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Softball Coaching Tips - Executing Successful Rundowns

By Bobby Simpson

The name for it varies. Some call it a hot box, some a pickle, others a rundown. The Soviets even call it a zagoon (not sure spelling is correct, but I think you’ve got the idea). Whatever we call the situation where a runner gets trapped between two bases, too often the result is beneficial to the offense. Some teams even purposefully get a runner trapped in order cause a misplay and allow that runner or other runners to advance, even score in some cases.

In reality, a rundown should be a gift to the defense, not a benefit to the offense. Whenever a runner is trapped, it should become an automatic out. The only question to be resolved should be the amount of time it takes to get the runner out. Getting the out should be an assumed--the only variable should be length of time. If that’s the case, our goal becomes getting the runner out in as little time as possible, preventing any advance by other runners. With that ideal result in mind, let’s look at the Philosophy, Principles, and Practices that allow us to execute successful rundowns.

Philosophy

First of all, remember the trapped runner is out. Think and execute with this objective. Strive for a quick out to prevent any benefits to the offense. With this in mind, we now must consider whether to emphasize keeping the number of throws to a minimum or chasing the runner back toward the base she came from. If the ball is ahead of the runner (e.g. the shortstop has the ball near second and a runner is trapped between first and second) we can do both. However, if, in the same situation, the runner was between second and third, we would need to decide whether to chase the runner toward third and try to use only one throw for a putout, or get the ball to the third baseman who would chase the runner back toward second, possible requiring an additional throw.


Past experience encourages me to deny the age old advice to “always run’em back to the base they came from.” I prefer to emphasize keeping the number of throws to a minimum. The more throws, the greater the chance for a mistake, so don’t throw if you don’t have to, even if it means chasing a runner forward. You may want to make exceptions in specific cases, such as a runner between third and home, or with certain age groups, but this still serves as a good general rule. Make every effort to get the runner with no more than one throw.

While on this concept, please don’t use professional baseball as a model to follow. They seem to do their best to make as many throws as possible. I guess they want to drive the scorekeeper crazy or make sure not to hurt anyone’s feelings by not letting them touch the ball.

Always keep in mind that your goal is to get the runner out quickly, thereby allowing you to limit the advance of other runners, and, in some cases, allowing you to even get another runner in a pickle.

Principles

You say, “All of this sounds good, but how do we do it?” Let’s take a few minutes to explore five basic principles of this no-throw/one-throw rundown, something that’s been around a long time (we used it in the early 1970’s when I was an assistant baseball coach at Florida State University), but doesn’t seem to be used very widely.

Principle Number One

Establish a clear through lane. It’s important that the two defensive players executing the rundown establish a lane for the throw. In most cases this means that both fielders should get to the same side of the runner, usually the throwing side of the fielder with the ball (e.g. for a runner between second and third, a right handed throwing shortstop would be on the outfield side of the runner and the third baseman would also get on that side. If the third baseman had the ball to begin with, they would get on the infield side). It’s not always sensible to get on that side, but do be sure that both fielders get cleared to the same side so they don’t try to throw over or through the runner.

Principle Number Two

Get the ball up in a short-arm throwing position. The fielder with the ball must be ready to throw at the instant a throw becomes necessary. Realize it will be a very short throw, so full arm action will not be needed to be effective. It will be a short-arm push similar to throwing a dart. That’s all that will be needed and time is important, so get the ball up to a position several inches outside the ear, ready to throw quickly.

Principle Number Three

Run the ball hard at the runner. One of the biggest mistakes the defense makes in a rundown is the failure to force the runner to commit herself. You must put pressure on the runner and force her to run at high speed. If you don’t, the runner can (1) stay in the rundown a long time, (2) change directions quickly, (3) find a fielder to run into, getting an obstruction call or, (4) drop down to the ground quickly and have the fielder fly over her, after which the runner gets up and goes the in the other direction. In this system it is vital to force the runner to commit and get out of control. The only way to do this is for the fielder with the ball to run hard at the runner. The runner is then forced to take off at a fast speed or let the fielder catch her quickly and tag her out. Either way, the defense establishes control of the situation.

