The Situation: It’s the top of the first in a huge game. There’s 1 out and a runner on 1st base with the left-handed hitting 3-hole hitter up to bat. The runner on 1st is an average runner.
The Play: The 2-2 pitch from the right-handed pitcher comes in, a 2-seam fastball that runs back over the inside part of the plate. The big lefty turns on it, lining a sure double down the line into the right field corner. The right fielder gets to the ball as the runner from first is about half way between second and third. The runner aggressively heads into third and is waved home aggressively. As he rounds third, the right fielder has gathered the ball and turned to make a throw. The play at the plate would have been close, but instead of throwing to the second baseman acting as a relay man to home out on the right field line, the right fielder fires the ball straight into second base, where the big lefty has already slid in safely.
The Outcome: The runner from first slides into home plate, uncontested. The throw skips into second base, where the shortstop corrals the in-between hop. The batter stays put at second, pumping his fist after giving his squad the early lead and momentum.
What Went Wrong: Does this play sound familiar? It should! This is what happened in the first inning of game two of the World Series between the Cubs and Indians, when Anthony Rizzo doubled home Kris Bryant from first base to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
So where is the mistake on this play? Should Jason Kipnis, the second baseman, have been lined up for the throw to second? Should the throw from the right fielder have gone towards Kipnis and home plate?
We often talk about outfielders making a mistake by throwing straight to the lead base (third or home) or over-throwing the cut-off and allowing the batter or trail runner to take an extra base (usually second base on a single). This play is different because the extra base threat is the lead runner, not the trail runner and the cut-off is appropriately lined up to defend the extra base.
When on defense, you want to limit the offense to the bases they ‘deserve’. In this case, the hit is a sure double. This means that the defense will have done well if the batter (Rizzo, a below average runner) and base runner (Bryant, an average runner) each advance the two bases that they have earned/deserve. The best-case scenario that the defense is working for is 2nd and 3rd. As such, the cut-off man, Kipnis, is correct to line up to home to defend the most likely attempt to take the extra base. A throw to him can be relayed home if there is a close play, or held/redirected if there is no play at the plate, preventing the batter from taking an unnecessary 90 feet on the back end. Even if the throw is relayed home, hitting the cut man would make it extremely difficult for the batter to move to third. However, by throwing directly to 2nd, a throw with no cut-off man and a base Rizzo was easily going to take all-along, the right fielder has allowed an uncontested ‘extra’ base to be taken. Unfortunately for the Indians, the uncontested extra base also gave the Cubs an early lead.
If you find yourself in this situation, know your cut-off/defensive assignment before the play happens, communicate to your teammates during the play and think the game! For more on cut-offs and relays, check out Understanding Tandem Relays here.