The first round of the Major League Baseball Play-offs is over and there has been a bonanza of examples that what almost every coach I have ever been around preached as how the game should be played.
The four teams that are left in the hunt for a World Series berth only include half of the teams that I predicted would still be playing. What is left, however, is four of the most fundamentally sound teams in the game today. That is why it was startling to see game after game decided because a player made a fundamental mistake that cost his team a victory.
The clearest example of a player's violation of a fundamental most coaches preach religiously is, without doubt, the reason the Atlanta Braves were eliminated from their series with the Houston Astros. Atlanta first baseman Adam LaRoche had hit a grand slam home run that gave the Braves a commanding lead in the game which eliminated them from the series. He was on first base when a batter hit a ball into the left field corner. LaRoche, clearly, coasted into second and was still running at considerably less than full speed most of the way to third. The ball stopped against the fence and the third base coach waved LaRoche home. He ran hard from that point on, but was thrown out at the plate on a play that was not nearly as close as one would have expected. Had he run full speed from the time the ball was hit, he probably would have scored without a play.
Houston came back and tied that game with two outs in the ninth inning and eventually won it in 18 innings. The lesson is clear, hustle pays dividends and a lack of hustle may prove very costly.
Another thing you probably remember your coaches telling you is, "Play, don't umpire." In other words, run until the umpire calls you out or make the play until the umpire calls your opponent safe or out. Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierznski struck out for what should have been the final out of the ninth inning of his team's game with the Los Angeles Angels with the score tied at 1-1. He thought there was a chance that the ball had bounced before going into the catcher's glove and ran toward first.
The Angels catcher made the mistake of umpiring and rolled the ball toward the mound. Pierznski was safe and his pinch-runner wound up scoring the winning run a batter later.
That play is complicated because it appears that the umpire might have missed the call, but the adage remains true. If you are a player, play and let the umpire do the umpiring.
Yet another example of the price of violating coaching principles came in an earlier series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. (This one is less clear in my memory as to which game and it may even have been in the Red Sox-White Sox series.)
The batter hit a ball into deep right field for a sure double. Half way to second base, he turned his body and looked back at the right fielder. He rounded second and headed for third, but turned again to look at the outfielder when about a third of the way to third. He was out on a very close play.
The thing most coaches would have told him was to pick up the base coach as soon as the play was behind him and let the coach signal him whether to run or not. Had he done that, he would have been safe.
There have been great series for old style baseball fans. The Cardinals are probably the most effective users of the bunt, the squeeze play and the hit and run in baseball today. The Angel, White Sox and Astros are not far behind. All have used the weapons old style coaches hold dear.
One thing that has not been as good as one would hope for has been the umpires helping one another out on difficult calls. The call on Pierzynski's third strike could have been handled much better and more quickly had the plate umpire asked for help if unsure or signaled more clearly if he was sure of his call. In the second St. Louis-Houston game a batter clearly hit a ball off his foot but was thrown out when none of the umpires called it foul. Missed calls are part of the game and always will be. They can be minimized, however, if umpires are more willing to ask for help when it is needed and the umpires who could give that help are as attentive to the situation as they should be.