Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Haven't updated over the last few weeks? You bet.

I have a lovely, wonderful, frequently screaming all night newborn baby at home. As hard as it might be to believe, somethings do take a priority over kickball...

We've gone 1-1 over the last two weeks. On 8/13 we lost to Redrum, 2-0. I wasn't at the game (driving back from a weekend visit to Tucson to see the in-laws, because I'd much rather be driving through a desert with a screaming baby than playing kickball), but reports I've heard from teammates range from "the game was tough" to "we played retarded" to "balls soup". I know that at least two our our players were thrown out trying for the first-to-third-on-a-single thing, while making two of the ugliest slides known to mankind. I'll let the offenders decide if they want to tell those stories themselves.

Last week was a complete turnaround. We played Smurfageddon, and I think you guys know the history between us. A friendly rivalry, and we were 2-1 against them all-time going in, but certainly a rivalry of some sort. And for whatever reason, everything "clicked" from the first inning, especially for our offense. All of the poor decisions on where to kick vanished. Everyone made good choices, even if it meant not doing what they normally do or even sacrificing themselves for the team. Thanks to that, we scored four runs in the first inning, and never really were threatened from there. (It helped that their pitcher walked three of our first four kickers - ouch.)

The final score was 10-3, but really I felt like it was 100-3. To see our offense go out against a good team and execute gives me a lot of hope for the rest of the season. I know that we apparently CAN "flip a switch" come playoff time, but a) that doesn't mean we WILL do that and b) I'd like to able to play to our level of ability in the regular season AND the playoffs - I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.

I think most people know the Vince Lombardi quote of "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." I think every youth sports coach drilled that into our heads as kids to prove the value of sportsmanship. I think that's taking the quote all out of context. I think what Vince Lombardi meant was that your results aren't as important as playing at your highest level of ability - that's the "how you play the game" he was talking about. Winning or losing is sort of important to me, but I can handle losing if we played as good as we could, and another team still beats us. It happened to us in the semifinals in San Diego last year, and in the Championship Game against Wonderballz a few seasons ago. It happens sometimes. But losing because you didn't come close to your best effort as a team (or even winning in spite of it) sucks.

This week, we play the Valley Girls in a rematch of last season's Championship Game. As usual, it should be a very competitive, hard-fought game between two former bitter rivals who now have a lot of respect for each other. Plus, the "trade" of Tyler F. to their team for Spitz will certainly spice things up a bit.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Ninja Manifesto - Offense and How to be Offensive

I think we know that we’re capable of being one of the top offensive teams in the Division. What we lack from time to time is consistency. Some weeks we can score double digit runs, while in other weeks we struggle to score at all. Why the wild swings? Because we only succeed on offense when we stick to the things that make us successful – the things we’ve done as a team in order to win three championships.

These things don’t include kicking for home runs and trying to overpower the other team – while the occasional home run is nice and sometimes necessary, we do well when we outthink and outplay the other team’s defense. There are things that we do on offense when things are going well that other teams don’t – call it “Kickball the Ninja Way” or whatever you want, but it has worked in the past and it will work in the future if we stick to it.

The difference between scoring 10 runs versus scoring two runs is usually a lot of little things. Here are some guidelines about what we should be doing every time we come to bat, regardless of who we are playing or what the score is.

PUT PRESSURE ON THE OTHER TEAM’S DEFENSE – I think that every specific thing that we try to do as a team on offense comes from this basic concept – it’s the overall philosophy that guides everything we should do. As we’ve seen time and time again, when you constantly put the other team’s defense in situations where they have to make plays, there’s a good chance that they will make enough mistakes that we can capitalize on.

GROUND BALLS PUT MORE PRESSURE ON DEFENSES THAN FLY BALLS – Ground balls require more things to go right for the defense than fly balls. Hopefully this diagram helps to explain things:

With a ground ball, the fielder must catch the ball, make a good throw, and the person at the base must make a clean catch while staying on the base. Meanwhile, for a fly ball only one thing has to happen – the ball being caught.

Ground balls in the right places (like down 3rd base) will make it almost impossible to get the kicker out. And even more importantly, it puts the pressure on the defense to execute a series of things instead of just doing one thing over and over. It’s frustrating when an outfielder makes a “Help Me Jesus” catch on a deep fly ball, but why give them the chance to make that play at all when a ground ball puts the defense under more pressure and increases the odds of them screwing up.

HOME RUNS ARE FINE, IN SMALL DOSES – I’ve seen our team fall in love with trying to kick for home runs several times in the past because someone kicked one in the first inning. The truth is that for every home run, there are probably eight or nine fly outs. In the long run, the reward isn’t worth all the outs we’ll incur trying for home runs.

GETTING THE FIRST TWO KICKERS ON BASE SHOULD BE ALMOST AUTOMATIC – If you can kick a ground ball to third base, it’s almost impossible for a defense to get you out at first base, or to get a runner out going to second. You don’t have to kick hard when kicking ground balls – keeping it on the ground is way more important than how hard you kick it.

DON’T KICK ANYTHING THE CATCHER CAN MAKE A PLAY ON – Any bunt that the catcher can field near home base is almost always going to be an out. Kicking ground balls instead of bunts takes the catcher out of the equation. But if you are going to bunt, try to get the ball somewhere in between the catcher and the pitcher on the 3rd base side – it’s tough to field and almost a sure base hit.

TAKE WHAT THE DEFENSE GIVES YOU – Every defense has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s in our best interest to exploit the other team’s weak spots to our advantage. If they have huge gaps in their outfield, aim for them. If there is a girl on second base who weighs about 50 pounds and has her hands in her armpits when the ball is kicked, make her make the plays. It’s not mean – it’s being opportunistic.

