Base running: The act of trying to reach first base, second base, third base or home plate. Sounds simple, but it’s not.
With teams in the UIL state high school baseball tournament (Arlington Martin, Aledo) and College World Series (TCU), and with the red-hot Texas Rangers in the spotlight, base running will be just as vital to winning as a walk-off homer or a no-hitter.
Many factors go into being a good base runner.
Of course it’s good to have speed. But being able to read plays, judge balls and make a consistent effort is just as — if not more — important to being a successful base runner.
“Just being a student of the game, paying attention to detail [pitchers’ moves, etc.],” said Rangers rookie outfielder Delino DeShields. “We play in a different era of baseball. You can’t just go no matter how fast you are.
“The pitcher and catcher can prevent you from taking the extra base.”
The skills of base running are not level-of-play specific. They apply to softball and baseball. Youth, high school, college and the pros.
“Good base running is the difference between being safe and getting thrown out by a step,” said Arlington Martin baseball coach Curt Culbertson, whose teams plays Laredo Alexander in the state 6A semifinals Friday in Round Rock. “If you don’t get a good jump on a steal, then don’t go.”
The runner, in any scenario, has to be able to read the pitch, the pitcher’s delivery and even the catcher. As Culbertson said, the runner needs to get a good jump.
“We mainly focus on base running early in the season — concentrating on leads and getting good starts,” Van Alstyne coach Jimmy Haynes said. “As the season progresses, we refresh our players periodically on certain aspects of base running depending on what areas we are struggling in.
“We never take our lead until the pitcher is on the rubber.”
The runner also needs to know the situation, how to read the ball when hit, watch for signals, and know when and how to slide.
“I want them to slide so they are adjusted to fighting for that base,” Martin softball coach Cathy Rudy said. “I want them to not look at the ball or the catcher when they are stealing, so they should automatically assume the catcher is throwing down.”
As for signals, runners need to see the first- and third-base coaches. Many times, if a runner gets a good read, they’ll run through a stop sign. But they better be safe, says Howe baseball coach Torrey Ognoskie.
“The runner has to be able to see the signal from a coach,” Ognoskie said. “If you run a stop sign, you better not get thrown out.”
Anticipation is great, but a lot of coaches love speed.
“You can’t coach speed,” Culbertson said. “If you have it, it’s an advantage.”
“I love having fast players on my team, and I hate it when opposing teams get fast guys on base.” he said. “A lot of offensive baseball is about putting pressure on your opponent, and speed on the base paths definitely does that.”
TCU likes to put pressure on opponents with its style of play.
It paid off big in the early hours Tuesday morning, when the Horned Frogs beat Texas A&M 5-4 in 16 innings.
The winning run came when Texas A&M mishandled a grounder to third base, and Garrett Crain took advantage, scoring from second base to clinch a berth in the College World Series. TCU will face LSU on Sunday afternoon.
“I saw him bobble it, and I saw it go to the ground,” the TCU second baseman said. “I knew we had to score somehow, so I just kept going.”
“I didn’t really see Coach Mo’s stop sign,” Crain said of third-base coach Bill Mosiello. “I didn’t see Coach Mo at all.”
That’s been the Frogs’ style on the base paths all season. Aggressive.
“You don’t want to make the first out at third base, but that’s our offense,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “And like I’ve said all year, eight out of 10 times, you’re going to say, ‘Wow, that’s awesome, that’s their style.’
“And those other two times, you hear the groans and ‘What the heck are they doing?’ That’s what we’ve been doing all year long. It’s not changing here toward the end.”
There’s a difference between base running and stealing bases, according to former Los Angeles Dodgers great and Fort Worth Cats alumnus Maury Wills.
Wills ranks 20th all-time in steals and broke Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old record with 104 stolen bases in 1962 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He stole more bases than any other team in the league that season.
“Base running and stealing are two different things — you can be the slowest on the team, but the best base runner,” Wills said.
“I would watch the outfielders and look at arm strength, how many steps before he threw the ball, the catcher’s strength, and try to take advantage of it.”
Wills won three World Series titles with the Dodgers and finished his career with 586 stolen bases.
After retiring from the majors in 1972, Wills served as a TV analyst and was a trainer for 15 major-league teams while teaching the art of base running and stealing.
The Fort Worth Cats retired his jersey in 2005 in a ceremony at LaGrave Field.
“The players are bigger and stronger, and the fans like the long ball more than my day,” he said. “The game has changed, evolved — no players can go through the pain and stress like we did.”
Staff reporters Stefan Stevenson and Carlos Mendez contributed to this report.
Touching all the bases
With postseason college and high school play in full swing, here are a few tips for base running:
1. Give effort on every play; run hard every time.
2. Be able to read hit balls — location, projection and speed.
3. Be able to read and anticipate pitches.
4. Know the arm strength of the opponents.
5. Get a good jump, but beware of where you body weight is leaning — lean too far and you’re out.
6. Develop a fundamentally sound slide. It will save you from injury and can break up plays.