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David Brown

Behind the scenes of Chicago's strange game-saving relay

Big League Stew

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The Minnesota Twins, currently enjoying the first opening day at Target Field, will be hard pressed to forget how their first trip of 2010 ended.

Down to the last out and his team needing him, Twins slugger Jim Thome(notes) came through with a perfectly placed pinch hit, beating the radical shift the Chicago White Sox used to defend him.

The problem: What happened next was so chaotic that it confused Thome's own team and cost them a chance at tying the game and maybe winning it.

After Thome singled off the wall in left-center against closer Bobby Jenks(notes), the White Sox completed an unusual relay, throwing J.J. Hardy(notes) out at the plate by 15 feet and preserving a 5-4 victory at U.S. Cellular Field.

Watch the play here

It was a big win for the White Sox, such as they are in April, having lost four straight coming in. And they apparently lucked into it.

Because of their defensive alignment, the Sox at first appeared to be puzzled as to how to set up a relay. Usually, the shortstop acts as middle man on balls hit to left-center, but Alexei Ramirez(notes) was in shallow center field because of the shift.

Instead, third baseman Mark Teahen(notes), who was shifted over to shortstop, got himself into the right spot to catch a perfect throw from outfielder Juan Pierre(notes). Hardy blew past third-base coach Scott Ullger (who never put up a stop sign) and was stunned to see catcher A.J. Pierzynski(notes) holding the ball and waiting at the plate.

"Halfway home and he's got the ball — it was a bad feeling," Hardy said.

So, where did it go bad for the Twins?

When he played for Chicago, opponents often swung their infield defense toward the right-field line for Thome, who usually pulls the ball that way when he hits it on the ground. The tactic can backfire because it opens up a team for stolen bases, freak bunts and other variables.

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As Thome's ball went over Pierre's head in left, nobody ran to the cut-off spot. In fact, Teahen's first move was toward the third-base bag, perhaps because of routine.

With a weak-armed Pierre in deep left-center and apparently nobody cutting off the throw, Ullger — the third-base coach since 2006 — decided to gamble.

"I've never seen a play where the cutoff men weren't there," Ullger told Big League Stew after the game. "You normally have cutoff men go out there and nobody went out there. Teahen was on the edge of the infield and I know that Pierre doesn't throw that well. [But] he just launched it."

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Teahen, who was either pulling a decoy or realized someone — perhaps himself — was making a mistake, ran toward the outfield to get Pierre's throw. It had to be one of the best throws Pierre has ever made.

"I saw Teahen and chucked it to him and got it out of my hands so I couldn't get blamed," Pierre said. "He made the relay, but I was shocked about how far away [Hardy] was from home when Teahen got the ball."

By that time, Hardy had just rounded the third-base bag.

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"Two outs, with Jenks the closer throwing, yeah, I'm running around thinking I'm going to score until I see the stop sign," Hardy said. "I never saw a stop sign."

Ullger said he could have stopped Hardy moments earlier. He missed his chance and, judging by the screen cap, was not in great position to stop Hardy.

"Yeah, I could have," Ullger said. "But there was no cutoff man out there. I was just banking on the way Pierre [usually] he throws. Teahen made a good play going out there."

Plus, with Nick Punto(notes) or another pinch hitter on deck, Ullger thought that was the Twins' best chance to score.

"How many two-out hits are we going to come up with against that guy?" Ullger said of Jenks.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who re-enacted the play on his desk using paper clips and other office supplies, said it was a strange way to lose.

"It's not too many times you have a third baseman who is the relay off the left-field wall and it kind of confused Scotty," Gardenhire said. "When Pierre threw the ball in, there wasn't anybody there. And then the third baseman ran out and got it. That's not normal.

"I don't think the White Sox run a third-baseman relay like that."

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Hardy's never seen anything like it.

"You know what ... I don't think anyone's ever practiced a play like that," Hardy said. "I've never been on a team that's had the third baseman be the relay from the left-center fielder. ... That's what's weird about it."

Weird, indeed, J.J.

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