of whoever goes to that school. Sometimes those coaches win the lottery, and other times they end up with a donkey.

Don’t think we’re riding this team to the State championship

But even if you do have a wider range, ultimately you have to look at the skillsets and physical attributes of your players and make decisions accordingly. Here’s an example.

For a long time, slapping and the short game was the key to winning, especially in college. As a coach you may love to create chaos on the basepaths and force the other team into making mistakes. But if you look at your team in the huddle and what you see more closely resembles a nest of baby turtles, you’re going to have to find another way to score runs.

C’mon Coach, give me the steal sign.

The reverse is also true on offense. If you roughly weigh more yourself than all your players put together, you’re probably not going to be going deep with any regularity. So while you may love the way college teams like Oklahoma and Arizona State launch bombs on a regular basis, you’re probably going to need your players to master techniques such as bunting, slug bunting, and the ol’ hit-and-run. At least if you want to win ballgames.

The same is true of your pitching staff. If you have one or more dominant pitchers who can rack up 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game, with the mental toughness to get critical strikeouts when needed, you can probably give up a few more defensive errors, or put a weak glove in the lineup if it means one more strong bat. If, however, your pitchers are more along the lines of letting hitters get weak hits and counting on your defense to get the outs, you’d better have strong gloves out on the field.

You can always use the big hitter/weak glove as a DH or pinch hitter. With the added benefit in the latter case of having that big bat available on demand rather than having to hope you get to her.

Speaking of defense, the type of players you have will (or at least should) affect the types of defense you play as well. Let’s take the outfield for example.

If you have speedy outfielders who are good at going back on fly balls, you can afford to play them in a little closer to the infield to try to cut off the Texas Leaguers and duck snorts that seem to plague your team and no one else’s. That is, unless your pitcher is prone to give out moon shots the way Olive Garden gives out breadsticks.

In big bunches until you can’t take it anymore.

Your players’ capabilities will (or should) also affect scheme decisions such as bunt coverages. In fastpitch softball it’s standard to have the first and third basemen crash the plate on bunts.

But if your first baseman isn’t particularly good (or even adequate) at fielding balls on the ground, or making a quick throw from a bent over position, or is the biggest turtle in the conference or the complex, having her try to field a bunt up the first base line may be your ticket to an early ulcer.

You may want to consider having your pitcher field anything up the line. Unless, of course, she is a hot mess fielding as well, in which case you can either try pulling your second baseman up next to the pitcher in obvious bunt situations or have a track coach work with your third baseman so she can try to cover everything up-close.

The bottom line is you may have done X, Y, or Z when you played, or seen a particular approach on TV, or attended a coaches clinic where a Power 5 coach with a multi-million dollar budget that includes a huge scholarship pool said “This is what we do.” Or gotten your butt beaten by a vastly superior team whose success you’d very much like to copy.

But before you pull the trigger on introducing your new scheme, ask yourself honestly if you have the players who can pull it off.

If so, great. Have at it.

But if not, it’s better to take a look at what you DO have and build your schemes accordingly. You’ll ultimately produce WAY better results.

Two Hands or One? It Depends

I’m pretty sure every fastpitch softball player ever has been instructed to catch with two hands. This mantra is drilled into them from the first time they put on a glove – and often until the last time.

Yet if you watch high-level players play you will often see players catching with just their glove hand. So which way is correct?

The answer is: it depends.

Sorry to equivocate but there is no “right,” one-size-fits-all answer. Because either way can be right depending on the situation.

Using two hands

When receiving a throw, the two-handed approach is generally preferred if the ball is thrown within the area of the torso. Using two hands helps secure the ball and protects against an error in case it accidentally doesn’t make its way into the pocket of the glove.

Two hands are also generally preferred when a throw must be made immediately following the catch, such as on a potential double play. Catching with two hands means the throwing hand is right there with the glove, enabling a faster transfer than if the throwing hand is somewhere else.

Another time two hands is the way to go is when fielding a ground ball between the feet. Especially if it is bouncing instead of rolling. Using two hands makes it easier to react to the unexpected and still make the play.

This has nothing to do with softball but was too cute to pass up.

In the outfield, players should be using two hands to field a fly ball they are already camped under. I know, I know, lots of MLB players use one hand but keep in mind their gloves are large and the ball is much smaller. Not to mention they are bigger and stronger.

Fastpitch softball outfielders are better served using two hands so they can clamp down on the ball after the catch. Just be sure the throwing hand is to the side rather than helping to close the back of the glove like so many seem to like to do.

