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by Dave
Thursday, March 22, 2007

I caught a game on TV yesterday on the Fox College Sports Network - required for all softball addicts.   It was good to see a little fastpitch again even if it wasn't in-person, outside, and someplace warm.   I enjoyed watching the game but I found a number of things disturbing.   These two teams were relatively good Division I programs - they weren't lower level teams.   One was a top 25 team!   But the players fundamental skills were lacking, they failed to execute sound approaches to the game, and some of the strategies employed were at best questionable.

The first thing I found disturbing was a defensive play on a shot towards the secondbaseman.   the ball ended up in rightfield because even though the player got her glove on the ball, she couldn't corral it.   I watched that play over and over again via my TV's digital recorder and finally it struck me that while the ball was certainly hit hard, the fielder never moved her feet at all.   If you want to play defense, you've just got to learn to move your feet.

You catch a thrown or hit ball as much with your feet as you do with your hands.   Even a hard hit line drive should cause your feet to move.   Actually, if you're an infielder standing flat footed when the pitch is thrown, you're dead.   You've got to be up on your toes and the balls of your feet and moving to some degree before a ball is even hit.   You cannot help but move your feet right before during an after a defensive play.   Yet this player stood flat-footed before the pitch, after it, and after the hit, and missed a line shot.   I was surprised to see such poor fundamental skills in that particular level of play.

Here's what I suggest you do.   If you're playing the field, get used to being up on the balls of your feet as the pitcher begins her windmill.   If the batter begins to swing, take a couple very short choppy steps forwards until you pick up the ball.   Always move your feet as you are moving your mitt towards a hit ball.   Practice this approach during team practices and on every pitch in games.

Another play I saw which resulted in an out involved a base stealer who was thrown out on a really good throw by the catcher.   I watched the replay of that as well and was disturbed by something the catcher did.   As the pitcher went into her windmill, the catcher made a fist with her hand and placed it behind her right thigh.   I've seen catchers do this more in softball than I have in baseball.   I'm not really sure why since both sports involve the same responsibilities and risks to the catcher.   I prefer a fist behind the catcher's mitt because it allows for 1) better balance as the catcher comes up to make the throw and 2) a much faster release to second base.   But I'll live with the tendency to keep the hand back just for the sake of argument since many coaches teach this approach and that's not what I found most disturbing.

What upset me was that while the pitch was still incoming, the catcher removed her hand from the safety of her leg and pulled it up towards the mitt with her fingers wide open - no longer in a fist.   The hand was wide open presumably so she could grasp the ball quickly.   The batter swung and missed.   The catcher grasped the ball and threw out the runner, strike'em out / throw'em out double play.   But while the play was made, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.   The runner on first happened to be a well-known, very successful base stealer.   The catcher should have been ready for a steal.   If you're going to be ready for a steal, your hand should be up by the catcher's mitt and remain in a fist.   If you've got your hand in back of you for reasons of protecting your fingers, OK, keep them there.   Why would you pull your hand up to the mitt before the pitch has arrived, while the batter can still foul the ball off?   If you're going to pull it out from it's safe spot anyways, keep it up there to begin with.   And never, never, ever leave your hand open before the pitch arrives.   That's a sure way to break your fingers on a foul tip.   This play, while a good one from the standpoint of getting an out, was like a perfect clip on what not to do if you're a catcher.

Here's my take-away for you.   I suggest you get used to catching with your throwing hand in a fist behind your glove.   It can't get hit by a foul ball there.   You will inevitably get hit by some foul tips at some point no matter where you keep your hand but if it is in a fist, you are less likely to break a finger.   No matter where you keep your hand, keep it in a fist until the ball passes the batter.   And, if you must keep your hand behind your leg, I'll learn to live with that ... provided you don't pull it out at exactly the wrong moment!

