Analyzing one play from Wednesday's IronBirds game [Commentary]

Can I spend an entire column analyzing a single play from Wednesday night's IronBirds game? Yes, absolutely. Not every installment can be like last week's, which, if you ask me, was fairly grand in scope and positive in tone (if you didn't read it, I wrote about being inspired not to be such a brat after attending a wheelchair softball practice). Besides, most of my waking hours are spent thinking about relatively inconsequential occurrences and their effects on the fabric of the world, so this is a better look at the interior noise in my head.

The play in question happened in the top of the fifth inning on Wednesday night. The Vermont Lake Monsters' Melvin Mercedes led off with a weak grounder up the first base line that was fielded by Aberdeen relief pitcher Dylan Rheault. Rheault trotted over to put himself between Mercedes and first base, hoping eventually to apply a tag and record the first out of the inning, but Mercedes didn't want to play it that way. The Vermont middle infielder put on the brakes and forced Rheault to come to him, then trotted backward when the IronBirds' reliever got within tagging distance (which is pretty darn far, given that Rheault, at 6'9", is about as tall as an NBA forward). This went on for a few more seconds, with Mercedes hopping back toward home plate as Rheault advanced, before the pitcher got tired of it and tossed the ball to first baseman Trey Mancini for the out.

The reaction up in the press box at Ripken Stadium was mixed, with some people audibly groaning and others laughing as the play went down. The scorekeeper I was sitting next to said, "that was great," and I countered with, "that was kind of a Little League play, don't you think?"

Looking at it now, I don't think it was a Little League play at all, but I said that because it reminded me of something from the summer of 1992, when I was playing in my district's all-star tournament. The catcher from the Rising Sun team, following every walk his pitcher issued, would run down the first base line behind the runner, hoping that they would slip up and make a left turn toward second. The play never worked, but it was a big distraction, mostly because the parents supporting my team would start screaming hysterically every time one of us earned a walk: "Don't overrun the bag! He's right behind you! Don't turn to second!" It got to the point where everyone on the team was thinking about that idiot catcher, sweating, huffing and puffing as he trucked down the base line in all of his gear, every time we went to bat. I think that was the purpose. It got us focused on something aside from getting a good pitch to hit, which is really the only thing a batter should be worried about. (For the record, at one point I suggested that the next team member who earned a walk should stop abruptly in the middle of the base line and force the catcher to run into him, but our coach, strangely enough, said that would be "kind of bush league.")

Back to the play at Wednesday's IronBirds game. Mercedes' attempt to evade the tag, though a bit more spontaneous than the efforts of the Rising Sun catcher two decades earlier, served roughly the same purpose: It forced the opposing team to think in the moment, and for an athlete that can be catastrophic. Rheault, who I'm sure has made that play thousands of times in games and practices, was suddenly made to choose between chasing this runner all the way back to home plate, turning around and running to first base himself or throwing the ball to first base. He chose the relatively high risk involved with option three and everything worked out fine for the IronBirds. The out is made, and Mercedes is judged harshly by know-it-all journalists up in the press box.

But, let's look at an alternate universe, one in which Rheault, flustered at Mercedes' unwillingness to be tagged, sends his throw into right field, where it bounces off the wall. Now Mercedes is on second, or, factoring in another throwing error, third, and there's nobody out. I've seen enough baseball games in the last seven years to know that the play I just described is not that much of a long shot.

So, I'd like to amend my initial response to seeing that play. Mercedes was trying to get on base and help his team win the ball game. That's why he's out there. There's nothing Little League about that.

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