Finally, when outfielders are fielding a rolling or bouncing ball with no need to make an immediate play, two hands is the way to go.

Especially if the outfield looks like this

Using one hand

It would be safe to assume that any situation that isn’t mentioned above would be better-served by using one hand. And you’d be right. But let’s go through a few anyway.

The first is when the player has to reach for a ball, i.e., ball that falls outside their center mass. Reaching with one hand allows you to reach further than doing it with one hand.

That’s just science. The extra inches gained may make the difference between an out and an error.

This reaching applies not just left, right, and up but also down. For example, an outfielder making a do-or-die play will be better off reaching down with her glove hand only so she can keep moving fast and pick up the ball on the run in order to gain more momentum into the throw. Trying to use two hands will only slow her down.

On ground balls, anything to the right or left will work better with one hand – again because it increases the player’s range. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen players try to go laterally with two hands only to see them miss by an inch or two. Maddening!

There are also a couple of positions that are (or at least should be) primarily one-handed. Take first base for example.

While it would be nice if all throws came right to them with time to spare, the reality is that’s rarely the case. First basemen are always stretching in some direction, even if it’s forward.

On in some other crazy direction.

Having a first baseman try to make these catches one-handed is a rookie mistake. Letting them reach with the glove, and throw the other hand back, will help your team secure more outs, especially as the pace of play gets faster. You can read more about that here.

Catcher is another one-handed position, although for different reasons.

Most times catchers are going to try to receive their ball in the center, even if they have to move that center from side-to-side. The issue here is protecting their throwing hand.

Balls deflecting off bats, bouncing off the dirt, or even breaking suddenly all put the throwing hand at first. Sprain a thumb, jam a finger, or even break a bone in the back of the hand and that valuable catcher will be watching from the sidelines for a while.

Learning to receive with one hand while keeping the other protected will help keep that catcher on the field when you need her.

One-handed catching also has the added bonus of reducing the time to transfer the ball from the glove to the throwing hand on a steal.

Catchers who use both hands to catch the ball tend to pause to transfer the ball before pulling it back to throw. By catching with one hand catchers can bring the ball and mitt to the throwing hand, thus making the transfer part of the throw instead of a separate operation.

It’s a difference of hundredths of a second, but those hundredths can make the difference between safe and out. Here’s where you can learn more about one-handed catching.

Bottom line

So you can see there’s no single blanket answer. How many hands to use depends on the position and the situation.

My recommendation is to teach all players to do it both ways when appropriate. And for goodness sake let your catchers and first basemen use one hand even during warmups so they can build that all-important skill.

Tips for executing a successful rundown

Teja throw

In my last blog post I talked about the value of practicing rundowns, and all the good it can do. But I didn’t get into the details of how to execute them successfully from a defensive point of view. So guess what we’re going over today?

Step one is to understand what makes for a good rundown. When you watch a rundown on a TV show or in the movies, you see a lot of running back and forth, faking throws, and actual throws.

While that makes for good drama, it’s pretty bad technique for a rundown. Here’s how to do it better.

Limit throws

The first rule of rundowns is the fewer the throws, the better. In fact, as I mentioned last time when I am working with teams I will ask them how many throws in the ideal rundown. The correct answer is zero.

When you make a throw, especially on the run, there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. You can throw the ball away (obviously) – high or wide. You can throw the ball into the runner. You can lose your grip on the ball and send it rolling or even behind you. You can throw too early or too late.

The better bet is to do what the technique says – run down the runner and apply the tag.

Run hard at the runner

The best explanation I’ve heard is when you run at the runner, you should put the “fear of God” in her. The mistake most defensive players make is running at the same pace as the runner. Why?

You want to put the tag on her if you can, so run at her as hard as you can. I used to love demonstrating this part. I’d take one side of a rundown, get the ball, and start chasing the runner like a monster in a horror movie – crazy eyes and a maniacal look on my face. The runner would usually freak out while the others laughed, but the point was made.

Leave no doubt. Make the runner think your plan is to tackle her before you tag her and she will start running full speed to get away. That’s a good thing because it takes a lot more effort, and a lot longer, to turn and run the other way if you’re running full speed.

Keep a Line of sight

Sometimes the speed mismatch doesn’t lend itself to just a run and tag. If you do have to make a throw or two, be sure you can see the person you’re throwing to, i.e., keep a line of sight to the other side.

Rather than running right behind the runner, run a bit off to your throwing-hand side. If the runner moves, you should move too. It’s a lot easier to make good throws if you’re not trying to throw over or around someone.

