By Coach and Former Pro Joe Hernandez
In just about every game, there's a bad inning. That one inning where the wheels start to fall off, your pitcher loses control, the team loses focus. Those teams that keep the damage of a bad inning to a minimum usually win. In this article, we'll explore ways to help your players avoid the big inning and achieve more success on the mound and in the field.
During the course of a game there always seem to be one bad inning by the defense...this is almost a "truism" for most teams. During this inning the defense seems to just "lose it", missing easy catches, throwing the ball away or all over the field, the pitcher is unable to get the ball over the plate, or he gets banged. Everything seems to fall apart. You started the inning with a lead and you come out way behind with a bunch of demoralized kids. Make sure the entire team is aware that such a "bad" inning can occur...this alone can help. But let's also have a plan of action to cut-down on those nerve-racking innings.
Get the first out of every inning. This is the #1 offense killer. With one out it is difficult for the offense to do much more than play station-to-station baseball. It cuts down the oppositions options. This is a priority for every defense.
Attempt to get strike 1 on very batter. This is the best thing a pitcher can do, to get ahead in the count. Batting averages drop almost 100 points and more when the batter is hitting behind the count. If the pitcher can get the first pitch across for strike one he is in control and his chances of retiring that batter are improved. The worst that can happen is that the batter puts the ball in play...even then there is a 50 to 70% chance that the defense will get him out. So let the opposing team hit the ball...this gives you a chance to make a play. As a pitcher, give it your "best" and challenge the opposing teams "best".
Base on balls...this is a no-no...don't give runners a free pass to beat you.
A good way to prevent the opposing team's runner from advancing without earning the right to do so is to make sure that the short stop come halfway between the mound and 2nd base on every throw back from the catcher to the pitcher.
Never make the 1st out of an inning at 3rd or at home, or the 3rd out of an inning at 3rd. Coaches be alert!
Stay alert after two outs. Lots of games have been lost with 2 outs and no one on base. A couple of things tend to happen...first, the pitcher has a tendency to "let down" after he has retired the first 2 batters. Secondly, the defense lose focus. Coaches need to remind their pitcher and defense to stay focus and close the deal.
Keep passed balls to a minimum. We need to work with our catchers and teach them how to block the ball effectively. This alone will save tons of runs from scoring. Wild pitches and passed balls score and put many a base runner in scoring position, especially in youth baseball.
Throw to the base ahead of the runner. Do not throw behind him. Runner on 1st base, base hit to the outfield. Throw the ball to 3rd, not 2nd. Runner on 2nd, base hit to the outfield, throw the ball home not to 3rd. No one on and a sure double by the hitter, throw the ball into 3 rd. (There are a few exceptions.) This takes communication and back up by the pitchers and infielders. It also takes the ability to throw to the target by the outfielders. Don't forget to back up each base.
Don't lose the game on a bad throw. Sometimes in a close game, especially in the late innings it is better to hold the ball rather than throw it and possibly throw it away. Forget those pick-offs and trick plays in close games when runs are at a premium.
With a big lead don't play the infield "in" with a runner on third base. In that situation it is better to give up a run for an out. I see this mistake all the time...before you know it the opposing team as a rally going on.
You need to spend some extra time teaching your first baseman the art of digging balls out of the dirt.
Position your defense to make plays up the middle. That is where the majority of balls are hit. There are exceptions late in the game. Your best athletes should play the "up the middle" positions; catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base, and center field. Of course this is not always possible because of the need to expose kids to different positions is a must...but you can do so by putting in place the best combination at any given time that will allow you to reach the same objective as much as possible.
In 99% of all bunt situations get the out at first base. The offense is giving you an out- so take it!...let them bunt and sacrifice one of their precious outs. Throw a strike. There are only three outs an inning, if the opposition wants to give you one of their precious out take it...with one less out the job of your defense becomes more easier...seems like a no-brainer to me. Remember, there are only three outs per inning...an inning does not last 20 minutes or 10 batters, only three outs...get my point(?)
Teach your team that the game of baseball is played "one pitch at a time". Not one out at a time or one inning at a time or one game at a time but one pitch at a time. This helps develop concentration skills.
With a runner at first base it is important for the pitcher to concentrate on the hitter. The runner can't go anywhere...there is no taking a lead at this level in our leagues...adjust if different in your league.
