Advertisement
  1. Archive

MANUFACTURING THE PERFECT RUN

Published May 20, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

At the time it didn't seem like much. Nine pitches during one half of the 1,500 innings the Devil Rays will play during a six-month, 162-game season.

But when you think about it, it really was something.

By the time a player gets to the major leagues he should know how to play the game. But actually doing it _ executing, when it matters, and getting it right _ can be a totally different story.

Get him on, get him over, get him in.

It's a phrase repeated over and over on ballfields everywhere, baseball lingo describing a fundamentally sound sequence of manufacturing a run absent a series of hits.

In the ninth inning May 13 at the SkyDome, seeking to add to a 6-4 lead the Devil Rays did it exactly right: Carl Crawford singled, stole second, moved to third on a bunt by Marlon Anderson and scored on Rocco Baldelli's sacrifice fly.

It amounted to the perfect run.

"You can't do any better," manager Lou Piniella said.

The single

Crawford had been battling to get out of an extended slump, his head filled with well-meant suggestions to level his swing and get him to stop chasing so many bad pitches.

It has been an interesting first six weeks for Crawford. Baldelli's breakout performance has made it easier for Crawford because he has taken much of the spotlight and attention Crawford would just as soon do without. But it also has made it tougher because some people think Crawford should be doing as well or better as he had a half-season in the majors last year, forgetting that he, too, is a 21-year-old trying to learn on the job in the big leagues.

He went to the plate to lead off the ninth against Toronto reliever Jeff Tam trying to simplify things as much as possible.

To get on.

Piniella had been preaching the importance of "tack-on" runs _ adding to your lead late in a game _ and this was the prime situation.

"I'm just trying to get on, get a hit, get an extra run, an insurance run," Crawford said.

He took a pitch for a ball, fouled off a pitch, took another for a 2-and-1 count, then saw something he liked. At that moment, as the line drive shot over shortstop Chris Woodward's head and landed on the turf, all that extra work in the batting cage was worth it.

"A sinker that he left up." Crawford said. "I faded on it and hit it back up the middle."

The steal

Speed, Piniella likes to say, comes to the ballpark every day. A player may be struggling with his swing at times, uncomfortable with his footwork, confused about his mechanics. But if he can run fast one day, he can run fast every day.

Crawford, fleet enough to have been recruited as a quarterback by Nebraska and a point guard by UCLA, already had stolen nine bases in 10 tries. Most of the people in the ballpark would be surprised if he didn't try for another.

Third-base coach Tom Foley touched his hat, sleeves, chest and thighs, giving the signs for what the Rays call "Get a jump, go" _ essentially a green light for the runner to take off as soon as he's comfortable with his lead.

Marlon Anderson, the next Rays hitter, didn't even have to look for the sign. He knew Crawford was going to be running and didn't plan to swing until he did.

"I was going to take until he had an opportunity," Anderson said. "When I stepped in the box, I'm like, I want him to go. If he gets to second, it's going to be easier for us to score."

The Blue Jays knew it, too. From the bench, manager Carlos Tosca signaled for a pitchout, and catcher Tim Wilson relayed the sign to Tam to throw the next pitch high and outside.

In the fourth inning, Crawford had been called out trying to steal. He'd waited for the second pitch, but Toronto pitcher Tanyon Sturtze, the former Ray, used a slide-step maneuver, which quickens a pitcher's delivery to home plate, and Wilson got him.

Crawford, who slowly lengthening his lead until he got his right foot on the turf, wasn't going to make the same mistake with Tam. "I was thinking if he gave me a high leg kick, I've got to go," Crawford said. "That's what happened, so I took off on the first pitch."

Tosca had guessed right, and it seemed the Blue Jays had Crawford again. Tam put the ball where he was supposed to and Wilson was in good position when he received it, but his throw was a few feet wide to the third-base side. "I got rid of it as quick as I could," Wilson said. "But I put the ball on the wrong side of the base."

It probably wouldn't have mattered as quickly as Crawford covered the 90 feet, sliding in safely and popping up on the base. "They're thinking just because it's a pitchout you'll be out, but that ain't the case." Crawford said. "If you take your time throwing it to home, with my speed it's still going to be hard to throw me out."

Crawford was so focused on getting to second, he didn't even know the Jays had pitched out until someone told him after he got back to the dugout.

"That happens with Carl because he's safe a lot," Baldelli said.

"He's got the kind of speed a lot of people only dream about having," Anderson said. "If he gets a good jump, it doesn't matter if they pitchout or whatever."

The sac bunt

With Crawford on second and no outs, Anderson's mission was obvious: to somehow, some way get Crawford to third.

To get him over.

"To me, it wasn't even a thought process; it's what I'm going to do," Anderson said. "Lou didn't have to give me a sign or tell me this or whatever. It's just how you play the game."

Foley knew that Anderson, a five-year veteran, knew what to do. But third-base coaches are paid to make sure. He already was a few feet down the line when Anderson strolled to the plate, and he took a couple steps and hollered at him the way coaches do in that kind of sing-song way.

"Hey, let's go," Foley said, "Get the job done."

Anderson figured he had two ways to do it. He could hit a ground ball to the right side of the Toronto infield, or he could drop a bunt, preferably forcing third baseman Eric Hinske to charge in to field it, leaving the base unguarded for Crawford.

