Category Archives: running

[game 103] Hit and Run

There are two guaranteed arguments for baseball fans: the value of the designated hitter and the wisdom of the hit and run. Tonight we had a successful hit and run, so somebody somewhere has a point for his side, and somebody somewhere else has a rationalization.

Debates about the hit and run are essentially varying views on baseball risk management. Managers like Earl Weaver think it’s nuts to gamble a possible out for advancing a runner. Managers like Mike Scoscia, tonight, think the reward outweighs the risk, particularly if it takes the opponent by surprise.

It took the Twins by surprise, all right. After a four-pitch walk to Erick Aybar started the eleventh inning with the score tied 5-5, Scoscia called the play with Gary Matthews Jr at bat. The Twins had been expecting a bunt to nudge the runner over, and the fielders left a hole Matthews exploited for a single.

Now, there’s no question the hit and run worked in this instance. It was even something of the centerpiece of the Angels’ comeback. They would go on to hit six singles, collect one more walk, and score six runs to win 11-5. The Twins tried to staunch the bleeding with three different relievers, but once the Angels set to hitting, they really don’t stop.

The hit and run has a pretty problem—if it fails, it often leads to a double play, which is the very outcome it is designed to forestall. The play affects the actions of both baserunner and batter, but it is called before either can judge the pitch. It’s a blind commitment, and both players had better read the sign correctly or it unravels before it starts.

The idea is simple: the runner starts running before the ball is hit, giving him a splendid head start. If the batter fails to make contact, the runner is now trying to steal, but is more likely than usual to be thrown out, because his lead is not based on the normal read of the pitcher, or even trying to search for a slower pitch on which to run. In a hit and run, the runner just breaks away as the pitch is thrown, without the lead he might use on a true steal.

The batter has to put the ball in play, and if he’s a good contact hitter he even gets some help here. A runner on first breaking for second obligates either the second baseman or shortstop to cover the bag, leaving a little lane for the hitter to poke a ground ball through.

If the hitter misses, the runner is usually out; if he strikes out or pops up, they both are, unless the fielders muff their chance. Try it with a bunt and two runners on base and you have the ingredients of the fabulous unassisted triple play.

 

Yet the rationale of the hit and run is reducing the chance of a double play by giving the runner a massive head start. The other, quieter, reason for using it is to compensate for limited power hitting skills. A clean double may be hard to come by, but getting the bat solidly on the ball is all that’s needed for a hit and run to move a runner to third on a single, or score him on a double. At worst, a fielder’s choice that cuts down the batter at first instead of the lead runner sets up the next hitter without the possibility of the classic second-to-first double play looming over him.

The batter has some important tasks. He needs to foul off any pitch he can’t rap out into play, and he needs to hit behind the advancing runner. Obviously, the play is not smart at certain points in the count. Tonight, Mike Scoscia used it before the Twins could see it coming.

Bobby Keppel was in for the eleventh inning. Joe Nathan had already been used to preserve the tie, and both teams were juggling their bullpens. Keppel began by walking Aybar, and instantly the inning started to have that faint whiff of trouble about it. Matthews discharged his hit and run duties perfectly, and Aybar advanced to third.

There are two basic ways to break a tie: scratch out a run using every out available, or pound your way through. The Angels started this inning as if they’d need gamble their outs for a single run, but the Twins bullpen didn’t get around to charging them any tolls on the highway. Howie Kendrick hit a single to score Aybar, and there were still no outs.

Ron Gardenhire tried to stop the misery quickly, and switched pitchers, but Jessie Crain had no better luck against the swarming singles attack of the Angels. Put it this way: you can win a lot of games with .250 hitters if they have the uncanny knack of getting their single hit of the night all in the same inning.

Chone Figgins singles to load the bases, and Maicer Izturis follows with, what else, another simple single, this one of the RBI variety. Bobby Abreu breaks up the tedium by scoring two runs on his hit, and then Juan Rivera walks.

That’s a lot of Angels marching over the basepaths, so Gardy tries the bullpen again. RA Dickey falls under the Angels’ hypno-hitting spell and dispenses a single to Kendry Morales, than snaps himself out of it. He strikes out Mike Napoli, but allows a fielder’s choice from Aybar to score one more run. Dickey strikes out Matthews, but you almost get the feeling the Angels are ready to get back in the field and enjoy their 6-run lead.

The Twins don’t come close to answering back in the bottom of the inning. They are dispirited, even stunned. It had been a close game up to the eleventh, with good spurts of hitting by both teams.

Nick Blackburn and Ervin Santana were the starters, meeting up again, this time in the Metrodome, after last squaring off in a game the Angels took in crushing style. In that game, Blackburn had been perfect for three innings, only to unravel completely in the fourth as the Angels took a clobbering lead they would never surrender.

