I love judging other teams, watching their warm-ups to predict how sharp and quick they will be at game time. I watch the outfield throw long to home to estimate how much time I will have as a coach to score my runner from second on a base hit. Even if all looks solid during pregame, I look forward to judging the character of an opposing team/coach by testing out their first and third play options.
The First and Third Play to me, is the most defining moment of a team’s physical ability and mental decision to make outs and furthermore win. It asks the question, are you here to play or are you here to play to win? If you are here to win, it is definite that your team has throw down options to ensure outs when a risky offensive threat tries to run on you.
As coaches, you know you have seen it too. Maybe you have ignored it or maybe you have capitalized on the mistake of the opposing coach and team. It is just a sense you get when you run on a team and you watch the defense do one of the following:
The defense will allow the runner from first base to steal second, without making a throw down or fake throw attempt. The sense I get when I see this happen is that the coach is not confident in the team’s overall throwing, quick footwork/glove work, communication, and/or ability to execute under pressure. As a coach, I try to run a first and third play option early in the game so I can learn the defense. If I see this type of reactive defense, then I know I can take more risks by manufacturing runs on the base paths.
Another classic example is when the defense will call a pre-planned cut play that is independent of what the offense decides to do. For example, the catcher will flash a sign to the defense calling for a throw down and cut by the middle infielder, often the second basemen. This play will work to pick off the runner at third base, however if she doesn’t break home, then the defense allows the trail runner to advance to second base while the runner at third base stays put. Now the offense has two runners in scoring position! As the opposing coach, if I see this type of play design, I instantly know that the defensive team does not think in terms of making outs. Instead, they think in terms of “if” which is a gamble and up to chance. For example, the thinking that we will get an out “if” the offense steals home on the cut throw. Similar to playing cards in Vegas, I will win “if” I score the luck of the draw. If I lose, I suppose it was all up to the law of probability. When that “if” mentality shows up on a softball field, I know as a coach that the defense believes in the myth that the First and Third Play is up for grabs, an unpredictable play of havoc about to unravel. That team does not view any of my base running initiations or rundown situations as a mistake in which my offense deserves to be out. Therefore, I know to run on them since they do not have a counter option designed for my specific attack. They are just sitting at the Black Jack table, hoping they get the right cards. Hey, drinks on me!
If either of the two examples above sound familiar to you, let’s talk about how we can change the First and Third Play from an “if” game into a battlefield of strategic certainties. To do so, let’s first unveil the mental uncertainties that come up in a shaky first and third play:
As a defensive team, we are uncertain…
1. if the runner at first base is going to steal second base or stop and draw a rundown to bait a long throw down.
2. if the runner at third base is going to break for home if we throw down to second base.
3. if the runner at third base doesn’t break for home, then we might allow the trail runner to advance to second base.
4. if the runner at third base is fast enough to break home on the catcher’s release to beat a cut throw from the second basemen.
These uncertainties are all valid as a defensive team will most likely not know what the offense is going to do until the play is already in motion. Now let’s stay in numerical order to switch each uncertainty into a certainty so we are ready to counter the offense.
As a defensive team, we are certain…
1. that we can throw out a base runner attempting to steal second base.
2. that our second basemen will run in behind the pitcher’s circle to cover and make the cut should the runner at third base break for home.
3. that the second basemen can make a quick last second decision not to cut the throw down to second should the runner at third base not pose a threat to advance. This way we can guarantee an out at second base!
4. that we know what type of speed the runner has from observing how she got to third base in the first place. The catcher can also do a quick head check glance to third before making a throw down to second base. If the runner at third is breaking home, the catcher can fake throw to second and pick off or rundown the runner trying to score.
Already we can see that much of successfully executing a first and third play is by letting go of a myth in softball. The myth in which people conceive the First and Third Play as an unpredictable moment of the game that is mutually up to chance and the luck of the draw between the offense and the defense.
This thinking leads us to become uncertain of how the play will unravel. However, let’s break that myth and choose to believe that the First and Third Play will work in favor of the defense. In any situation in which the offense gets into a rundown between bases, interpret that moment as a base-running mistake. Anytime a base runner gets into a rundown either intentionally or unintentionally, consider it an error deserving of an out.
After you have broken ties with the myth, begin to create counter play options that are designed for any of the possible running mistakes that the offense can choose to take a risk on. Now we are in the moment. We are coaching in the moment, we are playing in the moment, and we are ready for whatever comes at us!
So far we’ve patched up our mentality towards the First and Third Play, now let’s talk about the physical execution that must be present to come out on top of this tricky play.
1. First and foremost, our catcher needs to make a rocket of a throw down to second base that is low enough to possibly be cut by the middle infielder. If the throw is too high, low, or wide, that is likely just enough for the runner to score at home. All throws around the diamond need to be sharp for that matter. In order to play to win, the fundamentals need to be there.
2. The designated middle infielder cut (typically the second basemen) needs to appear at the cut position in order to make a last second decision to cut the throw or not, based on the movement of the runner at third base.
3. The third basemen needs to be vocal and loud to inform the second basemen on how far the runner is drifting from third base. If the runner is just off the base, shout “off” so the cut can let the throw continue down to second for a tag out. If the runner at third is drifting almost half way to home, yell “half” so the cut knows to forget the trail runner and focus on the priority runner trying to score. Lastly, yell “going” if the runner at third has her head down, racing into home!
4. There is a lot going on in this play and each out will only take place within a step. Let’s be sure not to get ahead of ourselves and miss the ball entirely because we are making tags before securing the ball. Always remember, ball first!
5. To the middle infielder in the cut, likely the second basemen, this is your play! Position yourself right in the cut with momentum moving in towards home, watch the ball, and listen for your third basemen. Open up your peripheral vision to watch the ball yet know the position of the lead runner. Trust your last second instincts to either fake a cut, or cut and counter attack. Be a baller!