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NFCA Instructional Corner: Defense (Posted October 7, 2002)

By Katie Flynn, Head Coach

James Madison University

The first and third situation is one that players and coaches make a lot more complicated than necessary. Keep it simple and have a defined game plan. Practice it occasionally doing situation work in practice. Teach the players to have confidence in their training. It rarely makes a major difference in the outcome of a game.

I have seen a lot of options but the major ones are:
* Do nothing;
* Back to pitcher;
* Throw down to second base;
* Throw down to cut in front of second base;
* Second baseman cuts in front/shortstop covers second;
* Shortstop cuts in front/second baseman covers bag; or
* Pickoff at third base.

The key here is communication between your infielders, keeping it simple and staying calm. Practicing rundowns is critical. Effectively practicing rundowns instills confidence that the defense has the advantage and the runner "is in the pickle."

We do not designate where the ball is going ahead of time with signals, names or numbers. After the ball has passed the batter each of the infielders goes to her designated spots: first baseman covers first, second baseman cuts in front of second, shortstop covers second, third baseman covers third, pitcher steps off the mound (one large step to her right) to make herself available, and the outfielders back up their bags.

The catcher has a lot of options and must make a decision where to throw the ball. Her decision will be based upon what the runners do. (We have not designated ahead of time where the ball goes.) She has to take a quick peek at the runner at third and then the runner at first. If nothing is happening, the ball goes right back to the pitcher. I recommend that the catcher calls out the pitcher's name before throwing it back to the pitcher so there won't be any confusion that the ball is going back to the circle. If the runner is antsy or off too far at third, I encourage the catcher to make a fake throw down to second and attempt to pick the runner off at third. Most often, the throw is going to second base. The throw must be such that the cutting second baseman or the shortstop covering at second could cut the ball off or get the runner on a straight steal.

Everyone on the diamond is responsible to watch the play and talk. The first baseman and third baseman watch the runner at third, call when she breaks for home or if you think she can be picked off. The catcher also watches the runner at third after she has gotten rid of the ball. Everyone will have a different vantage point with which to see the runners. They need to talk. I teach the infielders to divide the baseline between third and home into three equal parts. If the runner at third gets more than a step and a dive off the bag and ventures into that middle third, she’s dead — go after her.

Do you have the shortstop or second baseman cut in front of the bag? Some coaches prefer to put the ball in the hands of their best athlete (who is often the shortstop) and go from there. I suggest putting the ball in the hands of the best decision-maker. Who do you trust to have the ball? I prefer having the second baseman because she has a better angle to watch the runner at third and decide whether to cut or let it go through. I also do not like having my second baseman cover on a steal because this is not something she is generally used to doing. The second baseman is vital in directing traffic on pick-offs and bunt defense — she is vital in first and third situations as well.

If the run cannot score, continue to keep it simple. In this case, we do have a sign forwhere to throw and who cuts the ball. You can also take your defensive conference if you need to and decide your game plan up front. In a conservative order, you would probably go straight back to the pitcher, right to the cutting second baseman or attempt a pickoff throw at third.

Other things to cover: Practice with runners on straight steals and getting in rundowns. Practice the rules regarding the ball in the pitcher's circle. Talk with your umpires regarding what constitutes an attempt on the runner. Make sure to practice the game plan if the batter squares to bunt.

When the first and third situation is defended well and you see two outs, it is impressive. Trust your athletes' arms, decision-making and communication skills to be able to make such plays.