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

Last week we looked at some options for some defensive “trick” plays – mostly called plays where the defense uses some forms of deception to try to generate outs and get out of jams. If you haven’t read it yet you’ll definitely want to follow the link because it’s brilliant.

This week we’re looking at the other side of the coin – plays the offense can use to create confusion, take advantage of holes in the defense, and generally put themselves in a better position to score more runs.

Running offensive trick plays can be, well, trickier because for the most part the offense has little control over what happens once the ball is pitched. So it places more pressure on individual players to learn their responsibilities and react to different variables.

When they work, however, they can not only produce immediate results; they can also energize the offensive team while discombobulating the defense.

So without further preamble here are some things you can do on offense to gain a little extra edge in the game.

The Continuation Play on a Walk

This one is a classic, of course. The batter walks with a runner on third.

But instead of stopping at first she keeps going and runs toward second. Now the defense has to make a decision – go for the runner to try to get her out (either straight on or with a counter-play of their own as detailed in the last post) or hold onto the ball to keep the runner on third from attempting to score.

Having the runner sprint to second will often work to draw the throw with younger or less experienced teams. They see the runner go, panic, and go for the out at second, momentarily forgetting all about the runner on third.

With somewhat older or more experienced teams, a straight-out sprint may not be the best option, however. A better choice might be to have the batter/runner round the corner and just start trotting toward second.

It’s kind of insulting, and it may coerce the defense to go after her either because they think they can get a quick out or they’re angry at insult of her nonchalantly jogging to the base. Never underestimate the power of emotion.

At higher levels, the goal won’t be to gain second base as much as to get in a pickle and hope to either distract the defense long enough for the runner on third to sneak home or coerce the defense into throwing the ball away, in which case everyone is safe. This is best used with a smart super speedster on third and a game where the offense needs one run late in the game to tie or win.

And don’t even bother to say “high-level teams won’t make those mistakes you’re talking about.” In a pressure situation anyone can make a mistake – or at least create enough of an opening to score a run. It’s the walk equivalent of a suicide squeeze: a gutsy call that either makes the coach look like a genius or an idiot.

At the younger/less experienced levels the risk level is low. Teams will either be surprised it happened or will let the batter/runner go to prevent the runner on third from scoring.

At the higher levels the risk level of an out with no gain is fairly high so you want to choose your moments with it.

The Fall-Down Steal

Here again you have a runner on third – preferably a smart one with at least average speed – along with a runner on first. On the pitch the runner on first takes off for second on a flat-out steal, but as she gets about halfway to the base she pretends to stumble and then hits the ground.

If all goes as planned, the defense sees the vulnerable runner and decides to try to get the out. In the meantime, the runner on third has been sneaking her way down the third base line.

If the defense goes after the runner on the ground the runner on third takes off for home where she should score easily. It’s the element of surprise and vulnerability that makes this play work.

Heh heh heh.

After all, who would have their runner fall down on purpose? The answer is: you.

The risk levels here are the same as for the continuation on a walk play.

The Delayed Steal

These is something about a well-execute delayed steal that even makes the victims have to nod their heads in admiration. Even while the defensive coach is screaming at his/her players to pay more attention.

You can delay steal at any base. To make it work there are three key elements the runner should look for:

  1. The catcher and/or pitcher are not paying much attention to the baserunners. This shows up as the catcher immediately lobbing the ball back to the pitcher after a pitch, or the pitcher getting the ball back and dropping her head without looking at the baserunners.
  2. The rest of the defense tends to relax immediately if the ball isn’t hit and the runner doesn’t take off on a steal with the pitch.
  3. No one is covering the next base. It could be that the shortstop is leaving second or third wide open after the pitch, or the catcher is turning her back after throwing the ball to the pitcher with a runner on third.

A delayed steal of second can also work when the catcher is very aggressive about trying to pick the runner at first. My daughter Kim used to be a master of this particular play.

In this scenario, after confirming that no one was going to cover second base immediately after the pitch, Kim would take a long lead-off, trying to draw a throw from the catcher. When the throw came, she would get back just in time, convincing the catcher that she could pick Kim off if she’d just get the ball down to first a little faster.

On the next pitch Kim would get out a little farther, tempting the catcher even more. When the catcher threw to first, instead of trying to get back to first she’d take off for second.

With a good lead, no one covering second and no one else on the field really paying attention to her, she’d often scamper in to the next base standing up. She only had average speed, but if you’re good at deception and a smart, gutsy baserunner you don’t need to be a rabbit to pull this off.

Of course, the most fun/aggravating (depending on which side of the ball you’re on) is the delayed steal of home.

This one really depends on both conditions in point #1 being in play. If the catcher turns her back after throwing the ball to the pitcher, and the pitcher turns away from the runner, a speedy runner can break for home rather than going back on the throw. Just be sure she goes right away so she’s not caught by the Look Back Rule.

If your runners have followed the rules above the risk level is fairly low. If not, it’s moderate to high. So be sure you keep this to your smarter runners.

The Slug Bunt and Steal

This one can work with pretty much any combination of runners on base (i.e., first, first and second, etc.), although you’d have to be pretty gutsy to call it with bases loaded. All you need is a defense that is very aggressive about covering steals and bunts.

In this situation, the batter turns while the pitcher is in her windup to apparently put down a sacrifice bunt while the runner(s) take off on a straight steal. With an aggressive defense this will likely cause the third (and maybe first) baseman to charge in for the bunt, the second baseman to cover first or second (depending on what the first baseman does) and the shortstop to cover second or third.