Principle Number Four

The player receiving the ball walks at the runner. Now we’re pinching the runner into an ever decreasing zone. We’re not allowing her any room to work in. With one fielder bearing down on her with the ball and the other slowly closing in, she has nowhere to go. Decision time is approaching for the defense and we want that because it reinforces our philosophy of making the out quickly. We’ve basically got two bears who have a victim trapped in a cave and the victim’s time is rapidly running out.

Principle Number Five

Tag the runner or throw when the approaching fielder hollers NOW or flashes the glove up. If you can catch the runner and tag her without a throw, do so. The less throws the better. In most cases, however, the one throw is necessary. Here, timing is important. Try to picture what’s happening here.

We’ve trapped a runner, established a throwing lane, got the ball ready, and the fielder with the ball is bearing down on the runner at high speed while the other fielder is slowing closing in from the other side. We’ve got a runner out of control. At the proper moment, the fielder will yell NOW, or another key word, and/or raise her glove up to signal the other fielder to throw the ball. The runner will try to stop and change directions to prevent being tagged out by the receiving fielder. A key here is for the receiving fielder to keep moving as she catches the ball. While the runner is slamming on brakes and trying to go back the other way, the receiving fielder catches her and tags her out, executing another successful rundown and putting another valuable out in the scorebook.

Some points are worth repeating to be sure the system works. You must get the runner to commit herself at high speed. Just slowly running with the ball at the runner won’t cut it. You must not just let her shuffle along, you’ve got to get her out of control so she can’t slam on brakes quickly and reverse herself on the throw. Get her really going so she has to spend time stopping and then changing directions. This, along with the receiving fielder catching the throw while on the move, will allow the receiver to easily overcome the runner and quickly apply the tag.

While discussing the tag, keep these items in mind. Try to tag a part of the body that can’t jerk or move quickly, causing a dropped ball. A good place to tag is a runner’s back. It’s large and moves slowly. Avoid head, arms and legs, keep the ball gripped securely in the throwing hand with that hand inside the pocket of the glove to cushion the tag. This two- hand tag, when possible, using the back of the glove softens the impact and allows you to be ready to throw, if necessary to trap or put out another runner.

Since it’s always asked about, let’s also consider for a moment the question of what a fielder should do after throwing the ball in a rundown. Do you go ahead to the next base or circle back to get in the rotation at the base at which you started? I’m tempted to answer, “It makes no difference, since, in most cases, the ball would be thrown away by the time you ever get back involved in the rundown.” It does seem logical to me to just keep going the way you’re headed, being sure to get out of the runner’s way. If executed properly, the rundown only uses a maximum of one throw and the thrower won’t be needed again. It’s best to emphasize the two fielders responsibility to get the out quickly rather than develop an elaborate backup and rotation scheme that encourages a fielder to get out of the action. It’s their job to get an out, not get out.

Practice

No idea or system is any good without practice. It’s been said that “ideas are funny little things. They don’t work unless you do.”

Like other systems or skills, it’s important to “break down” the rundown into its integral parts, master them, then put the parts together to form the whole.

Be sure to practice the dart-like throw while on the run and catching a ball while moving forward. The throw can be practiced singularly by charging a fence from 30-40 feet and throwing into it after reaching a distance of only 15-20 feet. A good partner drill can also be implemented without a runner. The partners alternate the part of thrower  and receiver, practicing throwing “on the run” and catching “on the walk”. These two actions should be mastered before a runner is introduced. Be sure to use verbal and/or visual cues to signal the thrower. Realize, however, in actual game conditions the thrower may need to release the ball on her own judgment. If she feels the fielder has not given a signal in time. It’s better to throw too early than too late.

After mastering the throwing and receiving, introduce a drill with runners alternating. Begin the drills at a walk or jog, telling runners to co-operate and not get tricky. Let fielders get the basics established before runners “pull any punches.” After the fundamentals are mastered, then go full speed so everyone can develop the timing and judgment needed to perfect the system.

Develop your philosophy, teach the principles correctly, and develop sound practice habits and soon you’ll hear the man or woman in Blue yell “You’re Out!” to conclude each rundown you execute. It has a nice sound to it, and puts you closer to victory. Happy Pickling!

 


 
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