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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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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.

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