Tonight Blackburn gets it over with quickly by giving up a hit to Figgins to start the game. The Angels end up scoring two in the inning.

Joe Mauer sends the Twins ahead in the third with a three-run homer. He was driving in Alexi Casilla and Denard Span, and once again the Twins are working from the template of place-setting hitters getting themselves on base.

This afternoon, the Twins completed a trade for Orlando Cabrera, a traveling shortstop who moves from team to team with the sterling credential of having participated in the 2004 Red Sox World Series victory. The .280 hitter is going to displace one of our infield lightweights, and that puts Nick Punto in the crosshairs. Tonight could be his last game for a while, maybe forever.

He doesn’t have much of a line score until the fourth inning, in which he smacks a hearty triple to score Carlos Gomez. Watching him motor hard to third is cheering. Gardenhire has an obvious soft spot for Punto, and this RBI moment may be enough to turn attention to Brian Buscher or Alexi Casilla as the player who’s forced down.

The fourth inning includes an RBI from Span, scoring Punto and placing the Twins ahead 5-2. Blackburn pitched on into the seventh, but the Angels caught up to him. There were baserunners in every inning, against both pitchers, but now the Angels cash in on two of theirs, with an RBI from Izturis and a homer from Abreu.

A one-run lead is such a rickety thing. You can keep propping it up, but the smallest puff of wind is enough to collapse it. Matt Guerrier starts off the eighth inning by giving up a solo homer to catcher Mike Napoli. Guerrier proceeds to corral three straight outs, but the tie is in place. Both teams are quiet for the ninth and tenth, and then the hit and run triggers a scoring cascade in the eleventh.

A close game disintegrated into a rout, and the Twins don’t manage that miraculous four-game win streak they need. The team has clung close to .500 all season long, and tonight’s a little example of how one startling play can set off big inning against a Twins team that can’t quite take that next step up. There’s always tomorrow, but not an infinity of tomorrows.

[games 76, 77] Two Games, Two Sports

For a while, it looked like the games would stay in eerie parallel, with each of my teams out to an early lead. I was toggling between the Twins concluding their series with the Cardinals and the US soccer team trying to upset Brazil in the Confederations Cup. My husband observed that merely mentioning soccer in this blog could easily cost me a quarter of my precious readers, but I’ll risk it.

The Twins have a penchant for scoring early, but it’s a trait widely shared—the first inning has by far the largest average runs per inning. The mechanism is easy to understand: the pitcher finding his sea legs, versus the batting order in its theoretically optimal trim.

Today was a case in point. The Cardinals started Joel Piniero who, at 6-8, hasn’t revived his career with the move to St Louis. (For that matter, we will start Francisco Liriano, 3-8, who was in danger of losing his rotation spot.) Denard Span leads off and is safe on an error, Brendan Harris advances him to second on a groundout, and Joe Mauer fluffs up his batting average with a single. First and third, one out.

This is what we like to call a Justin Morneau situation. It’s a three-run homer, then, and the Twins look ready to bounce back from yesterday’s game.

A brief digression to recap Saturday’s contest: Albert Pujols hit a double helping of two-run homers to set the Cards on to win 5-3. Kevin Slowey doled those runs out and lasted a mere three innings as his attempt to be the first AL pitcher with 11 victories was foiled early. I had to watch these events crawl by on my computer’s game update, as Fox and MLB form an impenetrable wall shielding me from all Saturday afternoon baseball. The fiends.

Today, however, none of that loss lingers over the Twins. Liriano keeps the Cards, and Pujols in particular, in check for seven innings, allowing 4 hits and 2 runs. The Twins tack on another run on a Harris sac fly, and collect their fifth run in the ninth when Harris pushes Joe Crede in to score on an RBI single.

But I’m spending much of that time savoring the soccer. I doubt my eyes as the US scores first, and twice. The first goal, from Clint Dempsey, requires threading the needle through defenders. The second, by Landon Donovan, is a little case study in ball control, as he splits defenders, passes left, receives the return, does that shoulder drop/knee bend that drives the defender the wrong way, and then plants a shot squarely by the goalkeeper.

There are three great pleasures in being a soccer fan. First, the game is a beautiful flow of motion, and the exotic scarcity of scoring makes every goal a stunning triumph. Second, no commercial breaks. Third, you have to root for Italy, Argentina, France, Germany, Brazil, England, Croatia, Spain—anyone but the US, which musters out unspectacular team after unspectacular team.

So I’m not watching today as a US partisan, though I admit that this fairy-tale ride into the finals is remarkable. The US was nearly eliminated from the tournament by losses to Brazil and Italy. Their only chance of staying in was a 3-0 win against Egypt (unlikely, given their level of play to date) and a 3-0 loss by Italy to Brazil (virtually impossible, as Italy last suffered such a shutout before, I don’t know, something like Marconi’s invention of the radio.)

