On Saturday night, in the bottom of the third inning of a scoreless game, Alcides Escobar worked a lead-off walk. Brandon Moss singled and Escobar moved to second. Next, Alex Gordon hit a deep fly ball to Rangers left fielder Delino DeShields.
But Alcides Escobar did not tag up.
Escobar drifted between second and third base. He returned to second base when it became clear DeShields would catch the ball, but by then it was too late to tag up and advance 90 feet to third.
After the game Ned Yost called it a tough read, and it was.
But to understand why that doesn’t matter, you need to know some base-running rules of thumb:
With two outs and a deep fly ball put in play, a runner on second base breaks on contact; it doesn’t matter if the ball is caught.
With one out and a deep fly ball put in play, a runner on second base takes the biggest lead possible. If the ball isn’t caught, the runner wants to be able to score. If the ball is caught, the runner returns to second base and his team gets another at bat with a runner in scoring position.
But with nobody out and a deep fly ball put in play, the runner tags up. He doesn’t take a lead and try to read the ball, he just goes back and tags.
If the ball isn’t caught the runner may still have a chance to score, depending on how far the outfielder has to go to retrieve the ball. And even if the runner doesn’t score, his team is still in great shape; bases loaded, nobody out.
If the ball is caught the runner tags up and advances to third base; that gives his team a chance to score a run without benefit of a hit.
So even if Gordon’s fly ball was a tough read, it didn’t matter: Escobar should have been going back to second base to tag up.
The Gods of Baseball
When it comes to Baseball Gods, I’m an agnostic.
I find it doubtful that someone holding a trident and floating on a cloud is watching the Rangers play the Royals on a Saturday evening in July; but enough weird stuff happens in baseball to make you wonder.
Back up a base 99 times, fail to back it up on play number 100, and there’s a good chance there will be an overthrow.
Put a defensive replacement in the field late and there’s a good chance the next ball will be hit to him.
And fail to advance a runner to third base with one out and there’s a good chance the next guy will hit a fly ball to the outfield.
That’s what happened Saturday night.
After Alcides Escobar failed to tag up and advance to third base, Whit Merrifield hit a fly ball to right field for the second out. Nomar Mazara came into make the catch, so there’s a decent chance Escobar wouldn’t have been able to tag up and score.
But had Escobar already been on third base, he would have scored for sure on the next ball in play; Jorge Bonifacio’s scorching line drive to Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus.
The ball was deflected by Andrus and stayed close to the infield; an infield single and all Escobar could do was advance from second to third.
Had Escobar gone to third base on Gordon’s fly ball, he would have scored on Bonifacio’s infield single and the Royals would not have lost to the Rangers 1-0 in nine innings.
If there are Baseball Gods, they get a kick out of punishing those who fail to execute the fundamentals.
If you’re good, the little stuff is more important
If your team is bad, doing the little stuff right probably won’t be enough to save you; on most nights, a bad team is not one play away from winning.
If your team is great, you’re probably already doing the little stuff right; it’s one of the reasons you’re great. But when a great team fails to execute a fundamental, it has a better chance of getting away with it. On most nights, a great team is not one play away from losing.
But when your team is merely good, you have to do the little stuff right all the time — a good team is one play away from winning or losing.
The Royals have now lost five games in a row, but change a play or two and they could have won four of those five games.
The Royals are not bad enough or great enough that the little things don’t matter. The Royals are good and that means, on most nights, they have to do all the little stuff right.
Saturday night they failed to advance a runner 90 feet — 90 feet that was there for the taking — and it cost them a ball game.