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Smart baserunning pays off in fastpitch softball

This post was prompted by a play I saw yesterday on TV during the Oklahoma/Auburn game. It points out both the need for fastpitch softball baserunners to be smart on the bases, and how even the highest level players can make bad decisions.

Fastpitch softball players should never run into a tag. Ever.Oklahoma was up to bat, trailing by two or three runs, with a runner on first. The hitter hits a hard ground ball that goes straight to the second baseman, who is just a few steps from second base. What should the runner going from first to second have done? And what do you think she did?

Let’s answer the second question first. She ran a straight path between the bases, directly in front of the second baseman, who promptly tagged her and threw to first for the double play. I just cringed watching that.

One of the cardinal rules of baseball and softball baserunning is that you never, ever, run into a tag. Make the fielder work for it – she might miss.

In this situation it becomes doubly important because, of course, it leads to a double play.

So what should the runner have done instead? She had several options. One was to dive head-first to try to get under the tag. Or feet first. Or do a tuck-and-roll.

She may have been close enough to get to the bag if the fielder missed. But even if she wasn’t, she might have taken the second baseman by surprise and had enough time to scramble forward to the base. She would either have been safe or would have drawn the throw to protect the batter/runner and avoid the DP.

Another option would have been to stop short and make the second baseman chase her to get the tag, or stop and throw to second. Either of those choices would have once again protected the batter/runner by eating time. While she’s running, the batter/runner is as well.

A third option would have been to divert behind the second baseman, out of arm’s reach, so the second baseman would have to turn away from first to chase her, which – everyone say it with me now – would have protected the batter/runner and avoided the double play.

This last one is the option I would teach baserunners when I was coaching teams. Go beyond and make the second baseman chase you. If necessary, run into the outfield yelling “Woob woob woob” like Curly of the Three Stooges. If you can see you’re going to be out anyway, make sure you’re protecting the batter/runner, and maybe have a little fun while you’re doing it.

No need to worry about the “baseline” either. That’s a very misunderstood concept. There isn’t a single baseline you have to stick to as a runner. You establish your baseline as you run from base to base. So if you’re diverting behind to avoid interfering with the fielder’s ability to field the ball (and that’s the story you’re sticking to) a new baseline is established, which gives you some leeway. Not to the outfield, exactly, but at least some wiggle room. Running to the outfield is only for when you’re sure you will be out anyway.

There are probably more good choices as well. If you have one, please share it in the comments. But there is only one bad option in my experience: running into the tag so your batter/runner can be doubled up at first.

As I’ve always said you don’t have to be the fastest player to be a great baserunner. You just have to be the smartest.The earlier you learn your responsibilities on the bases, the more value you’ll bring to your team and the more success it will have.

By the way, I imagine Coach Gasso will be running some baserunning drills at the next practice to make sure her players remember not to run into a tag the next time. Even those who play for the top D1 seed right now have things to learn.

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First base coaches have responsibilities

Earlier today I was out watching a fastpitch softball game where I had some students playing. I go to games to see them in action, provide support and see if there are things we need to work on that don’t show up in lessons.

Along the way, of course, I also get to see a game. For the most part the outcome of the game overall doesn’t matter to me – I don’t have a horse in the race per se, although I like to see a well-played game. But every now and then I see something that brings out the game coach in me.

Today it happened when I went over to the bleachers behind the first base dugout to kick back a bit. The team I’d come to watch was hitting. And that’s when I saw it.

The first base coach went out to her position, then proceeded to spend the entire half inning exchanging hair tips with the girls in the dugout. She stood close to the dugout and kept chatting away even when there were runners on base! Every now and then she’d yell “Back!” if she happened to notice that a ball had been hit foul or a runner had wandered a bit far. But for the most part the runners were on their own. She wasn’t watching the third base coach for signs or even offering any encouragement to the hitter.

So even though, again, I really had no horse in the race, I started to get irritated watching her. The picture that came to my mind was Herb Brooks in the movie Miracle, standing behind the USA bench while his team was playing Sweden in an early match, listening to them talking about the girls in the stands. “You don’t want to during the game, fine. We’ll work now.”

I know that traditionally most of the responsibility is placed on the third base coach, but the first base coach does have a function. It’s not the place where you should be exchanging hair care tips, or checking your fantasy football picks on your cell phone, or texting your bookie or otherwise being and causing distractions. You should be focused on the game and helping the runners any way you can.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some great first base coaches. They made sure the runner on first knew the situation, what to do in different circumstances, what to look for about the pitcher, letting them know if the team was susceptible to a delayed steal, things like that. They also made sure the runners were watching me for signs at third, and kept a watchful eye on each pitch to help the runner make a decision about whether to attempt advancing on a ball in the dirt or one that looked like it might get away. In short, they were in the game and worth their weight in gold.

The other thing they did was set an example of how the players should approach the game. How intensely they should be watching for anything that might give an advantage. As opposed to this coach, who essentially told her entire team that it wasn’t important to be in the game or in the moment – that it was ok to sit and chit chat about nothing.

It may seem like coaching first base is simple but it’s not. Like anything else it’s something you need to work at. If you don’t want to pay attention, or you want to chit chat during the game, the first base coach’s box is not the place to be. (Actually, if you want to prattle about nothing, the dugout is probably not the place for you either because you’re a distraction to the players, who should be paying attention to the game and trying to learn something about the opposing pitcher and defense.)

Hopefully one of the other coaches in the dugout says something to the head coach and a correction is made. Because you know if something bad happens it will come at the worst possible time – it always does.

If you’re in the first base coach’s box, be sure you take the responsibility seriously. You can contribute a lot – if you’re paying attention.

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