By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:59 PM
VIERA, FLA. - As soon as the ball was hit, headed for the gap in right-center field, Bo Porter moved to the top step of the Washington Nationals' dugout. This was it: a play that would validate all those February mornings on quiet practice fields running through drills - relays and cutoffs, relays and cutoffs - and Porter's eyes went first to the ball, bounding toward the fence, and then to the figure sprinting to chase it, Nationals phenom Bryce Harper.
It was a one-run game, the Nationals leading the New York Yankees in the eighth inning at Steinbrenner Field on Saturday afternoon in Tampa, and even though it was only an exhibition game, by the time the play was over - with a base runner nailed on a bang-bang play at third base after a relay throw from the shortstop, 9 to 6 to 5 in your scorebooks - Porter would be clear out of the Nationals' dugout, on the grass in foul territory, pumping his fist as the ball went around the horn.
Wins are nice, even in spring training (and the play in question helped secure one), but for a baseball lifer with Porter's job description - third base coach and outfield coordinator - nothing, at least this time of year, compares with seeing a relay play work to perfection.
There is unparalleled beauty in a 9-6-5 putout, if you know what to look for.
"You can actually see the preparation manifesting itself in the game," Porter said. "That's what gets you excited."
As it turned out, Porter would have more excitement on Sunday, as the Nationals pulled off an 8-4-2 putout - center fielder Nyjer Morgan to second baseman Danny Espinosa to catcher Wilson Ramos - to nail Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward at the plate as he tried to score from first on a double into the gap during the Nationals' 5-0 loss.
For every team in any league, a ball in the gap, or down the foul lines, sets in motion a complex choreography that is equal parts standard formula and improvisation. The pieces move in a specific way, with little if any variance from team to team, but any subtle alteration - a bad bounce, an off-line throw, a particularly fast runner - can add a new element to the play that forces new calculations and actions.
On the play in question, Saturday in Tampa, no outs, no one on base, the subtle alteration was a too-aggressive route to the ball - a hard-smash off the bat of Yankees catching prospect Austin Romine, against Nationals lefty Sean Burnett - by Harper, the 18-year-old prodigy who is still learning right field after spending most of his amateur career at catcher.
"I misjudged it," Harper said, "and it was too late to compensate. It was past me."
When he saw Harper had allowed the ball to get to the wall, Alex Cora, the veteran utility infielder playing shortstop for the Nationals, immediately began shouting, "Three! Three!" - in anticipation of a play at third.
And meantime, Harper dug hard to retrieve the ball at the wall and fire it toward the infield.
"The ball ends up basically beating [Harper] to the alley - which, as time goes on, he would take a little more depth in that route and cut the ball off," Porter said. "Instead, the ball ends up at the wall. But to his credit the energy and effort he showed in recovering and getting to the ball was what allowed the first part of that play to happen."
Every infielder has a job on this play. The second baseman, Brian Bixler, is the lead cut-off man, heading into medium right field, making sure he is lined up on a straight line between Harper and third base, to take Harper's throw. The shortstop, Cora, backs up Bixler, shadowing him at a distance of five to seven yards. The first baseman, Chris Marrero, trails the base runner toward second base, in case the runner overruns the bag. The third baseman, Alberto Gonzalez, helps line up Cora and Bixler and awaits the throw. The pitcher, Burnett, backs up third.
"At my age," said Cora, 35, who has spent 13 seasons in the majors with five teams, "you know this like the back of your hand. Sometimes on plays down the line, there are differences from team to team. But on balls in the gap, it's the same everywhere."
Harper's throw sailed over the head of Bixler, the lead cut-off man - which might sound like a mistake on Harper's part, but which may more accurately be pinned on Bixler for going too far out into right field to receive the throw. Even more accurately, it can be chalked up to new teammates getting to know each other's skills.
"It's the first time you're playing together," Bixler said. "Bryce has a real good arm, and now you file that away. Maybe next time you inch out there, instead of going so far out."
Besides, Cora was right there, backing up Bixler. Middle infielders are taught, when serving as the lead cut-off man on a relay, not to jump for a high throw or try to scoop a low throw from the outfielder, because in those cases, the secondary cut-off man probably will receive the throw perfectly chest-high - which is exactly what happened in this case, as Bixler let it go, confident that Cora would be in position.
"I don't care which one of them catches it," Harper said, "as long as we get the out."
"Ideally you want to hit the front man," Porter said, "but if you're going to miss, you want to miss chest-high to the trail guy, either in the air or on one hop."
After taking Harper's throw - in the air, chest-high - Cora made a textbook exchange, spinning and firing to third in one swift motion, with a precise throw that met Gonzalez's glove directly on top of the third base bag. The tag was applied a split-second before Romine's front foot hit the bag. Out. (The official scorer and the official play-by-play, obviously not yet in midseason form, both erroneously credited the assist to Bixler, instead of Cora.)
"Great relay, great exchange, put the ball on the bag - boom, boom, boom," Porter said. "Everything had to happen exactly the way it happened for that guy to be out. If Harper doesn't go get the ball with such urgency and make the strong first throw, and if Cora doesn't make the perfect exchange and put the ball on the bag - that guy's safe."