All of this happens before the pitch is delivered, which leaves some pretty big holes where the second baseman and shortstop used to be.

As the pitch is delivered, the batter pulls the bat back and tries to hit a hard ground ball toward one of the newly created gaps in the defense. I prefer the slug (basically a slapping motion) but it can also be done with a push bunt if it’s hard enough.

If it’s executed successfully, a runner on first actually stands a good chance of ending up on third or even scoring, depending on how deep the outfield was. A runner on second should be able to score.

And if the pitch isn’t hittable, there’s still a good chance the runner(s) will be safe at the next base.

There is moderate risk with this play, however. If the batter pops up, or hits a line drive right at a fielder, there’s a pretty good chance of it ending up as a double play.

So you want to be sure your batter understands the assignment and is able to get that ball on the ground without fail. Trust me on that one.

The Runners on Second and Third Play

I originally learned this one under the name “angle down.” As the name I’ve used says, you have runners on second and third, preferably with fewer than two outs.

The baserunners need to be able to read the ball coming off the bat. IF the ball is on the ground, and not a weak one right back to the pitcher, the runner on third commits to sprinting home and the runner on second commits to sprinting to third.

Here’s where the magic happens. While all that is going on, the batter/runner commits to sprinting to second base.

Since the defense will likely be committed to getting the out at home it will place all of its focus there and not even notice the batter/runner going toward second until it’s too late. And even if they see it there may not be anyone there to take a throw.

So worst case the runner is out at home, you have one less out to work with, but you still have two runners in scoring position instead of one. Best case, you scored a run and still have two runners in scoring position with the same number of outs you had before.

That’s a lot of upside with not a lot of downside. I’d put this one in the low risk category.

Thank you for sharing.

Choose Wisely

Now, understand if your team has a good lead or is clearly in command of the game you’re probably not going to need most of these plays. Just keep dominating and walk out with the win.

Running trick plays (other than maybe the Runners on Second and Third Play) would actually be rather poor sportsmanship in my opinion. You’d just be showing up the other team for no reason.

But if you need to find a way to manufacture a run in a tight game, or at least set yourself up to do so, give one of these plays a try. It could not only solve the immediate issue – it might be a way of inspiring your team to play the game at a higher level.

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Strategy for winning the international tie breaker

One of the staples of fastpitch softball tournaments is the international tie breaker, or ITB. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a way of trying to get to a winner faster in a tie game. After seven innings, or the time limit expires if you’re playing with one of those, each team starts the inning with a runner on second base. The runner on second is the last out from the previous inning. Each team gets three outs to try to score as many runs as they can in their half-inning. If one score more than the other, they win. It’s sort of like the soccer shoot-out for those of you watching the World Cup, or a shoot-out in hockey. While I said “as many runs as you can,” in most instances you’re trying to get one run. Most games that go to the ITB are not double-digit slugfests. They’re usually low-scoring affairs, which is why you start with a runner on second. Softball strategy 101 says the team at bat should sacrifice bunt the runner to third, and then take two outs to try to bring her home. That’s what most teams do. But I have a strategy that, if you have the right pieces in place, can help you get that runner at least to third with no outs. It depends on two things. The first is a runner with decent speed – enough to make it a challenge for the shortstop to cover on a steal. The second is a hitter with the ability to slug bunt, i.e., show bunt then pull back and slap the ball hard on the ground. Here’s how you take advantage of them. If you can get the hitter to a favorable count such as 2-0 where the pitcher really needs to throw a strike, have your runner on second steal third, and your hitter execute a slug bunt. When you do this, you’re starting out by giving the defensive team what they expect – a bunt. Third base will likely be playing up for the bunt, which means the shortstop must cover third on a steal. When your runner takes off, the shortstop will likely start moving to cover third on the throw from the catcher. You may also get the second baseman moving to cover first if the first baseman is also playing close. That opens up some space. After showing bunt and pulling back, the hitter attempts to slap the ball on the ground, either to where the shortstop or second baseman normally plays. There are several possible good outcomes. One is if the shortstop or second baseman did start moving to their respective corners and the hitter gets the ball on the ground, it will roll through the area they vacated, perhaps to the outfield grass. Since your runner was already stealing, she may be far enough along to keep going and score. And you have a runner on first with no outs. What about if the hitter swings and misses? No problem. Perhaps the act of pulling back gets the shortstop to freeze long enough to allow your runner to get to third unchallenged. Even if she keeps going it’s still a tough play at third. A poor throw or a miss and your runner is either safe at third or headed home. Again, you also have a runner at first with no outs. And that runner will likely be standing on second after the next pitch, because the defense can’t afford to let the runner on third score. If the hitter goes for the slug and hits it directly to a fielder, the runner on second is still likely to get to third cleanly, although the batter may be out depending on her speed. In that case you’re no worse off than if you’d sacrifice bunted. Any of those outcomes will make you look like an offensive genius. About the only thing that can go wrong is if your hitter pops up instead of putting the ball on the ground. In that case the batter is out and the runner who was on second will probably get doubled off. Then everyone thinks you’re an idiot. Still, the odds are in your favor. With the summer tournament season heating up, you’re likely to face an ITB sooner or later. Keep this strategy in mind and you just may improve your odds of winning. Now it’s your turn? What other non-standard strategies do you employ on the ITB?

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