The definition of a big inning in baseball depends on who you talk to.
The impact of said innings – whether three, four, five or more runs are scored – on the first round of Foothill League play does not.
On opening day, Canyon and Saugus exchanged eight-run innings. The same day, Valencia scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to walk-off on Hart, 4-3.
Valencia, at 4-0, has notched at least a four-run inning in three of its league wins.
Golden Valley, at 1-3, has allowed a five-run inning three times.
The question, then, with 11 Foothill games remaining, becomes, how do teams stop the big inning?
How does a team keep their opponent from blowing an otherwise tight game wide open in the middle innings?
The answer, local coaches say, is both simple and, at times, difficult to execute: Throw strikes and play defense.
“You can’t give up free passes,” said Saugus coach John Maggiora. “If a team is hitting you all over the place, then you tip your cap. But you can’t walk guys, can’t hit guys, can’t make errors.”
In Saugus’ 9-7 loss to Valencia on March 17, the Vikings had a five-run first inning and a three-run fifth. Saugus scored seven runs over the fourth and fifth innings.
The teams combined to walk 17 batters, and Saugus made three errors.
In the Centurions’ wild opener with Canyon, an 11-8 Saugus win, the teams combined to walk 11 and make four errors.
“It seems big innings always start off with either a walk or an error,” said West Ranch coach Casey Burrill, whose team used two Canyon walks in the middle of the fifth inning Friday to help turn what was already a three-run inning into a seven-run outburst. “From there, something else typically goes wrong.”
That could be a botched double-play attempt (see Hart’s loss to Valencia in the opener), a sacrifice bunt attempt where the defense fails to get an out or a miscue on a playable ball in foul territory.
It’s the snowball effect.
Suddenly, a once-comfortable pitcher is forced to work with runners on base. Maybe he doesn’t throw as hard from the stretch. Maybe his control suffers as his mind drifts to the jackrabbit leading off first.
Namely, as men reach base, the advantage slides toward the batter.
“You’re seeing more fastballs, seeing less of the pitcher’s best stuff because the pitcher has a lot to worry about other than just making that pitch,” Burrill said.
Last season, Valencia fell victim to West Ranch’s torrid streak to end the year, the Wildcats beating Valencia twice in the final week of the regular season to share the Foothill League title with the Vikings.
That doesn’t mean Valencia is putting any extra pressure on itself entering Wednesday’s matchup of Foothill unbeaten at West Ranch (4-0) at 3:30 p.m.
“I don’t think so,” said Valencia coach Mike Killinger. “More toward the end of the year, that’s where the pressure kind of builds up. We’re so early in the season that one win or one loss doesn’t change anything, so we just need to make sure we’re ready to roll.”