Tam's specialty is the sinker, so Anderson knew he'd get a good pitch to bunt. Plus he figured if he put it in the right spot, he could beat it out for a base hit. The choice actually was pretty simple.

"To me, there's no option, especially in that situation: the ninth inning and we're trying to get an extra run," Anderson said.

The Blue Jays were expecting a bunt, Wilson said, especially because Anderson had been in the National League, where that strategy is more common. "It wasn't a surprise to me," Wilson said. "His job is to get that guy to third with one out."

By Anderson's standards, it wasn't a very good bunt, coming off his bat toward first base, bouncing three times in the dirt cutout in front of home plate.

By the time Wilson pounced on it, Crawford was speeding toward third. The only play was to first, where Anderson was out by a step. But when he got to the dugout, his teammates were standing to greet him with high fives.

"That's just baseball," Anderson said. "Hopefully that makes Lou's job easier when he knows he's got players out there who do that kind of thing and know how to play the game and get it done."

The sac fly

Baldelli had been watching intently from the dugout. There hasn't been a day this season that hasn't been a new experience for him, whether it's learning an opponent, learning his way around a ballpark, learning an umpire or learning how that funny-colored Canadian currency works.

He'd never faced Tam but knew from what he'd heard, and what he'd seen, that his best pitch was a sinking fastball that bore in on the hitters and produces ground balls.

"I know I've got to look for something up," Baldelli said. "I can't hit a ground ball there."

Baldelli stepped in, telling himself to keep it simple, but the thoughts were racing. He wants a pitch that isn't too low. A pitch that isn't too in on his hands. He wants something he can extend his arms for and drive to the outfield.

To get him in.

"There's a lot of stuff you're thinking about," Baldelli said, "but it all goes through your head in about a second."

As new as everything was, Baldelli had been in this situation _ man on third, one out _ hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Situational hitting is stressed throughout the Rays minor-league system, sometimes on a daily basis. Time and again, on the practice fields of St. Petersburg, in the batting cages of Charleston, S.C., and Bakersfield, Calif., Baldelli had done this.

"It's part of the game people would think you just go out and do," Baldelli said. "But it's something you have to take time to work on."

The Blue Jays were setting him up to fail, hoping for a ground ball. They brought the infield in, figuring they'll be able to get Crawford _ who has been told by Foley to go on contact _ at the plate, or at least freeze him at third, and Wilson gives Tam a low, inside target.

"He's probably swinging the bat the best on their team, and he's had some pretty tough at-bats. He puts the ball in play," Wilson said. "We're trying to go down and in, trying to induce a ground ball."

The first pitch was exactly what Baldelli expected, a sinker down, and he let it go for ball one. The next pitch was almost exactly the same, maybe a tad higher, and Baldelli couldn't hold back. He bounced it, but it goes foul past third.

"I swung at a pitch I probably didn't want to swing at, but a pitch he wants me to swing at," Baldelli said. "It was a sinker, down and in. You couldn't call it a fastball, but it probably is a fastball. The ball is probably moving eight inches down."

Baldelli stepped out and took a long look, long enough that it's obvious something is up, as Foley ran rapidly through a series of signs.

Would they squeeze here? Baldelli thought about it. Wilson thought about it, too. Turns out Piniella wanted everyone to think about, having Foley put it on and take it off between pitches as essentially a drill.

With the count 1-and-1, Wilson set up for another down-and-in sinker, but Tam missed the spot, leaving the ball a couple of inches higher and a couple of inches more toward the middle of the plate. Baldelli jumped at it, hitting a fly to deep center.

"It was the same pitch a little more out over the plate," Baldelli said. "That was the pitch I could get a little extension on."

Crawford drifted back to the third to tag up, and Foley yelled at him to be sure. Baldelli had done his part so well, there wasn't even a play.

Crawford jogged home, touching the plate with his right foot on his way to the first-base dugout, where he and Baldelli both received hearty congratulations for a job done right.

It was a perfectly executed run, and it mattered, too, as Lance Carter allowed a homer in the ninth before getting the final out of the 7-5 victory.

"Fundamental baseball," Crawford said. "I wish we'd do it like that all the time. In that situation we made it look easy. But it's far from easy."

Pitch by pitch

CARL CRAWFORD BATTING

Pitch 1: Ball

Pitch 2: Foul ball

Pitch 3: Ball

Pitch 4: Single to center

MARLON ANDERSON BATTING

Pitch 1: Ball

Crawford steals second

Pitch 2: Sacrifice bunt

Crawford moves to third

ROCCO BALDELLI BATTING

Pitch 1: Ball

Pitch 2: Foul ball

Pitch 3: Sacrifice fly

Crawford scores

Lou-ball

Under Lou Piniella the Devil Rays have become more aggressive on the basepaths. Here's how they manufactured an insurance run against the Blue Jays in the ninth inning of a 7-5 victory at Toronto on May 13.

Ball in play

Safe baserunner

Baserunner thrown out

1. With RH Jeff Tam on the mound, LH batter Carl Crawford lines a lingle to left centerfield to lead off the inning.

2. LH Marlon Anderson is batting. Tam throws to first to hold on Crawford. On his first pitch to the plate, a pitchout, Crawford steals second safely.

3. Anderson bunts the next pitch to the right of home plate. He's thrown out at first, Crawford advances to thrid.

4. RH Rocco Baldelli hits a sacrifice fly to deep center, scoring Crawford.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge