After Matt Capps blew his seventh save of the season against the Kansas City Royals on Friday night, the Twins attempted to rally against Royals closer Joakim Soria. Still down 2-1, they were able to get runners on first and third with one out and Luke Hughes pinch-hitting for Jason Repko.
Hughes didn’t do very much with his chance, as all he managed was a weak grounder that only made it halfway to the pitcher’s mound. To many fans’ shock, Tolbert came running home and was thrown out by Soria by about 5 steps.
What we witnessed is typically known as the “contact” play. Basically, the runner at third base is supposed to come home as soon as the hitter makes contact. You may have noticed also that the Royals defense had the corners in to cut down Tolbert at home, and the middle infielders were slightly in but also playing at double play depth.
This play is risky (as we saw yesterday), but it has its benefits as well. If an infielder bobbles a ball hit directly at him, or has to make a diving stop, Tolbert likely scores. Also, a hard hit grounder to the 1st or 3rd baseman could become a double play, but by sacrificing the runner at home, it extends the game for at least one more hitter. Besides, the offense would still have runners on 1st and 2nd base. Even with two outs and losing the runner at 3rd base, you still have a runner in scoring position (albeit 90 feet further from home) and that’s a better situation than having the defense turn the double play and end the game on your team.
Yesterday’s game, we witnessed a little bit of a gray area when it comes to this type of play. Hughes’ grounder was hit so softly that Tolbert probably could have gone back to 3rd base, and if you see replays of Tolbert running home, you can see him hesitate briefly as if he wanted to do just that. In hindsight, the ball was hit so weakly that the Royals were likely only going to get one out regardless of what Tolbert did. He had to make a split-second decision, and he chose to stick with the play that was put on.
Even with Tolbert being thrown out at home, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was up next and had a chance to tie the game but failed as he grounded out to shortstop. There’s no guarantees, but with Nishioka mostly looking overmatched this season at the plate, I’m not really sure that having runners at 2nd and 3rd with two outs would have made much of a difference than 1st and 2nd with two outs.
Edit: The contact play was put on in Saturday’s game as well with similar results. After Michael Cuddyer singled to put the Twins up 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th inning, Delmon Young came to the plate with Cuddyer at 1st and Joe Mauer at 3rd with one out. Young hit a chopper to 3rd base, and Mauer was coming home to help prevent the Royals from turning a double play. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas threw home, and Mauer was caught in a rundown long enough for Cuddyer to get to 3rd base and for Young to make it into 2nd before being tagged out at home by pitcher Aaron Crow. Just like the night before, the next batter (yesterday Nishioka, today Danny Valencia) grounded out to end the inning.