Use dart throws

Everyone says to use dart throws, but what does it really mean? To understand, get a dartboard and some darts and try to hit the bullseye.

Odds are you’re not going to wind up as throw as hard as you can. Instead, you will use more of a pushing motion, with no wrist snap.

It’s the same for rundowns. If you wind up and throw hard, especially as you get closer, there’s probably a better chance that the receiver will flinch than you will execute a successful throw and catch. Use that more direct push-type throw and you’ll put the ball where you want it.

Oh, and if you have to use more arm to make the throw, you’re not doing it right. Or you’re not in a rundown.

Pinch in

Another mistake teams will make is standing at the two bases and running back and forth between them. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Instead, both sides should start pinching in to shorten the distance the runner has to work with. If you run hard at the runner and get her to commit, as we said above, it will take her a little time to stop and reverse direction.

If the receiver on the other side is close, she can get the ball, run up, and make the tag before the runner has a chance to change direction. That’s way better than trying to run 60 feet back and forth each time.

Run the runner back

Whenever possible, get the ball ahead of the runner and try to run her back toward the base she’s coming from. While not as good as getting the out, keeping the runner at the base she started at is better than having her advance a base.

Time your throws

To make sure you’re running the runner back, anytime she gets more than halfway to the next base make the throw and get it in front of the runner. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb.

The closer you let her get to the next base the more chance the runner has of advancing. So try to make sure you’re only working within the 30 feet between the last base and the next one whenever possible.

Peel off after the throw

Again, if you do have to make a throw, it’s important to know what to do next. Start by getting out of the way. Peel off to the side so you don’t interfere with the play going on. Then keep going and get in line on the other side, just in case you’re called on again. Although hopefully you won’t be.

Watch the trail runner

If there is more than one runner on base, don’t forget about the trail runner. As soon as you get the out on the lead runner, start looking for the trail runner.

High five

When you get the runner, and the play is over, don’t forget to celebrate! You just got a free out.

Practice these techniques until they become automatic and you’ll win your unfair share of rundowns.

A quick rundown on why you should regularly practice rundowns

Practicing rundowns can pay off on both sides of the ball

A few years ago, when I was still coaching teams, I heard through the grapevine that one of the parents was griping about how much we practiced rundowns. He was a “baseball guy,” and as such was of the belief that rundowns didn’t happen very often. He couldn’t figure out why we would spend so much time on them.

Forget about the fact that if he’s opened his eyes a little more he would’ve seen that in fastpitch softball, rundowns tend to happen a little more often. It’s a faster game than baseball, with shorter distances between bases (60 feet v 90 feet for those who don’t know) and a smaller field overall.

As a result, baserunning tends to be somewhat more aggressive, and runners (as well as coaches) are more likely to take chances. Especially if they’re not sure they’re going to have many opportunities to score.

But even if that wasn’t the case, there are a lot of other things your team can gain from practicing rundowns other than the specific skill of handling rundowns. Here are a few.

Precision

Rundowns occur over shorter distances overall, and they tend to squeeze in more as they go on. That means there isn’t a lot of room for error. Throwers learn to throw to a specific spot instead of a general direction, and receivers learn to focus intensely – especially when the throw may be coming from an odd angle because the thrower didn’t maintain a good line of sight.

Grace under pressure

This goes along with precision. Things happen quickly in a rundown, and they can go wrong very quickly. If you panic, you’re likely to pull the glove down early and miss a throw, or make a throw you don’t need to make, or hold the ball too long. Rundowns help players learn to handle pressure and stay focused on the task instead of the outcome. By the way, that goes for the person running too. Their job is to stay alive until the defense makes a mistake. Can’t do that if you’re in panic mode.

Communication and teamwork

The ideal rundown has zero throws: the ball gets ahead of the runner, and the fielder chases her down until she makes the tag. But that doesn’t happen too often, so fielders need to be able to communicate effectively to coordinate their efforts. I’m not a believer in the receiver calling “ball” and the thrower holding the ball until they hear that, but if one side isn’t doing their job the other side needs to be able to tell them. Or if the thrower is running with the runner between her and the receiver, blocking the line of site, one of them needs to tell the other to move over so she can see. Or think about a first-and-third situation, with a runner caught between first and second. The team needs to know how to communicate effectively if the runner on third starts heading for home, so the team can break off the rundown on the trail runner and get the lead runner. So much going on!

