MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers

As Drew wrote prior to postseason play last week, the playoffs are about results. To take it a bit further, the playoffs are about magnification. Events taken for granted during the 162-game slog due to the constant repetition — and, lest we forget, the absurd ability and reliability of the major league ballplayer — suddenly jump to the forefront.

This October, and specifically in the Los Angeles-Atlanta NLDS, the magnifying lens could be on one of the littlest of the so-called little things: the pitcher covering first base on ground balls hit to the right side.

In Sunday night’s Game 3, Hyun-Jin Ryu’s shakiness carried over to his play in the field. In the third inning with the Dodgers up 4-2, nobody out and the bases loaded, Ryu went to cover the bag on a potential 3-6-1 double play. The 3-6-1 is probably the second-hardest double play to turn, only behind the 3-6-3. In both cases, the difficulty is in orientation — finding the bag with a foot and the ball with a glove at the same time can be dizzying, and that sure looks like what happened to Ryu here.

More egregious — at least by degree of difficulty — was Luis Ayala‘s misplay Friday in Game 2, a play that looked to have grave consequences at the time. Ayala was covering first base on a Michael Young ground ball to the first baseman but simply missed the bag as the throw came in from Freddie Freeman. The Braves led 2-1 at the time, and the play put runners on first and third with one out. Luis Avilan, Ayala’s replacement, bailed him out with an absurd double play on a Carl Crawford ground ball up the middle. The Braves’ win expectancy was down to 57.1 percent after Ayala’s gaffe, the lowest they would face for the rest of the game.

Both teams ended up winning in spite of their pitchers’ inability to field their position, but both weighed heavily at their respective points in the game. During the regular season, we could be certain pitchers would make the next 99 of 100, as they usually do, and leave it at that. But with elimination bearing down on Atlanta, the threat of the one exception coming Monday (or Wednesday for either team should Atlanta win) is magnified after the events of the first three games.

Back in April, these plays get a certain treatment from announcers. The PFP drills — pitcher fielding position — are one of the first things teams work on in spring training, and as such any standard 3-1 groundout is always accompanied by praise for the pitcher’s spring work and, if we’re lucky, highlights of guys in their spring training duds running to cover first base. It’s the least intense highlight package of all time.

But there is one thing you’ll notice in these highlight packages, if you watch closely: the pitchers don’t take a direct line to first base, like Ayala and Ryu both did. Instead, the proper form is to curve up the line in somewhat of a J-shape, as the Ripken brothers (yes, those Ripkens) demonstrate here with the help of Greg Maddux and pals:

The curved route to the base we see from Maddux (Cubs-era Maddux, no less) et. al. gives the pitcher a far easier angle to touch the base and catch the ball at the same time. It also helps injury by allowing the pitcher to touch the side of the base as opposed to the middle, which could easily result in a nasty spike injury — Braves pitcher Tim Hudson has been out since August and will miss the postseason with a broken ankle as a result of a bang-bang play at first where both his foot and runner Eric Young‘s foot went for the middle of the bag at the same time.

If only Ayala and Ryu (and Hudson) had played The Ripken Way!

But in all seriousness, although the plays Ayala and Ryu biffed were difficult, they likely would have been outs had the pitchers followed the technique drilled in February and March as camp began. As the playoffs approach and bodies are broken down, the time and energy for these drills dissipate. A hiccup in the regular season is just a blip, one note mixed among thousands of defensive chances.

But in a best of five, where it only takes 81 outs to advance, each chance is gigantic, and even something as small as the route a pitcher takes to the base can become the lynchpin of a season. Both teams are just lucky these gaffes haven’t cost them a game yet. Chances are they won’t be so fortunate should it happen again.