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Staying Safe Around Second Base

When Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Chase Utley tried to break up a double play and slid hard into New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in Game 2 of the 2015 National League Divisional Series, it was immediately a controversial play.

It created a lot of buzz around the baseball world that had fans taking sides.

Was the slide a bush league and illegal attempt by Utley to take out Tejada’s legs? Or was the slide permissible because Utley stayed within the baseline? What kind of protection do middle infielders have on those types of plays, anyway?

Tejada broke his leg and Major League Baseball ruled the slide was illegal and suspended Utley for the next two postseason games.

Now legislated in the MLB by what’s known as the Utley Rule, it’s a scenario Yukon High School (Yukon, Oklahoma) head baseball coach Kevin James talks to his players about frequently.

“In high school, they’ve got protection rules to try to help players from getting hurt, and I understand that,” James said. “But if the player’s taught properly, not to defend himself, but give himself a chance to get out of it unscathed. You keep your chest to first base so you can see what’s coming at you. You make the throw and you use the base as protection. As you make the throw or after you make the throw, you jump up in the air — you do a little skip. That skip allows you to get your feet up off the ground, so there’s no chance of a tweaked knee or rolled ankle or anything like that. If a guy slides into you, you fall on top of him.”

James said Tejada was in a tough situation on the play and had to awkwardly spin and not do a toe drag before throwing to first base to complete the double play. Tejada needed to keep his chest aimed toward first to see what was coming at him.

“The shortstop turned his back on it trying to go get the ball and he caught the base, but Utley could reach over and touch the base,” said James, who is in his 10th year as head coach. “It was just a situation where you hate for it to happen, but it was just a fluke deal because of how the shortstop played the ball.”

James works with his middle infielders at every practice to make sure they “skip” to avoid the oncoming runner. He said it’s all about repetition and getting down the steps and timing.

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“They want to stay stacked: head on top of shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over toes,” James said. “Because if you get out in front of anything, you’re carrying yourself into that baserunner. You always want to be athletic so you can react.”

James teaches three different routes to second base when an infielder takes a throw from the left side of the diamond. The second baseman obviously takes a little different route than the shortstop.

“It’s always left foot on the base — you can put your left on it and then push back toward right field,” James said. “If the throw’s toward the left-field side of second base, the left foot on the bag, you can push off that way. The base is there to protect you. If it’s a third baseman throwing down the line, you can step toward third base, left foot on the base, right foot toward third and then another step to get even. So you’re out of the baseline again.”

When a shortstop is trying to turn a twin killing, he takes a similar approach to his fellow middle infielder.

“It’s right toe kicking the center field side of the base and then moving into the right field line, shallow right field moving in that direction away from second base, once again to get you out of that baseline,” James said.

James likes to place circular objects around second base during drills to give infielders a better visual idea on turning a double play.

“If you’re inside, you can put a jump rope or I’ve seen guys use hula hoops and put around second base,” James said. “You cannot get outside that hoop when you make that turn. You’re going to do your pivot on the base and that base is there to protect you, but what we’re working on is keeping head over toes, not getting outside your body.”

When James started coaching in the mid-1980s, he used a couple different methods to teach the situation.

“I did stuff 28 years ago that I’d probably get fired if I did them now,” James joked. “We’d roll 50-gallon barrels at them. We’d roll football dummies at them. We’ve never done it where we’ve had a guy come in full tilt and do it.”

Rolling a round dummy at middle infielders works well, because it forces the defender to move out of the way.

“That’s the whole idea, don’t be there — make your throw and get out,” James said. “You don’t hang out, and you’ve got to stay out of that line.”

From GameChanger and Greg Bates.

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