Other parts of the action I found disturbing involved the inability to move runners along and poor strategies on the bases.   The number two hitter for one team got up to bat in the first inning with a runner aboard.   The score was still 0-0 but she failed to move the runner up via the bunt.   Her skill level at bunting was below average.   She couldn't get the bat on the ball given a pitcher who does not strike out many batters.   She failed to execute a bunt on a pitch thrown pretty much right down the middle of the plate.   She seemed to be trying to execute a drag rather than sacrifice bunt.   Her feet were in motion like a dragger or slapper.   She couldn't vector the ball and missed at bunting.   I am upset at the player for not being able to execute a simple sacrifice bunt.   I am more upset with the coach for not having somebody who can in the 2 spot where this situation often occurs.

At one point in this game, there were runners on first and second, the team at-bat was down two runs, and there was one out.   Runners on base had excellent speed.   The batter was apparently a left-hand-hitting slapper.   First she set up to bunt and, again, this hitter tried to drag rather than sacrifice.   First she took a pitch which was just below the strike zone by pulling back her bat in time.   The runners almost got caught off base because they saw the location of the pitch and were breaking for the next base.   Understand this, a pitch does not have to be a strike to be a good bunting pitch.   One just below the strike zone is the BEST pitch to bunt.   If the offensive play everyone is in the know of is a bunt in this situation, the batter just has to get the bunt down.   The runners were right to start since they saw what amounted to the best possible pitch for a bunt.

Later during this at-bat, the hitter stopped trying to get a bunt down and went to her normal slapping style.   She grounded one foul right at the third base coach.   That got my attention.   Why would you be trying to hit the ball down the third baseline with runners on first and second?   That's exactly what you don't want to do.   If you're going to do anything in this situation, you simply MUST hit the ball to the right side.   This batter ended her at-bat by grounding the ball weakly to short who tossed to third, two outs runners still on first and second, missed opportunity, bad play, bad at-bat.

Here's my advice, whether you are a slapper or not, whether you're a righty or lefty, learn to hit the ball to the right side of the field when you've got runners on 1st and 2nd with 1 or no outs.   That is an indispensable skill.   And, in the same situation, if you are bunting, you've got to learn what a good pitch to bunt is and you've got to learn to get it down.   Dragging is a great skill too but NOT with 1 out and two runners aboard!

Finally, late in this game, after squandering numerous opportunities to advance runners and potentially win this game, one team found itself with its last ups and down by two runs.   Their leadoff hitter got on base.   The announcers noted that while she was a good base stealer, she most likely would not go in this situation.   They were wrong, she went on the first pitch!   Now the team with the runner aboard is successful stealing bases about 60% of the time.   But the defensive team allows only a little less than half of opponents' base stealers to advance.   The ball was fouled off so the runner went back to first and didn't try to steal again.   That's good since that run meant absolutely nothing to her team.   Why in the world a single baserunner in the last inning while down two runs would try to advance, I just can't say.   She wasn't even the tying run!   It leaves me absolutely speechless.   I have to assume the coach called that!?   If the baserunner decided on her own to steal, that isn't a very savy play.   If the coach did it, that's inexcusable.   The team deserved to lose.   They did lose.

My advice to you is to always know the game and inning situation.   You've got to do a better job of understanding what the score is, how important it is for you to be on second, and what the potential outcomes of your actions are.   When you're down a couple runs, advancing isn't a great idea unless it is still early.   If you're the tying run (say your on first and there's a runner on third), that's a different situation.   It is absolutely wrong to risk trading an out for a base when you're down by a couple in the last inning.   Know the situation and what the right action is.

As I said at the beginning, it is good to be able to watch fastpitch softball again.   But my joy in being able to watch is overwhelmed by poor fundamental play.   We've got to do a better job of schooling our kids in what the wrong and right fundamentals and game situation plays are.   It is incomprehensible that players at the highest levels of this game don't know the right things to do.   If we really want to bring this game to its highest potential level, we've apparently got a long way to go.

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