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The ‘absolute rush’ and unending pressure of being a third base coach

Gary DiSarcina, new to the Nationals this year, loves the pressure that comes with coaching third base. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A peek inside the pressure-packed life of a third base coach, courtesy of Gary DiSarcina: Sometimes you make the wrong decision while trying to jump-start a stale offense. Sometimes you make 40 decisions in a game, sometimes 50, but are blasted for the one that gets a runner thrown out at home. Sometimes it’s a blowout — your team is winning big or your team is losing big — and after holding a runner to respect your opponent, you look at the guy who hit the ball and remember he’s in a contract year.

So sometimes you curse yourself for costing him an RBI that could slim his next deal down, if even by a tiny amount. Then sometimes you don’t sleep much.

“It’s a really thankless job,” DiSarcina, the Nationals’ new third base coach, said in the dugout at Angel Stadium this past Sunday. “I liken it to being a cornerback in football. Nobody notices you until one of two things happen: You try to be aggressive and a guy is nailed by a few steps, or you hold a runner and everyone in the ballpark thinks you’re an idiot because he would have scored.

“At the end of every night, I’ll admit I’m pretty exhausted. You’re thinking, thinking and thinking all game. It can wear on you.”

Twice against the New York Mets this week, DiSarcina made a split-second decision that directly affected a rally. On Tuesday, he aggressively sent Yadiel Hernandez with two down, the Mets pulled off a crisp replay from right-center, and Hernandez was out by almost a third of the baseline. On Wednesday, DiSarcina held Nelson Cruz with one out and was rewarded when Keibert Ruiz, the next batter, brought Cruz in with a single.

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Typically, more outs mean DiSarcina is more likely to take a risk. He calls himself “selectively aggressive” while trying to mirror Manager Dave Martinez’s style. Before the Nationals hired him in November, DiSarcina was the third base coach for the Mets (2019-21) and Los Angeles Angels (2014-15). He jokes that his hair is gray because of three years coaching third in New York, where there’s more media scrutiny than in any other market. And it was in his first crack at the job, working for the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, when DiSarcina felt the lift of a manager’s trust.

“I would stand next to Mike during the national anthem most games, and once it was over he would say: ‘Hey, DiSar, go get two guys thrown out for me tonight,’ ” DiSarcina recalled. “Of course he didn’t want me to actually run us out of innings. The point was that he was enabling me to be aggressive when I saw a chance. He was okay with outs if I made calls based on what I was seeing, the scoreboard, where we were in the lineup and how a guy’s legs were feeling that day, among other things. A manager has to trust his third base coach. A lot goes into it.”

DiSarcina, 54, can usually recognize when he errs. Earlier this season, for example, he sent Josh Bell in the fourth inning against the Miami Marlins, and the play wasn’t particularly close. Reflecting on it a few weeks later, DiSarcina said he was too focused on trying to help an offense that wasn’t scoring much. Bell also was dealing with two minor injuries, something DiSarcina knew but looked past in the interest of scoring a run.

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After the eventual loss, Bell told reporters that, if he’s on the field, he has to be treated as healthy and able to beat a relay throw. Still, DiSarcina was frustrated by choosing the wrong spot to push. Three pitchers after the Marlins threw Bell out, Hernandez blew past DiSarcina’s stop sign and was thrown out, too. And on Thursday, in a 4-1 loss to the Mets, the Nationals made two outs at third base on the same play, during which neither Juan Soto nor Bell was running on DiSarcina’s direction. Some of base running is instinctual, good or bad, and out of a coach’s control.

“Getting thrown out … sometimes we need to go in those situations, and they just happen to make good throws, good relays,” Martinez said Thursday. “But things like that, when we’re behind … those are not good base running decisions [by Soto and Bell].”

So many in-game decisions are now heavily influenced by analytics and detailed preparation, removing at least some of the human element. That goes for pitch usage, defensive positioning, late-inning matchups or when a base stealer tries for second, among other choices day-to-day.

But whether to wave a runner home — or whether to stop him mid-stride — is often decided in a second or less. DiSarcina weighs scouting, the positioning of the opponent’s outfielders, the situation and his snap view of the play. He has a color system for outfield arms that operates like a traffic light in his head. A red arm (Ronald Acuña Jr.) means he should exercise caution with a strong thrower. A yellow arm (the entire Angels outfield this past weekend) is neutral. Green is good for the Nationals, ripe for sends on sacrifice flies that aren’t too deep.

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“And then it’s hard not to remember that this is also about money for these guys,” said DiSarcina, who played in 12 seasons as a major league shortstop. “That only creeps into your head during a lopsided game. If we’re up 10-1, the book says to slow down and be conservative, right? I get it. But maybe the guy in the box is going to arbitration next winter, and you’re taking away a run batted in. It’s not the sole reason to keep waving, but it’s another thing to consider.”

If it all weighs on him and if he feels noticed only when screwing up, does DiSarcina like the post?

He has managed in the minors, been a major league bench coach and coached first for the Angels. With Washington, he also works with the infielders and has a big hand in defensive positioning. In theory, he could trade the stress at third for something lower key, easier on his surgically repaired knees, quieter in his mind. Just the thought made him shake his head and laugh.

“Oh, no, no, I love it,” he said. “There’s no other coaching job that feels this close to playing. It’s an absolute rush over there.”

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