Sunday, August 8, 2010

Softball Playoffs

Our team made the playoffs. Our opening playoff game was a single elimination against a team called "The Rookies". In the regular season we had split with them, winning the first game and then having them kill us in the second game. However, we played a flawless game and advanced to the next round.

Now we were in a "two out of three" series against "Sterling". Average age 35; strong and fast and aggressive. Their pitcher was pretty good too; very competitive and threw hard when he was ahead in the count.

In the first game we had a solid defensive effort, got some timely hitting, and some sloppy defense from the other side, and won 12-8.

In the second game we had a rude awakening, when we realized Sterling had been missing a few players the first game. Suddenly we saw guys hitting the ball to places we had never seen balls hit, and a shortstop who was catching EVERYTHING, both on the ground and in the air. We also got treated to the opponent taking extra bases and daring us to stop them. In short, they were treating us like "old guys", which we are. We lost this one 13-7, but it was really not a close game.

Going into the deciding game, the sentiment on our side was "What can we possibly do to beat these guys?" A few things were obvious:

- We had to play solid defense, and keep the extra bases to a minimum.
- We had to run the bases well, and be selectively aggressive. (We did notice they had a few weak outfield arms and could be pressured into throwing the ball around).
- We needed to hit well enough to make them make the plays. In other words, stay away from pop-ups and fly when in doubt.....DOWN AND HARD.
- We needed a good pitching strategy.....because in the prior game they killed us with long balls.

As catcher I was directly involved in pitching strategy. Our pitcher, Rick, has great control. It's a great feature, but when he becomes predictable, it is a downfall against strong hitters. He can throw harder when ahead in the count, but he is not overpowering. He does have an effective change-up, but again, when it becomes predictable it yields tremendous home runs.

One thing I noticed about the long hits in the second game, they were all to center field. They were also all on outside pitches. In the second game our left fielder didn't have a single fly ball hit his way. Very unusual, especially since Rick is not overpowering and throws change-ups. I suggested to Rick that we throw more pitches inside, even change-ups. I know as a hitter I hate inside pitches. They tie you up and take away your power. Outside pitches are much easier to hit hard because you can extend your arms and hit the ball on the best part of the bat. Throwing inside is easier said than done, but Rick agreed with this strategy and said he would try it. He also suggested that when he threw his change-up he would throw it with a higher arc, and even have some float in high, to try to tempt the aggressive Sterling hitters. I agreed with this idea. I also suggested that every so often he let loose a wild and hard pitch, maybe even over the batters head, just to keep them unsettled. He agreed to try it.

Our change in approach was VERY effective. Adding the inside pitches worked. There were quite a few fly outs to left and left center, and some infield pop-ups (which happens when big hitters try to hit inside pitches up the middle). Some of the pop-ups were on high change-ups. Rick threw a few high and inside too, and I sensed behind the plate that the hitters were not nearly as comfortable as they were in the prior game.

We had some timely hitting throughout the game, and the fact is, in the later innings Sterling made some errors on what should have been easy plays. However, this is not "luck" on our end, we applied pressure by forcing them to make plays and by hustling.

In the 6th inning I was involved in a big play in the field. The opposing pitcher also turned out to be one of their best hitters. In the 3 game series he had 10 hits in 11 at bats (no lie). Almost every hit was a line shot up the middle, and he also ran hard out of the box and went for a double every time. He was able to make it because our outfielders had to play so deep. When he came up in the 6th inning, we were ahead 7-6 and they had a man on second. He lined a single up the middle which scored the runner and tied the game 7-7. However, this time we held him at first. The next batter hit a single to right center, and I had a feeling the runner on first would try to score. Sure enough, he rounded third and never stopped, BUT, our shortstop (Mike) went out and got the relay from right, and realized the runner on first was probably coming. He threw me a strike, which I received in enough time to trap the overly aggressive runner between home and third. What ensued was an extended run down play, which ended with me tagging the runner out at home. The run down went on so long that the runner seemed exhausted. Run down plays SHOULD result in an out, but at our level they are by no means routine. It felt great to end their rally this way.

In the top of the seventh we scored two to make in 9-7. This did not feel comfortable, and it wasn't. They strung together a few hits and tied the game at 9-9. They also had the winning run on second with two outs. Time for some strategy. I went to the mound and suggested to Rick that we intentionally walk the hitter. Rick wanted to "pitch around him", but I really did not like that idea. There were a few reasons: I like setting up a force at third. I also thought that the next batter (the opposing catcher) was not as good a hitter as the batter. In addition, the next batter was a dead pull hitter, who had hit a triple down the left field line earlier in the game, and I thought he might change his swing with a force at third. We called in the infielders and collectively agreed to intentionally walk the batter. With first and second, the next batter hit a ground ball back to Rick, for the third out, and the game went into extra innings. Personally, I think he hit the comebacker because he altered his swing due to the intentional walk, but hey, I don't need to take credit.....walking that guy was the right move any way you look at it.

In the top of the 8th, we scored three times to make it 12-9. I had a small role in this. With a man on first and no outs, I hit a ground ball to third. My thought as I ran to first was "Oh shit, I just hit into a double hard!!". I ran hard, figuring I would be trying to beat a relay throw on a double play. Instead, as I reached first I heard a lot of yelling, which turned out to be our fans cheering when the third baseman's throw to second pulled the second baseman off the bag. Another example of "down and hard" being better than balls in the air. Our next batter hit a single, which scored a run and sent me to third. I then scored on a sac fly.

So we went to the bottom of the 8th with a three run lead. Before the inning started Rick said to me "These guys are so aggressive they will probably still be swinging for the fences, even though they need baserunners. I'm gonna let 'em do that. What do you think?" I said "Go for it." We had our outfielders playing VERY deep, enabling them to catch very long drives for very big outs. Had Sterling just hit some line drives, they would have been doubles, that's how deep we were playing. But I have no problem letting opponents beat themselves. They went down one-two-three on two fly balls and a grounder to short.

I've played in a lot of games over the years, but this one was the most exciting and most gratifying.

Now we advance to the finals, against our arch-rivals. They lost only once during the regular season, they have a very strong pitcher, and they beat us twice. Can we come up with a winning strategy?

We'll sure try.

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