Among the first drills new Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus worked on with his club in February was a rarely attempted pickoff move to third base.
It's rarely attempted for several reasons, most of which are fairly obvious. For starters, it's simply not a natural movement for pitchers as they rarely, if ever, practice making pickoff throws to third base. The throw, in and of itself, is unnatural and awkward, because they're forced to hit a moving target at the bag. For the third baseman, it's not a comfortable play either. They have enough to process with a runner at third just in terms of relaying signals and looking for a potential bunt. Now, they also have to think about covering the bag and being in position to receive the throw.
Honestly, it felt like a disaster waiting to happen when Ausmus introduced the drill, and on Friday night a perfect example of just how disastrous it can be played out when a little bit of miscommunication led to a game-ending balk in Detroit's 3-2 loss to the New York Yankees.
Yes, the dreaded walkoff balk, which isn't a first in baseball, but it's certainly a rarity. The most recent walkoff balk during the regular season came on June 17, 2011, when then New York Mets reliever D.J. Carrasco balked home the winning run for the Atlanta Braves.
In that case, it was more of a traditional balk as Carrasco simply hesitated on the mound after becoming unsure of the pitch selection. The Tigers balk was a little more complex, and according to Ausmus, it's all his fault.
Ausmus on walkoff balk: "It was my fault. I actually gave a [pickoff] sign by accident."
— Jason Beck (@beckjason) March 8, 2014
It will take a little more explanation as well since the game wasn't televised and there's no MLB video to analyze.
It wouldn't have been a big deal if the players were all on the same page. However, only pitcher Luis Marte read Ausmus' unintentional sign. Third baseman Francisco Martinez missed it and never made a move to the bag, so the balk was called when Marte threw the ball and it was determined Martinez was not within tagging distance of the runner. Sometimes you'll see that type of balk called at first base when the pitcher forgets they're not holding the runner. At third, though, rarely if ever do you see something like this, if only because that pickoff play was never in anyone's playbook until now.
The good news? It's only spring training. This is exactly what these exhibition games are for. An opportunity to work out the kinks, try some new things and see what catches on.
The potential bad news? Given how emphatically Ausmus sold the play as a defensive weapon last month, he won't nix it based on one mistake in March. However, this should serve as a reminder of just how ambitious the play is and how important it will be for everybody to get on the same page before unveiling it in a game that counts.
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