There’s no one on and no one out in the top of the third of a 1-1 game. The field is a bandbox, to add to the small dimensions, the wind is blowing out.
The leadoff hitter smashes a first pitch hanging breaking ball into the left-center field gap. The center fielder gets a great beat on the ball and gains ground. The left fielder starts moving towards the ball and realizes that the center fielder is going to have a chance to make the play. Everyone on their field is holding their breath, waiting to see if the ball will get down. The left fielder pulls up, knowing he has no shot at the catch and watches the suspense unfold. The center fielder leaps as the ball comes down but is about half a step short.
The ball goes just over the outstretched glove, banging against the base of the wall and caroming off back towards center field. The momentum of the center fielder’s running jump also carries him crashing into the wall. He ends up on his back. Surprisingly, it’s the right fielder, hustling all the way over on the play who is able to get to the ball first. Despite his long sprint and effort, the batter is almost touching third by the time he gathers the ball. He give it his best heave to the cutoff man, but it’s all for nothing. It’s a stand-up inside-the-park home run.
What Went Wrong:
Other than the hanging breaking ball, can you pin down the mistake? It’s not the center fielder, who does everything in his power to make the play. The mental mistake that won’t show up in the score book is made by the left fielder. Like the crowd, he gets wrapped up in the suspense of the play and forgets to fulfill his responsibility.
Once the left fielder realizes he will not be able to catch the ball, his job becomes to back-up this play, precisely for the way we see this one play out. “Back-up” is misleading here because his job is actually to cut in front of the player attempting to make the catch and play a potential carom off of the wall. The carom of the wall comes, but he has pulled up short to spectate and it proves costly. There are three outcomes of this play:
- The center fielder catches the ball
- The center fielder doesn’t catch the ball and it bounces off the wall and back towards the field (like what actually happened)
- The center fielder doesn’t catch the ball but it stays close to the wall
As the outfielder backing-up, the left fielder should have taken a route that would put him close enough to the play to recover the ball should it play out like option #3, but not too close to the play so that a ricochet like #2 gets past him and he has to give chase. It’s hard to say whether holding the batter to a double or triple would have prevented him from scoring, but this failure to #ThinkTheGame leads to a guaranteed run. As a fielder, you can’t get caught spectating without fulfilling your responsibilities.