Remember: precision is more important than brute force.

LINE DRIVES ARE BETTER THAN FLY BALLS – There are situations when you need to kick more than a ground ball, especially with two outs and runners on base. But that doesn’t mean that you need to hammer a deep fly ball – that gives the other team a chance to get under it and make a play (and maybe have a better fielder get to it).

In these situations the key is kicking line drives that get over the heads of the infielders but fall in front of the outfield. These gaps always exist, especially with kickers whom the defense respects. Keep putting balls in front of the outfielders until they adjust and more up to close the gap. The beauty is that once this happens, our big kickers can then blast kicks over the drawn-in outfield’s heads and make them pay.

KNOW THE SITUATION AND KICK ACCORDINGLY – Before you go up, think about the situation: Where are the runners? Are there force-outs in effect for the runners? How many outs are there? These things all matter. A ground ball to third base is great most of the time, but with runners on first and second, it’s a sure out and worst of all we haven’t advanced the runners. In that case, kicking the ball to the right side of the field is a better play – even if you get out, the runners will advance up to second and third base.

It sounds basic but it needs to happen: have a plan for where you want to ball to go, and think about what will happen with the base runners if the ball goes where you are aiming.

UNDERSTAND YOUR LIMITATIONS AND THOSE OF THE KICKERS AFTER YOU – I know that I can’t kick home runs, so I’ve abandoned trying. My strength is kicking ground balls and getting on base. But certain situations require that I do more than just get on base. If there are two outs and runners on second and third, I could easily kick a grounder and get on base. But that leaves the bases loaded, and if a weaker kicker is up next, I’ve just put them in a bad situation.

Study the kicking order and don’t just know how is before you but who is after you. If a big kicker is up, you can focus on getting on base. If it’s a weaker kicker, you might want to try and punch the ball out of the infield and drive in the runs.

DON’T LOSE FOCUS – Generally we know what to do on the field. But when we lose focus, we can make silly plays that are out of character for us – not tagging up on fly balls, overrunning bases, or not running through first base. Obviously, we want to have fun, but when it’s your turn to kick, you need to be 100 percent focused and thinking several steps ahead – if you are on base, what happens when the ball is kicked? Go through the different scenarios in your mind and decide how you would react to them so you are ready for anything – it’s like role playing without the dice!

And this can’t be stressed enough: You can learn so much about opposing defenses by watching every one of our at-bats. You can tell if certain fielders have weak arms, so maybe you can take an extra base against them. Or, you can tell if certain outfielders have a better or worse chance of making a play.

RUN AGGRESSIVELY, BUT NOT STUPIDLY – I know that we see players stretch singles into doubles, triples or even home runs by being very aggressive on the base paths. And that’s great if you’re as fast as Scott Jones. But I know how fast I am, and I’m not going to be able to pull off the same things he can.

History has shown that if we can remember these things when we’re up to kick, we’ll score tons of runs. I mean, just giant buckets of runs. And the more times we score, the more people get to kick, and that’s fun for everyone.

Yours truly and a Ninja 4Ever,

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I hate kickball

We lost 3-2 last night. In the bottom of the fifth inning, after we were up 2-1. Against a new team that - yes, they played good - but had giant holes in their defense all game long. And yet we could still only get two runs.

It was embarrassing. Not just because we lost, but it was totally amateur hour for most of the game. Basically, we did everything that every other team does that we usually capitalize on: kicked lots of fly balls, made ill-advised defensive plays at the wrong time and generally lost our heads. It wasn't even close to good enough - if we keep playing like this the next few weeks (Redrum, Smurfageddon, Valley Girls all in a row), we're going to be looking at 2-4 really fast.

I would write more but I can just feel my head start to hurt the more I think about the game. Suffice it to say I have been this distressed by a loss in a long time.

(And by "distressed" I mean "pissed for about 10 minutes, and then went home and had dinner and drinks with my best friend from college who is visiting from Portland". Not the same distressed as "my pet dog died" or "a pen leaked on my favorite shirt".)

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Belated Week 2 Recap: A Win Is A Win

Last Monday we defeated the Rhino Stampede 11-0. It was a frighteningly efficient game (from our standards) - lots of scoring in practically each inning, and absolutely zero mistakes on defense. They came close to scoring once, but we managed to get an inning-ending double play, including throwing out a runner attempting to score at home. In all honesty, from where I was on the sidelines, it looked like the runner beat the throw, but both Megan (the catcher who batted the ball into home plate so it hit the sliding runner) and Adam J. (the pitcher who made the relay throw) insisted that the runner was out, and who am I to argue. Just like how an umpire's decision is final if it goes against you, it's also final if it goes for you too.

The whole situation didn't make the Rhino Stampede very happy - especially since the home plate umpire first signaled "safe" and then verbally changed his call to "out" after they were on the sidelines celebrating. Now, part of me understands their frustration at getting a run pulled off the board after they've started celebrating, especially on a questionable call. Still, they were down 10-0 at that point, so in the big picture it wasn't going to make a lick of a difference and the other team decided to be very angry for the rest of the game (at the umps and at us). I don't know what we were supposed to do - we didn't make the call, and we're certainly not expected to "give them a run" because "the play was close" and "we're leading by so much". I would think that would be considered very condescending if another team decided to take pity on us and "give" us a run.

Oh kickball, you continue to bewilder and infuriate me.

This week's game is against The Ball Breakers at 8:05 p.m. They're a new team, and we should handle them pretty easily, but their captain is a veteran from DC, so who knows.