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Inside Pitch Magazine, September/October 2021

Inside Interview: Defending First and Third

By Sam Piraro

Red Sox third baseman catching ball to tag a sliding Orioles player at third baseI have always equated defending first-and-third situations to a home security alarm system. You rarely see the benefits, but it is comforting to know your home has reliable protection. In nearly fifty years of coaching myself, I’ve invested a considerable amount of time and preparation for these exact situations. Here are some of the key factors that we always considered when faced with opponent’s runners on the corners:

1. Score: just how significant is the runner on third?
2. Inning: depending on a number of factors that involved our opponent, we might place ourselves in a coverage that focused primarily on the runner at first base.
3. Personnel: depending on who was pitching and catching for us, we might be in a coverage that was reflective of their skill set.
4. Speed of base runners: we may identify the most dangerous threat and try and focus on that runner.
5. Defensive positioning: if we were forced to play in a certain defensive shift, we prioritized defending the hitter first; we didn’t want to compromise our range or positioning.
6. Number of outs: we felt most opponents would try a first and third play with two outs. 

We relied on three or four types of first-and-third coverages, each of which relied on players to execute a detailed assignment. Our motto was “do your job,” attention to detail was crucial.

Coverage 1: Throw through to second base

Catcher: mentality to throw to second as they peek to third. If they saw the third baseman’s arms raised (touchdown!), they adjusted to establish a clear throwing lane to third. The catcher ultimately makes the decision on whether or not to throw, and to which base. 

First Baseman: immediately would yell out “GOING!” if necessary (includes delay steal as well). Also have to be alert for a potential rundown between first and second or as an emergency option at home plate.

Second Baseman: if they have coverage responsibility at second, cheat towards the base and instead of straggling the bag, nestle left foot against the bag and react to the call of either the shortstop or third baseman. If it’s ‘Going,’ immediately attack the catcher’s throw and return it home. If it’s a ‘Tag’ call, apply tag and immediately check the status of the runner at third. Must block any poor throw and prevent it from getting by. 

The second baseman also needs to be prepared for a rundown if the runner at first stops early and tries to buy time for the runner at third. If the shortstop is the cover man, the second baseman backs up the throw and helps with whatever communication is necessary to assist his teammates.

Shortstop: exact same responsibilities as the second baseman in terms of alignment, footwork, execution and communication.

Third Baseman: must try to diagnose this play before it is executed. Look for lead changes as well as the runner’s interactions with third base coach. After the pitch, lock in on the runner at third. If they see the runner extending or positioning to go, raise arms to alert catcher. Position feet on the inside part of the base to establish a clear throwing lane for the catcher. 

If they don’t raise their arms, they will alert middle infielders with either a ‘Going’ or ‘Tag’ call, depending on the reactions of the runner at third. The third baseman must also be prepared for a return throw from either the shortstop or second baseman. There is also the possibility of a rundown between third and home. Head on a swivel!

Pitcher: if the ball is going through, slap glove and execute a throwing action towards the runner at third base, then go towards home plate for a potential rundown.

Coverage 2: Fake to second, throw to third

Designed to concentrate on a speedy runner at third. Revolves around not wanting to risk a throw to second base.

Catcher: sell the throw to second base.  The details include a peek at the runner at third as well as a full arm action fake in the direction of second. The arm action and range of motion in the fake are key components in this play. Following the fake, the catcher resets his feet and creates an inside throwing lane. If he completes the throw, it will be targeted on the inside part of third base; he cannot throw over or through the runner.

First Baseman: verbal to alert defense, be prepared to participate in potential rundown plays at first or home. 

Second Baseman: cover second base, be alert for any actions that may have resulted from the catcher’s throw to third base.

Shortstop: break in the direction of third following the catcher securing the pitch. Back up a potential throw to third and get involved in a rundown between third and home, if necessary.

Third Baseman: establish an alignment that allows the proper angle and path to the inside part of third. Create a throwing lane for the catcher. Be prepared for a poor throw. If the runner is trapped, start the rundown by attacking the runner. Be conscious that the shortstop will need time to get to third. In other words, don’t unload the ball too soon.

Pitcher: be prepared for a rundown between third and home. Break to home if the catcher completes the throw to third.  

