STRATEGIES TO AVOID THE ‘BIG INNING’
There is an axiom in youth baseball that every team seems to experience 1 bad inning on defense in most games. It is an inning where the defense seems to fall apart, the pitcher can’t seem to get the ball over the plate, or he gets hit very hard. Things seem to deteriorate. You went into this “bad” inning with a lead and you come out way behind with a demoralized bunch of kids. Just being aware of that one bad inning will sometimes help. Earl Weaver once said that many times the winning team will score more runs in one inning than the losing team does in the entire game. Big innings are common throughout baseball, not just Little League. So let’s look at a plan to cut down on those nerve-racking innings.
- Get the first out of every inning. This is the #1offense killer. With one out it is difficult for the offense to do much more than play ‘station-to-station’ baseball. This is a priority for every defense.
- Attempt to get strike 1 one on very batter. If the pitcher can get the first pitch across for strike 1 he is in control and his chances of retiring that batter are improved.
- “Oh, those base on balls.” Don’t give runners a free pass to beat you.
- Let the opposing team hit the ball. This at least gives your defense a chance to make a play. The essence of baseball is the confrontation between the hitter and the pitcher. The pitcher should think “Here it is, I got it, here it comes.” My best against your best.
- Refocus after 2 outs. Many a game has been lost with 2 outs and no one on base. There is a tendency for the pitcher to let down after he has retired the first 2 batters. This should be a goal for every pitcher. It should be a goal for the defense as well. Coach, remind your pitcher to “close the deal.”
- Keep passed balls to a minimum. Concentrate catcher practice efforts on cutting down on the “Little League Run.” Wild pitches and passed balls score and put many a base runner in scoring position in youth baseball. If a coach is able to teach his catchers to block the ball effectively he will keep a lot of runs off the board.
- Throw to the base ahead of the runner. Do not throw behind him. Runner on 1st base, base hit to the outfield. Throw the ball to 3rd, not 2nd. Runner on 2nd, base hit to the outfield, throw the ball home not to 3rd. No one on and a sure double by the hitter, throw the ball into 3 rd. (There are a few exceptions.) This takes communication and back up by the pitchers and infielders. It also takes the ability to throw to the target by the outfielders. Don’t forget to back up each base.
- Don’t lose the game on a bad throw. Sometimes in a close game, especially in the late innings it is better to hold the ball rather than throw it and possibly throw it away. Don’t attempt those pick-offs and ‘trick plays’ in close games when runs are at a premium.
- With a big lead don’t play the infield “in” with a runner on third base. In that situation it is better to give up a run for an out.
- Make sure you have taught your first basemen the art of digging balls out of the dirt. Spend extra practice time on this.
- Position your defense to make plays up the middle. That is where the majority of balls are hit. There are exceptions late in the game. Your best athletes should play the ‘up the middle’ positions; catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.
- In 99% of all bunt situations get the out at first base. The defense is giving you an out- take it. Let ‘em bunt. Throw a strike.
- Teach your team that the game of baseball is played 'one pitch at a time.’ Not one out at a time or one inning at a time or one game at a time but one pitch at a time. This helps develop concentration skills.
- With a runner at first base it is important for the pitcher to concentrate on the hitter. Think of keeping the runner close rather than throwing over multiple times and trying to pick him off. The pitcher can step off or simply hold the ball longer before delivering to the plate.
- In crucial situations don’t give in to their best hitter. The pitcher should throw the pitch he wants to throw. Stay away from ‘fat pitches’ even when behind in the count.
- Make sure your pitchers sprint to cover 1st base on all balls hit to the right side of the infield.
- Make sure your pitchers backup the catcher on possible plays at the plate.
- With runners in scoring position your infielders should be aware that they must ‘lay out’ and attempt to knock down all balls hit in the holes to prevent them from going into the outfield. (Remind them to ‘knock the ball down’ before the pitch.)
- Infield and outfield communication is a critical skill. Don’t allow a routine out to become an adventure because the fielders failed to talk to each other.
- In a close game with the offense threatening to score a run or multiple runs it is imperative that the defense remain calm and focused on getting an out. Exercise “Damage Control.” Don’t panic with 2 on and no out. Take the outs as they present themselves. Play within what the game offers you. “Okay, we gave up 2 runs. Let’s stop it right there.”
- Focus on teaching the routine defensive plays at practices; ground balls at them, balls hit to their left, the backhand and slow rollers. Develop the mentality that all balls hit in the air will be caught.
- Play like you expect to win, not like you’re afraid to lose.
Even when you emphasize these skills and this approach you are not guaranteed to stay out of damaging innings. That’s baseball. But having a plan and being prepared is an infinitely better way than saying, “they’re just kids.”