Choosing right from wrong: to walk or not?

May, 21, 2009
ANN ARBOR -- To get from Bristol to Ann Arbor, Mich., you can make an almost immediate left turn upon leaving Connecticut and head south through New Jersey before heading west across Pennsylvania, or you can wait to cut south and head through Scranton-Wilkes Barre. The latter is always a headache because of perpetual construction around Dunder Mifflin's home city. The former is equally unappealing, because, well, it involves spending time in New Jersey.

There is no good option; you just flip the proverbial coin and hope it's not too bad.

Aside from a little self-therapy, the point is that sometimes hindsight makes it too easy to assume there was ever a "right" choice. And when you're talking about lineups that include hitters like Ohio State's Sam Marder and Georgia's Alisa Goler, there are no good routes around them.

Watching the super regional on TV as Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer intentionally walked Marder with a runner on first and one out in the top of the first inning Thursday, last season's Women's College World Series was the first thing that came to mind. Both UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez and especially Alabama coach Pat Murphy took a lot of heat for intentionally walking Arizona State slugger Kaitlin Cochran in some unconventional settings (as Northwestern coach Kate Drohan had done the previous week in super regionals).

As was the case then, the move seemed to backfire for Georgia against Ohio State. The Buckeyes eventually scored in the first inning after an illegal pitch with the bases loaded brought home a run. And after the Bulldogs intentionally walked Marder to lead off the third inning, Courtney Pruner made them pay with a three-run home run to extend the lead to 4-0.

Obviously, Harris-Champer blundered by showing Marder too much respect, right?

If so, it would be hypocritical to second-guess Ohio State coach Linda Kalafatis. Six outs from victory, the Buckeyes pitched to Goler to lead off the bottom of the sixth. When she slammed a home run off the right-field foul pole, a team stuck in neutral grabbed the momentum and reeled off five runs in the inning to seize a lead and eventually the game.

Had Goler merely been on first base courtesy of an intentional walk, perhaps a Georgia team already frustrated by an inability to do anything with runners on base against Kim Reeder might not have come up with the hits it did after Goler's blast.

Michele Smith on the broadcast and Cat Osterman on Twitter made good points about what the intentional walk might do to the psyche of a pitcher like Georgia starter Christie Hamilton, who lasted just a third of an inning. I'd rather cede that ground to two of the best to ever stand in the circle than argue against them.

But in addition to understanding the intangibles involved, it's worth looking at the tangibles.

Going back through the play-by-play records, I found 12 of the 13 intentional walks Marder earned in Big Ten play. Obviously, this represents such a small sample size as to be of somewhat dubious utility. But it's at least anecdotally interesting that despite a lot of walks in situations as atypical as Thursday's game, the Buckeyes managed to score in just three of the 12 innings in which teams handed Marder first base.

March 21, vs. Michigan State
Bottom of the sixth, 4-0
Situation: One out, runner on first
Result: Four runs score after walk

March 28, vs. Iowa
Bottom of the first, 0-0
Situation: None out, none on
Result: No runs after walk

Bottom of the third, 0-0
Situation: None out, none on
Result: No runs after walk

Bottom of the fifth, 0-0
Situation: One out, none on
Result: No runs after walk

Bottom of the sixth, 3-0
Situation: Two outs, runner at first
Result: No runs after walk

March 29, vs. Iowa
Bottom of the first, 0-0
Situation: No outs, none on
Result: No runs after walk

Bottom of the second, 1-6
Situation: No outs, runners first and third
Result: One run after walk

Bottom of the fourth, 2-10
Situation: No outs, none on
Result: No runs after walk

Bottom of the sixth, 4-12
Situation: No outs, none on
Result: No runs after walk

May 2, at Northwestern
Top of third, 0-0
Situation: Two outs, runners second and third
Result: Three runs score after walk

May 6, at Michigan
Top of the third, 1-3
Situation: Two outs, none on
Result: No runs after walk

May 6, at Michigan
Top of the fifth, 1-3
Situation: Two outs, runners first and second
Result: No runs after walk

As it stands, Marder entered the game averaging 0.83 bases per official at-bat; Goler averaged 1.03. And that's with teams pitching around them. If teams challenged them on a regular basis, it seems safe to assume both numbers would be significantly higher. So do you give them the base they average when they're pitched to, or do you gamble on getting an out at the risk of the ball bouncing off the wall or sailing over the fence?

Perhaps the only certainty is that when it comes to Goler and Marder, just because one move didn't work, it doesn't necessarily mean the other option was right.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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