Coverage 3: Direct throw to pitcher

Assumes the runner at third is a direct threat to the outcome of the gam along with the predictability of the opponent. 

Catcher: maintain consistent actions (peek to third) while selling the throw to second, deliver the throw at neck-high level to the pitcher. If there is a rundown that develops, align feet at least three feet up the third base line.

First Baseman: same responsibilities as the two previous coverages.

Second Baseman: cover second in the case of an overthrow by the catcher; be prepared to return an errant throw home or to third.

Shortstop: break towards third to assist on a possible rundown as soon as the catcher secures the ball.

Third Baseman: don’t break to the bag until the catcher has released the ball to the pitcher. Establish a position inside of the bag and provide a good target for the pitcher. Be prepared for a poor throw. If a rundown ensues, establish an inside lane and attack the runner at full speed. Rundown fundamentals are now executed.

Pitcher: following the pitch, align to receive a throw from the catcher. Once the pitcher catches the ball, find the runner at third - be ready to throw, but only if necessary. If the runner is trapped between third and home, attack their right shoulder and force them back to third before starting the rundown. If the runner breaks home, sets feet and deliver a dart:throw to catcher. The pitcher then sprints to home plate to cover for another possible play (the first baseman may already be there).

It is not uncommon for teams to run certain exotic first and third plays, the most common of which involving the runner at first base leaving early. As we mentioned earlier, the defense must be prepared and trained to anticipate and react to this type of tomfoolery! Even at the DI level, my teams would invest 15 minutes per week in practice defending these types of plays. We termed this coverage as “suffocation.”

First Baseman:
communicates a “YELLOW” call, which alerts the pitcher to step off. It also alerts the defense to prepare for suffocation. At some point, they may be involved in a rundown (preferably to tag out the runner at first). They will not chase the runner to second!

Second Baseman: back up a potential throw to the shortstop who is covering second base. Assist in communication responsibilities and trail the shortstop in a rundown toward first base. Keep a 15-foot spacing behind the shortstop. Act as the ‘eyes’ for the shortstop. If the rundown concludes at first, cut off the escape route for the runner as the designated “suffocator.”

Shortstop: immediately break to second and receive throw from pitcher. Attack the runner at full speed after one ‘hard look’ at the runner at third. Push the runner back to first and looks for the unassisted putout. If alerted to the runner at third breaking for home stop, reset feet and throw home. 

Third Baseman: once the runner at first leaves early, go to third and prepare for a throw from the pitcher. If there is a throw, try to apply a quick tag. If a rundown ensues, attack the runner toward home plate with the idea of giving one of the middle infielders time to cover third base. Unload ball to catcher in plenty of time. If runner stays at third, become a communication aid to your teammates regarding the actions of the runner at third.

Catcher: once runner walks off at first base, immediately check the runner at third, establishing a throwing lane that begins in front of home plate. Prepare for a rundown possibility or a throw - most likely from the shortstop. Your head must be on a swivel!

Pitcher: the key player, once you hear the “yellow” call, step off and lock in on the runner at third - be prepared to throw. Once that threat is neutralized, set feet and make a chest-high throw to the shortstop, who will have moved in front of second base. Once the pitcher has executed the throw, they break for home to assist in a possible rundown. It is critical that the pitcher is trained properly in this fundamental. Poise is very important. This should be part of their PFP drills every day.

These situations must be practiced and executed on a consistent basis. You may want to work on these fundamentals before you incorporate runners. Once you involve runners, encourage them to provide good looks for the defense. At the same time, make it challenging for the defensive side. Make sure the runners always have helmets on and have catchers be in full gear. Once the word gets around that your team is proficient in defending these types of plays, opponents will be reluctant to try them on you. It’s similar to having an upgraded alarm system on your property.
It’s worth the time you invest in this preparation.

Before retiring in 2012, Sam Piraro was the head coach at San Jose State University for 25 years. He won more than 800 games as the skipper of the Spartans, who finished with a record below .500 only five times in his tenure. SJSU won three WAC championships and made a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, advancing to their first-ever College World Series in 2000. Piraro is currently an assistant coach for his brother, Stuart, at Lincoln High School in San Jose, and serves as Director of Coach and Player Development at Sirious Baseball, Inc.

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.
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