But the unlikely/impossible is why we have sports, and the scores come true. The US plays with heart and vigor to overcome Egypt. And Italy, I don’t know how this could have happened. I was frantically cheering for the Azzuri in the 2006 World Cup and shall continue to consider them campioni del mondo until the calendar requires me to concede.

In any case, next up, another miracle. The US edges Spain to get into the championship match. Spain, top team by many measures, can’t slow down this surge from Team USA.

Simply appearing in today’s championship match puts the US men in new territory. They haven’t reached a FIFA final before, let alone won a tournament. The odds favor Brazil, overwhelmingly. It’s time, of course, for this string of stunning surprises to come to an end.

So I lean back, ready to see the Brazilians do their beautiful dance with the ball as Donovan & Co. struggle to keep up, but the match starts off far differently. Here’s USA keeping firm possession, playing with confidence and flow. And the first goal, within ten minutes, is a pure shock.

I know I should tear my eyes away and return to my baseball world, but I can’t let go. I tell myself that I will see baseball better if I train my gaze here for a while, the better to appreciate the contrast. After all, the best way to learn what something is is to see clearly what it is not.

Soccer is a restless flow, and I know why it can seem dull to Americans glancing by: much of the movement is irresolute, and all of it appears in a TV camera long shot. Baseball, by contrast, is a game of close-ups. And even if every baseball event has a long prelude of cap adjusting, spitting, cleat scratching, and bat wiggling, the pure purpose is always clear.

In soccer, the prettiest thing you can see in ninety minutes usually looks like an accident, not least because no one can seem to do it twice. Baseball is like a vast ocean of failure, with an unbearably precise statistical record of every shortcoming, but each isolated burst of excellence—the pinpoint pitch, the perfect swing, the hustle and glide of the double play—echoes an unchanging ideal. We know those plays. We know they aren’t easy, but that practice and skill makes them possible.

In soccer, emotion and happenstance make each goal—any goal—a miracle bordering on pure innovation. When Donovan carves out his this afternoon, he runs toward the sidelines in his happy exuberance, repeatedly tapping his own chest as if to say, “Me! Me! I did what’s never been done before!” Because there is no template, and almost no true strategy to soccer. I acknowledge there are styles of play, and ways of connection on the field, and overall coaching vision. But soccer is a game of vast space, and even the dive of the goaltender can only ever cover so much of it. Soccer is entropy with a scoring mechanism.

The US has a stunning first period, and their 2-0 lead will certainly hold up if they can continue to move the ball and bewitch Brazil as they have just done for 45 minutes. But halftime divides the game distinctly in two. Brazil is newly energized. In the first minute of the second half, they score and break the wall keeper Tim Howard had tended so firmly the first half.

Now Team USA can’t stop reeling from the blow. They stop controlling the ball and pursuing their defense. In the 60th minute, Brazil’s Kaka drives a header past Howard, who handles it behind the post but sends it out so promptly the referee is convinced it never crossed the plane of the goal. Replays make the point evident, but Brazil has not yet tied the game.

It will be another 15 minutes before they do, but the equalizer is struck. This entire half, the US has mounted barely a threat. You can’t help feeling like they’re returning to earth, and with a thud, their passport to miracles having expired. The tie, though, still allows hope.

Until Brazil turns the clock against them by scoring in the 85th minute. It begins off a corner kick, and when Howard lies flattened with failure, the team has collectively given up. It’s Brazil 3-2, and the end of upsets for this tournament.

When I turn back to baseball, I contrast the flow and beauty of the two games. Here’s Joe Mauer taking a ball, and then the pause filled with preliminaries for the next pitch. It’s a strike. Mauer’s average had been above .400 for a while today, but grounding into a double play has him in need of a hit. The shuffle in and out of the batter’s box, the pitcher’s little prefaces to pitching, and then the play: Mauer grounds out, and will end the day at .394.

There were a dozen shifts and sniffs and scratches necessary to reach that outcome. Baseball is hitch and go and hitch again. Finally, after all that running on the soccer pitch, I get the clumsiest version of motion baseball provides. In the bottom of the ninth, as the Twins are trying to preserve their lead, Joe Thurston is caught in a rundown. He was on first and Jason LaRue on second when Chris Duncan singled. That hit should have filled the bases and put the Twins’ 4-run lead in pretty sharp danger. But Carlos Gomez fielded the ball quickly and Brendan Harris saw Thurston dashing too far past second, hoping LaRue was going to score. No sir. Gomez threw cleanly and Harris tagged him out. Twins win, in the particular halting flow that is baseball.