There are runners on second and third in the top of the 8th inning with 1 out. The home team has just made the move to their freshman closer, who has not pitched against the offense before. The closer is a lanky, hard-throwing righty, with an over-the-top arm slot. He relies heavily on a firm fastball, and a big, sharp 12-6 curve ball. He also throws a lesser-known cutter that has really come along nicely of late, but has not yet made its way onto the offense’s scouting report.
The closer is engaged in a great battle with Tommy, the right-handed 5-hole hitter. Tommy has put together a great at bat. After falling behind 0-2, he has a 2-2 count and has already seen 8 pitches, all fastballs and curves. He steps back in the box, locked in and ready for the next pitch. The closer comes set, checks the runner at 3rd and delivers. The pitch, a cutter, starts out headed for the outside black before darting off the plate a good 8-10 inches. Tommy does a great job taking the pitch and starts to step back out of the box when he hears the umpires punchout call. He can’t believe it! Despite his protests and everyone in the stadium besides the home plate ump agreeing that the pitch was clearly well off the plate, he is out.
Infuriated, Tommy heads back to the dugout. He can hardly see straight he’s so mad, and by the time he’s to the on-deck circle, he’s already taken off his helmet with plans to throw it in the dugout. Tommy is so mad that he walks right by the on-deck hitter, Paul, who is trying to get his attention and ask him about what he saw from the pitcher. Paul is trying to figure out what the last pitch was. Did he accidentally yank his fastball? Was it a slider? As Paul walks up to the plate, he is sure it must have been a fastball that he pulled across his body. The only pitches on the scouting report were fastball and curve, after all. Meanwhile, Tommy is throwing a Big League temper tantrum and slamming his helmet.
Paul’s at bat also runs to a 2-2 count, as the closer alternates between his curveball and fastball twice. On the 2-2 pitch, Paul gets what he thinks is a fastball running inside off the plate. He turns his backside a little thinking the pitch will hit him. Much to his chagrin, it’s the mystery pitch, and the cutter moves back over the inside corner. Like Tommy, he is punched out and the threat is over.
What Went Wrong?
Clearly, you never want to go strikeout with runners in scoring position and one out. As an offense, that is the ultimate fail. But let’s look at the context.
Given the situation, Tommy actually had a great at bat. He worked the process, getting two difficult pitches early, and fouling off 4 pitches and taking 2 balls before getting a raw deal on an obvious bad call. Let’s say 98-99 times out of 100 he has a 3-2 count after laying off a tough, previously unseen pitch. If you take away the result, it’s not a bad at bat. You have to like his chances on 3-2, having seen the entire repertoire.
Paul’s at bat was another tough one. We won’t make excuses for taking a called third strike, but what really went wrong was communication. Tommy helped to set Paul up for failure. Instead of helping Paul with a quick note or two about what he would see from the new pitcher (and letting him know about the cutter that was not on the scouting report), he was throwing a temper-tantrum and being selfish. An important lesson to learn here is, control what you can control and control your reaction to what you can’t.
When things go wrong, that does not give you license to be a bad teammate. Throwing equipment and getting so mad you can’t see straight doesn’t help anyone, and often puts teammates on their heels and in an awkward position, like we saw in the on-deck circle. The major failure here has to do with Tommy’s reaction and temper-tantrum, which hurts the team.
Legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig once said, “The ballplayer who loses his head, can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.” We agree, so keep your head and use it to think the game!