In crucial situations don't give in to their best hitter. Your pitcher should throw the pitch he wants to throw. Stay away from "fat pitches" even when behind in the count.
Make sure your pitchers sprint to cover 1st base on all balls hit to the right side of the infield.
Make sure your pitchers backup the catcher on possible plays at the plate.
Catcher should back-up the first baseman on all throws to first with no runners on base.
With runners in scoring position your infielders should be aware that they must attempt to knock down all balls hit in the holes to prevent them from going into the outfield. That means using their whole bodies to prevent that ball from getting through.
Infield and outfield communication is a critical skill. Don't allow a routine out to become an adventure because the fielders failed to talk to each other. One player should be shouting "got it" and those surrounding him should yell-out "take it".
In a close game with the offense threatening to score a run or multiple runs it is imperative that the defense remain calm and focused on getting an out. Exercise "Damage Control." Don't panic with 2 on and no out. Take the outs as they present themselves. Play within what the game offers you. "Okay, we gave up 2 runs. Let's stop it right there." Failure to do so can lead to a big inning for the opposing team.
Focus on teaching the routine defensive plays at practices; ground balls at them, balls hit to their left, the backhand and slow rollers. Develop the mentality that all balls hit in the air will be caught. You can't expect your kids to do on the field what they don't do in practice. It is at practice that games are won.
Play like you expect to win, not like you're afraid to lose...hit like you expect to hit, not like you fear striking-out...pitch like you expect to pitch and not like you are afraid to get hit...field your position like you expect to catch the ball and not afraid of dropping it...throw like you expect to throw and not fearful of throwing the ball away...and finally run like you expect to run and score and not afraid of being called out.
You must practice these skills and practice them often. This will not guaranteed that you will avoid that one bad inning but it will cut down on the number of times that you will face such an inning and when you do it will increase the odds that the damage is minimized. Sure we are talking about ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds, but it is within their capability to learn the game well and enjoy it.
Don't forget to play a "running" game. Teach the kids to take the initiative on the bases. If they are not allowed to run until the coaches say so then it's too late. Precious time is lost when a player has to wait until the coach tells him to go. All too often it is the coaches that are asleep. Make sure coaches know what they are doing at the corners.
Remember that base running is the fourth dimension to this game that is all too often neglected. Play a good running game and you will always be on top.
Don't instruct at the game...kids can't be expected to go from "learning" mode and back to "play" mode. Don't have six coaches "screaming" from the dugout yelling to the kids what to do. At best, only one coach should be calling out play positions. If you have not practice a given game situation a hundred times, then don't expect your players to be able to perform by you just yelling on-the-spot instructions. After all, you yourself would be unable to do any better if you were in their shoes. How would you like your boss to be screaming and instructing you what to do in the middle of an important sales presentation?
Let the kids play! Make notes of what is needed to improve and cover it in practice. Finally don't single a player out in front of his teammates and NEVER tell your kids that a given ballplayer is among the best of the team! I have heard this more than once and it is very poor psychology...how do you expect to bring-out the best in your players? Not to mentioned, because I have witness it so many times, the 10 year old that is fair becomes great by 13 and the 12 year old "super star" is out of the game by 13 because he can no longer get away with his poor swing mechanics as he goes up in level.
Try to avoid the compulsive need to do an "instant" correction every time a player does something "wrong". Let the player try to figure some things on their own...intervene only when necessary...just try a little "backing-off".
Many times when a kid does an error or strikes out a coach feels a need to chew out the player publicly for not knowing what he was supposed to do or for swinging at a bad pitch. Yet it is the coach who should apologize to the crowd and admit that it is his fault for never practicing that particular play or teaching the strike zone!
Too many coaches preach that the game is for the kids but behave like "drill" sergeants. Part of avoiding the "big inning" is to minimize your role and let the kids play! Try to remember that you are not Vince Lombardi, nor are you coaching in the NFL or some other high ranking professional sports team. Nothing about you is on the line, not even your job, so lighten up! Just remember who you are...you are a volunteer coach who's main responsibility is to make a difference in children's lives. So enjoy the kid's game with your young players as they play with other kids for the benefit of kids.
Coach Joe Hernandez played double-A baseball and has been a youth baseball coach for 25 years. He has written numerous articles covering all aspects of baseball on his forthcoming website, www.seetheball.org.
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