What could be better for a baseball coach than to see his team hold a big lead late in a game? Not much — unless he ignores baseball’s unwritten code of etiquette.
Stealing with a big lead, swinging on a 3-0 pitch, manufacturing runs — these are breaches of the code, which is designed to prevent a team from embarrassing or showing up an opponent.
Yet the code is often elastic, and there are plenty of gray areas, according to Steve Bushnell, whose Topeka Seaman High School teams have won seven Class 5A Kansas state baseball tournaments.
“We’ve been on both sides,” he said. “Regardless of whether we’re up 15 or down 15 runs, the scoreboard doesn’t dictate how you play the game.
“If you play the game the same way, whether you’re up or down, and nobody knows what side of the score you’re on — to me that’s the way game needs to be played.”
Bushnell offers some pointers for coaches in the enviable position of finishing off a rout.
Making the Call
When is a lead big enough? Seven runs? Nine runs? Bushnell follows a simple rule of thumb: “Whenever we’re ahead by more runs than there are outs left in the game, that’s when you don’t need to run your offense,” he said.
“If you’re up 10 runs with 10 outs left, then you call off the dogs.”
Of course, there is some room for nuance.
“If you’re up by four runs with four outs to go, that’s a little different,” Bushnell said. “If I’ve got a guy I don’t trust on the mound, maybe I’ll bunt to get one more run. It just depends on where you’re at.”
Spreading the Word
Three years ago, a Stony Brook player stole second base in the eighth inning with his team leading Miami 9-2. After his team’s 10-2 win, the Stony Brook coach offered an apology for breaking one of baseball’s unwritten rules.
To avoid this problem, Bushnell stresses the importance of communication.
“If we’re up 15-1, we’ll have a brief team huddle and I’ll address the issue,” Bushnell said.
The basic message: Although the team on top late in a lopsided game does not stop trying to hit, it stops pressing to manufacture runs.
Said Bushnell: “I tell them, ‘We’re not running offense now. If you’re hitting, I’m not asking you to strike out on purpose or make an out. You’re absolutely trying to compete and get a base hit. But I’m not giving you any signs.
“‘Base runners, you’re going to run the bases hard, but were not going to give you the steal sign. If you want to score, it’s all based on your hitting and running the bases properly, because we’re not going to try to manufacture runs in any way. We’re not bunting; we’re not running any situational offense. We owe that to the game and to our opponents.’”
Experimenting a Bit
A team with a big lead late in a game is in an enviable position in several ways. Not only is that team likely to win, but the late innings offer some room for experimentation.
“You use those times to get guys who don’t get starters reps into the game,” Bushnell said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to be involved.”
You have a potential switch-hitter. Do you let him hit from the opposite side of the plate?
“If he can be competitive, then that’s a great opportunity,” Bushnell said.
You have a potential pitcher. Do you let him take the mound?
“Absolutely,” Bushnell said. “If he has an arm, and last time he pitched was a year ago, ask him, ‘Do you want to go out and try to get an inning?”’