Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano stepped toward third base and bluffed a pickoff throw, then twirled and made a soft toss to first. No dice, the Tampa Bay runners didn’t fall for that ol’ trick — they’d seen it too often.
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Starting next year, no one might ever see that exact play again.
Major League Baseball is poised to pick off the much-maligned move, the fake-to-third, throw-to-first ploy that often succeeds only in getting the whole ballpark to shout ”Balk!”
”I think they should get rid of it,” Yankees reliever Boone Logan said. ”Us lefties can’t do that. If we do, they call a balk.”
”Besides, how often does it work? Maybe once in never,” he said.
The Playing Rules Committee has approved a proposal to make it a balk, too, with MLB executives and umpires in agreement. The players’ union vetoed the plan for this season to discuss it further. MLB is allowed to implement the change after a one-year wait – no telling whether that would happen if players strongly object.
Under the new wording, a pitcher could not fake to third unless he first stepped off the rubber. If he stayed on the rubber, as Soriano did Wednesday night, it would be a balk.
Most every pitcher now makes the move the same way Soriano did.
”Some people think you’re just trying to deceive the runner at first, that you have no real intention of getting the guy at third,” Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
”You’re not trying so much to get a guy off third. You’re not going to do that very often,” he said. ”But it can be a huge deterrent for the runner at first.”
Scioscia is a member of commissioner Bud Selig’s panel for on-field issues. Would Scioscia be sorry to see the play tossed?
”I don’t know if ‘sorry’ is the right word. It means you’ll just have to find another way to control the running game,” he said.
Scioscia’s team has had great success using what some clubs call the ”horn” play — the name comes from managers extending their index and pinky fingers in a ”Hook ’em Horns” gesture, indicating opposing runners at first and third.
Last August, with Los Angeles leading 6-4 at Yankee Stadium, New York put men at the corners with two outs in the ninth inning. Rookie Jordan Walden bluffed toward third a couple of times, then did it again and trapped Curtis Granderson off first for the final out.
This year, the Angels struck again in the Bronx when starter Ervin Santana faked to third and nailed Brett Gardner at first.
The play is specifically addressed in the Official Baseball Rules under Rule 8.05 (c), which states: ”It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal.”
Hence, no balk. Not yet, anyway.
”Major League Baseball and the players decide what the rules of baseball are. We just enforce them,” longtime umpire Jim Joyce said.
New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, chairman of the Playing Rules Committee, points out ”it’s evolved over time what’s acceptable on what you can do at different bases.” A bluff to third is legal, for example, but the same fake to first is not.
Fleet San Francisco leadoff man Angel Pagan isn’t too worried about whether the move is made illegal.
”I’ve been dealing with it my whole career,” he said. ”They’re always trying to do something to trick you.”
Same first-and-third trap they pulled in Reggie Jackson’s day. The Hall of Famer is known for his slugging, yet he also stole 228 bases.
”I wish they wouldn’t get rid of it. That play’s been part of the game forever,” he said. ”But I guess that’s part of change.”
A pickoff move that’s been part of baseball strategy for years might get picked off next season.