Sunday, May 9, 2010

International (tie-breaking) rule of mystery

Runners don't just mysteriously pop up on second base in extra innings of softball games, they're placed there by the International Tiebreaker Rule.

I wrote a column for Monday's paper on the International Tiebreaker Rule in softball. You can read it by scrolling beneath the second picture in this post.

First, I wanted to address a number of other softball rules that differentiate the sport from baseball.

Many states have moved the pitcher’s rubber back to 43 feet from its current placement at 40 feet, as has been done in college and international competition. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association, however, has kept the rubber at 40 feet.

The Chicago Tribune reported this week that teams in Illinois have seen an offensive explosion after moving the pitcher back three feet.

Adopting the 43-foot rule would help New York’s college-bound players prepare for the next level. Statistically, it would not likely have much of an effect on the number of extra-inning games, which still leaves the issue of the international tie-breaker rule. Teams will go to extras tied 5-5 rather than 1-1, for example.

To read a story from the Chicago Tribune on the offensive outburst that occurred after moving the pitcher's rubber back three feet, click here.

Softball also uses a 15-run mercy rule, which keeps some games from getting totally out of control.

The reentry rules for softball are similar to those used by high school baseball teams, which allows squads to utilize defensive specialists and courtesy runners.

What do you think? What rule changes would you make to any of the sports played on the high school level?

When you've got a free runner on second base and nobody out, the book says to bunt - and teams certainly do when the International Tiebreaker Rule kicks in.

Sometimes, a high school softball game seems like it can go on forever.

With pitchers hurling the ball at speeds near 60 miles per hour – releasing the ball less than 40 feet from home plate – it’s rarely an equal opportunity game for hitters.

Consequently, after countless extra inning affairs dragged on until one ace finally made a mistake and a winner was determined, the International Tiebreaker Rule was adopted to hurry games to their conclusions.

The rule has its variations depending on the level of play and the governing bodies of different softball organizations, but in Section II, it plays out like this.

If teams have played to a tie score after nine innings (a regulation high school game lasts seven innings, so teams have already played two extra innings) the player who made the last out in the ninth inning heads to second base to begin the tenth. If the visiting team scores thanks to the free runner in scoring position in the top of the inning, the home team has an opportunity to win…or tie the game and prolong it even further.

What often happens is that teams will use their first out to lay down a sacrifice bunt and move the free runner to third base. A base hit, a sacrifice fly, an error in the field or a wild pitch could all score the free runner and potentially end the game.

That was exactly what happened to Cohoes and Columbia in a non-league game earlier this season. The teams scored one run apiece in each half of the 10th and 11th innings. In the 12th, a Columbia hitter ripped a line drive to Cohoes’ second baseman. Since the ball was hit so hard, Cohoes’ first baseman assumed the ball had been caught on the fly when in fact it barely skipped off the infield. She did not get back to cover first base in time and the winning run scored for the Blue Devils.

In the first round of the 2010 Uncle Sam Tournament, Tamarac had played Catholic Central to a 1-1 draw through nine innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Catholic Central’s leadoff hitter Hannah Kutny came to the plate and swiftly singled to left field, driving in the game-winning run.

To be fair, Tamarac had an equal chance to win the game, but the Bengals failed to move their tiebreaker runner across the plate in the top of the tenth.

Still, few coaches seem to be in favor of the rule.

“You get a runner on second, you bunt her over and you hope something happens,” said Cohoes head coach Frank Ryan. “You score and then they have the same scenario. You gave them a run and now we’re going to try to give you a run. It’s not like you really earn the run. I’d rather just play, myself.”

Any tiebreaker runners that score do not count against a pitcher’s earned run average.

Why not let the kids play the game until someone wins? The rule makes sense for in-season tournament play and non-conference games that ultimately do not count beyond pride, but in league games and postseason contests, the players should determine the outcome, not a free runner placed on base to speed up the ending.

Baseball, and by extension, softball, is our national pastime because the victor is always determined by merit. The team that can more effectively make their opponent pile up the outs wins every time. Unlike basketball or soccer teams that can claim to simply have run out of time when the final buzzer sounds, softball games are always won by the better team on any given day unless a free runner figures in determining the outcome.

The International Tiebreaker Rule only serves to turn softball games into late-inning shootouts or sudden death scenarios. What’s the rush? Let the girls play games to completion and determine a winner the old-fashioned way, the way the game was meant to be played.

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