Friday, September 29

How Alex Bregman’s savvy led the Rangers to intentionally balk

Paranoia reached a fever pitch while the Texas Rangers took a five-run lead into the bottom of the 10th inning Wednesday night. Manager Chris Woodward instructed his reliever to intentionally balk before ever throwing a pitch, out of fear the Astros would pick up his pitches.

“They’re really good at doing a lot of things, and if they see anything in our glove or anything like that, so we just kind of wanted to avoid that,” Woodward told reporters after the Rangers’ 8-4 win. “I know we had a five-run lead, but we were going to do it regardless.”

Jonathan Hernandez followed his manager’s orders. With Alex Bregman on second base as the Astros’ automatic runner and Kyle Tucker at bat, Hernandez stepped onto the rubber and dropped the baseball. Umpires called a balk.

Bregman moved to third, where it is more difficult to peek inside a pitcher’s glove for a grip or see where a catcher may be setting up. Savvy players can use either piece of information and signal it toward batters — a bit of gamesmanship that is not at all illegal.

“It’s hard to hide your hand. If you expose your glove at all, I can relay that to the hitter,” Woodward said Thursday. “This team is probably the best I’ve ever been around. Listen, I know they’ve had their issues in the past. That’s not cheating. That’s saying, `Hey, I see a grip. You’re exposing it to me.’ You’ve got to really work at it.”

Bregman declined comment prior to Thursday’s game. He is far from the only player adept at picking up signs from second base. Since Major League Baseball instituted the automatic runner at second base during extra innings, other teams have used the intentional balk for similar purposes.

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“They’re really good. And that’s not cheating. It’s just taking advantage,” Woodward said Wednesday. “Bregman is probably the best in the league I’ve seen. He doesn’t miss a pitch. If there’s anything to know out there, he knows it. I respect the heck out of them because they put a lot of time and effort into it.”

In theory, Woodward’s strategy is sound. The need to deploy it with a five-run lead felt somewhat excessive, but Woodward did seem to have some scarred memories. The Rangers had suspicions that Bregman relayed pitch locations during Martín Pérez’s start on Tuesday — one where he surrendered seven runs. Bregman was on second base when Aledmys Díaz delivered a fourth-inning grand slam aginst Pérez.

Woodward also served as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third-base coach during the 2017 season. Houston defeated the Dodgers in the World Series while using an electronic sign-stealing scheme at Minute Maid Park.

“If you’re good at it, you’re paranoid everybody else is good at it,” Woodward said Thursday. “Sometimes we create paranoia. We try to make it look like we have more than we have to keep them freaking out. That ’17 World Series was a mound visit every pitch. They were paranoid we had ’em because they were really good at it. Obviously, they were doing things we were unaware of. Once you know, it’s hard to unknow.”

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