Croydon managed to get nine players outÂ for their double-header at home toÂ Richmond on Sunday, which means that “Roundshaw Hop” can stay asÂ the name of this column for now. However,Â the Pirates’ performance wasÂ dismal, with the 29 walks they issued over 10 innings being perhaps the best single statistic to sum this up.
The teamÂ comprised a couple of stand-outs and a handful of other players who were not out of their depth,Â but the line-upÂ was rounded off withÂ a fewÂ players who would struggle to get into some single-A starting IXs in the British league. It is a real shame that the Pirates’ troubles are currently overshadowing what is otherwise a league with pleasing competitive balance (the Falcons’ split with the Blazers in the other double-header on Sunday further exemplifies this).
The Richmond-Croydon scorelines of 20-4 and 17-4 in two five-inning slaughtersÂ could have been much worse were it not for baseball’s etiquette of easing up. They offered very little entertainment value. Of course, with baseball, there is always something that can be rescued from an otherwise dull game. For me, it was the base-stealing of Richmond’s Robbie Unsell.
When I was establishing a list of top-tier feats during the off-season, I decided that four stolen bases in a game would justify inclusion in the archives. Unsell led Richmond in stealsÂ going into the first game, with four of the team’s total of nine. After easily stealing second and thirdÂ following a bases-empty walk in his second trip to the plateÂ of the dayÂ (he struck out first time up), I realized that he had a pretty good shot at getting four steals in a game, or perhaps even more. So following his progress round the bases became a welcome sub-plot for me on a day of driving rain and lopsided baseball.
What was most interesting was realizing the obstacles to stealing a base thatÂ Unsell was going to face. In hisÂ third turn at bat he flied out to the first baseman in foul territory, which is always going to make stealing difficult. Fourth time up heÂ had runners on first and second with two out andÂ hit a doubleÂ to clear the bases. The baseball maxim of not making the third out at third would not necessarilyÂ have applied, as it did not seem likely that he would be thrown out. The problem was that Unsell was able to advance to third on a throw to home plate. This meantÂ that toÂ steal a baseÂ he would have to come home, which is not particularly easy of course.
In his fifth plate appearance, which occurred in the fifth and final inning, Unsell drew a walk and had a free base in front of him, but this time it was the scoreline that would prevent him from stealing. Richmond led 14-2, a margin that means that stealing would go against baseball’s code (much like bunting to break up a no-hitter does). The Flames batted around and so Unsell was able to get on base for a second time in the inning, but Richmond now led 20-2.
What about game two?Â Leading off for Richmond,Â Unsell made an even better start than he had in game one, getting two steals after a single in his first plate appearance. He came up for a second time in the inning and got on base again, but this was via a bases-loaded walk, so there was no chance to register any more steals.
In his thirdÂ trip toÂ the plate in game two, Unsell again ended up with a runner directly in front of him after singling to get on base. However, a force out at third on a fielder’s choice play on the next batter up opened up the bases. Now, though, Unsell came up against a different kind of obstacle. Grant Delzoppo was the next hitter for the Flames and he sent the first pitch he saw over the fence in right field for a 3-run homer.
In the fourth, Unsell got to lead off the inning, andÂ while Richmond had a 10-run lead, by this point on a very wet afternoon, the Flames had decided to be as aggressive as possible on the bases to give Croydon extra opportunities to get the last few outs they needed to make the game legal and allow everyone to getÂ warm and dry. No-one had a problem withÂ this. Unsell reached first on an infield single. HeÂ should have then been put out at second on a fielder’s choice, but a mishandled throw allowed him to be safe there. Seizing this opportunity, Unsell stole third and then scored on a sacrifice fly.
With threeÂ steals in game two to go with his two in game one, Unsell was to get one lastÂ chance to add to his tally in the fifth inning. He drew a walk to load the bases and made it round to third on another walk and aÂ ground-out. Finally, he had a free base in front of him, although it was of course home plate. On the third pitch of the next at-bat, Unsell waitedÂ a few pacesÂ down the third-base lineÂ until the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher, at which point he set off. The play at the plate was close, but there was no doubt that he had stolen his fourth base.
Ignoring steals of home that are enabled by a throw to second to attempt to gun down a stealer from first, there were a couple of genuine examples in the 2008 season (see here and here). NeitherÂ involved the audacity of stealing on the catcher’s throw back to the pitcher, however.
I doubt there will be enough games in the season for Unsell to challenge Lee Mayfield’s top-tier recordÂ of 34 stolen bases, but it is not out of the question. The Falcons’ Dan Kerry would seem to be the player besides Unsell who has the best shot at this record in 2009.
And should Unsell ever get a game where he gets on base a few times without the obstacles to stealing that kept on cropping up, then there’s no reason why he can’t set a new record for steals in a single game.