Conditioning and agility

Yeah, you could have your team line up on the baseline and run a bunch of sprints to build up their speed and recovery time. But why not have them practice rundowns instead? They can get the same level of conditioning – especially if you limit the number of runners who can sub in – and you don’t have to listen to all the complaining. Create a little competition with a prize at the end and they’ll practically kill themselves trying to win. They’ll also learn how to change directions quicker – a valuable skill in several aspects of the game.

It’s fun

When I was a kid, we used to call it “running bases.” Others call it “pickle,” and I’m sure there are other names. But the basic rundown was something we used to do for fun when there weren’t enough kids around or we didn’t have enough time to play a regular game. All you need is a couple of gloves, a ball, something to use for bases, and some space. Instead of treating it like a drill, treat it like a reward – something fun to do at the end of practice.

The beautiful thing is if your team gets really, really good at executing rundowns, they can generate more outs in the field. They’ll look for opportunities, and will be more confident in going after the lead runner in tag situations. On the offensive side, they’ll be more comfortable if they do wind up in one, helping you avoid some outs on the basepaths.

Don’t take rundowns for granted. Make them a regular part of your practice routine and watch the difference they make.

Now it’s your turn. How often do you practice rundowns? How good is your team at executing them? And if you played running bases/pickle as a kid, what did you call it?

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

Great softball defensive game/challenge

First of all let me state that this training game for fastpitch softball wasn’t my idea. I got it at a clinic a few years ago.

The game is called 21 outs. It’s pretty simple. You put your team on the field, at least one person per position. Then you start hitting the ball to different locations. The object is to get 21 outs in a row. If someone makes an error, either fielding or throwing, the count gets re-set to zero and you start over.

You can do it with or without runners, depending on how many players you have. Because I have my kids play at least two positions, I will have them switch positions after seven outs. (You can also do that to give your subs an opportunity to participate.)

The other rule I put in is when the ball comes back to the plate for the next play, even though the play is dead, it has to be a good throw. Otherwise we go back to zero again.

One of the fun aspects of this game is that the coach “mis-hit” makes it more realistic. Say you’re trying to hit a fly ball and you just dink a spinner off the end of the bat. They still have to read, react and get the out.

The final rule is that the ball has to be “getable.” If I hit a clean shot in the gap that could never have been fielded, it’s a neutral. On the other hand, if it’s a clean single to the outfield and the ball gets behind the outfielder, it’s an error and we start over.

As a coach you can make the game as challenging as you want. You can vary the types of hits, how hard they’re hit, etc. You can also say things such as “only two more to go” to add a little extra pressure.

Just make sure you allow enough time. You may think it would be easy, but it can be tough to get 21 outs in a row.

Softball practice game

Tonight for our last practice before our next fastpitch softball tournament we decided to do something a little different. After warmups and throwing we played a game that worked on both defense and hand-eye coordination for hitters. It also exposed the girls to a skill most of them rarely practice.

We divided the team up into four groups of three players each. Nine went onto the field, and the other three were up to bat. But instead of live pitching — which pitchers often have trouble doing with their own team — we had the girls fungo the ball instead. (For those who don’t know the term, fungoing is throwing the ball up and hitting it yourself.)

The overall objective was to introduce some unpredictability into the game for the defense. Although the girls struggled with fungoing at first, as they got the hang of it they started looking for holes and placing the ball. That made it tougher on the defense, challenging them, because unlike coaches hitting balls they really didn’t know where it was going to go.

If the hitters got on base they continued as baserunners. That automatically set up situations for the defense to handle, and put pressure on them to perform. About the only thing we couldn’t work on were steals since the hitter controlled the ball. We kept score, and three outs brought in the next team of three.

Why not go with live pitching? We’ve done that before. But it takes longer and less action occurs. In addition, it’s tougher to move the ball around the field. Fungoing keeps the game moving, creating more situations for the defense to handle and more opportunities for the offense.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up practice, get some quality work in, and introduce some competition give the fungo game a try.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get some competition going in practice?

First base a one-handed position

In the past I’ve written about catching as being a one-handed position. That idea also extends to playing first base.

The reason is the same. There’s a lot of reaching at first base. And it’s easier to reach farther when you’re only using one hand.

Sure, if the ball is coming right to your chest a two-handed catch is fine. But for nearly anything else — especially balls in the dirt — going with one hand makes far more sense. That’s the reason for the design of first basemans’ mitts. The ball is supposed to nestle itself in the pocket without the benefit of a second hand helping out.

If you’re a first baseman, or working with a first baseman, have her practice catching with one hand. And if you’re a coach of a team, for goodness’ sakes quit yelling at your first baseman to use two hands. She’ll snag a lot more balls with one, and you’ll win a lot more games.

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