By Eddie Smith
June 19, 2012
Omaha: Every June the eyes of the sports world turn their eyes to the most appropriate host of any major sporting event in America.
The toughness that emanates from every inch of architecture, people and history in this blue-collar railroad town is also at the core of every team fortunate enough to be playing in the College World Series.
While the term toughness is often tossed around in casual baseball conversation, it is rarely defined. Initially, The word sparks images of a lumberjack-looking man gripping an oversized bat with bulging forearms and tobacco spit dripping down a grizzled beard and staining a ragged uniform as he crushes another ball into the outfield light structures.
It is impossible to completely define this toughness that we hear so much about – if it were that easy, perhaps it would not be such an elusive quality for so many teams. Yet there are several aspects of the game of baseball in which toughness can defined. Here are examples of this toughness that the great teams do every time:
Every pitch counts
The game of baseball is a marathon. The average game is nearly three hours, and has over 300 pitches. Yet after every game you can look back and know the game was decided on just a handful of pitches. Tough teams know this and live this. The tough teams are a cohesive unit of starters, pitchers and reserves who all understand the importance of executing their role on each pitch.
Every day is the most important day of the year
The college baseball season is long. Workouts start the first day of class in August and the season ends in late June. Factor in the two months in the summer when most college baseball players are playing in summer leagues and no other sport in college or professional athletics has a season that compares in length to the college baseball season.
Rather than looking at this in the big picture, which can certainly be overwhelming, the tough teams understand that you can never give a day away. Whether it is taking ground balls during an individual workout in November or the National Championship Series in Omaha, every day must be treated with the same mentality of an opportunity to bring energy and be great.
This is a mindset and a toughness that seems unrealistic to most but the reality is that the great teams think this way.
The game of baseball is designed to create self-doubt. It is an individual sport wrapped up in a team game so the disappointment of failure after making an error or striking out makes a player feel like the entire world is staring at him as he waits for what seems like an eternity for the next pitch to be thrown.
Great teams are full of players who are tough enough to believe in themselves even when no one else does. This confidence radiates from these players in a manner that says I am who I am as a player and a mistake or two isn’t going to change me. This unwavering belief and trust in their preparation is at the core of the toughest teams.
Hard 90 every time
There is nothing that tells you more about a player than the way he runs to first base. Some players run hard when it means they can beat out a ball for an infield hit and pad their average and others run hard most of the time. But the great teams have an entire line up that runs to first base the same way every time.
These teams have players who go full speed whether it is a ground ball when the player must simply run hard for 90 feet before breaking down to peak for the overthrow or a pop up to an outfielder where the runner must go hard out of the box all the way to second base in case of a rare drop by the outfielder. While human nature is to be frustrated as a hitter after an average swing, the great teams have selfless players who go hard every time to apply pressure on the defense and ultimately force more errors and have more bases.
“I will execute for my team”
The game of baseball requires execution. Bunting, hitting and running and a simple ground ball hit to a middle infielder playing back with a runner on third base and less than two outs are all examples of this execution. There are players who look at these situations as punishment but the tough players are eager to have these opportunities.
Quite simply, tough players come up in these situations with the maturity to understand that this is what wins baseball games and take on a mindset of “I will execute for my team.” This thought alone is the foundation of a great executing team and the teams who execute will be the ones who win baseball games.
Take every free 90 feet
In the highest levels of baseball, the game becomes played one base at a time. At the high school level, free bases are given up all over the field while in college they become much more scattered. In watching Major League Baseball, free 90s are few and far between as the game is at its highest level.
Tough teams understand the value of every 90 feet and work to advance 90 feet on every pitch. These 90 feets come in many different ways and the great teams understand this.
Tough teams have players who recognize a third basemen getting lazy and playing two steps deeper than he has the entire game on a 2-1 count in the third at bat of a hitter who is fifth in the order and the hitter drops down a bunt to take the free 90 feet given to him.
Tough teams have players who take pitches below the knees on 3-1 counts every time because they understand the value of the walk they just drew.
Tough teams steal bases the first or second pitch that the pitcher turns his focus from holding the running game to trying to get out the hitter. While many players may take 3 or 4 pitches to take this free base as the pitcher moves from 1.3 to 1.5 seconds to the plate, a tough player takes it the first pitch and is in scoring position earlier in the count giving the batter a better opportunity to drive him in.
Tough teams look to advance 90 feet on the bases every pitch and are never surprised by a ball that kicks away from the catcher. Next time you look at a team’s statistics, check the ratio of wild pitches and passed balls their pitching staff has compared to their opponents. The great teams force a drastic difference in wild pitches and passed balls out of their opponents because they are anticipating this free 90 feet on every pitch
The examples of 90 feets that are taken are endless but the constant is that great teams have the toughness to anticipate these 90 feets every pitch and take advantage of them when the opportunity presents itself.
Outs after Es
As a pitching staff it is a recipe for disaster when another team is given an extra out because of an error. Rather than being frustrated or pointing fingers, toughness is getting back on the mound and finding a way to get the next hitter out. Errors are a part of the game and are going to happen. It is how you respond to them that counts.
Manage the running game
Every pitcher has pickoff moves but every once in a while you will see a pitching staff who really does a great job of managing the running game. Staffs who manage the running game well have the toughness to understand the importance of limiting basestealers while still being able to focus on getting the batter out.
The tough pitchers are so good at this that stealing a base becomes nearly impossible as they deliver pitches at 1.1 or 1.2 seconds every pitch and they also collect an extra out or two a game with a deceiving pick move to first base or understanding when the runner may be stealing at second base and fooling him with an inside move that looks like he is going to the plate to the runner. Suffocating the running game forces an offense to beat you by simply standing there and swinging the bat which is a tall task in the world of BBCOR bats.
Never strike out looking
Strikeouts are going to happen. But tough players and tough teams do not allow themselves to strike out looking on offense. A backwards k on a team that oozes toughness may be looked at as a “sky is falling” kind of event – it just does not happen. There are great pitchers everywhere with good stuff but tough players simply have a mindset where they refuse to go down looking.
Every at bat is a masterpiece
In the course of anyone’s career there are only a limited number of at bats you will get as a hitter. The toughest players know this and approach every at bat as if it may be their last. Tough teams are marked by players who take the same approach every at bat and will not give one away.
These players walk into the batters box knowing they are going to get a hit every time and simply refuse to make soft contact or swing at a pitcher’s pitch. These players also are never satisfied and understand the importance of a great at bat in the 7th inning whether your team is ahead 8-3 or down 8-3 in a game that seems to be well in hand.
These are just a few of the details that makeup the toughness that is the foundation of every great baseball team. So, as you tune into ESPN this week awestruck by the excitement and youthfulness of the players on the teams who have earned a trip to Omaha, take a second to watch the game a little closer. You will quickly recognize this toughness that oozes from these teams and is the very reason they got to Omaha in the first place.
— COACH SMITH