There are nine ways to score from third base with fewer than two outs: hit, error, passed ball, wild pitch, bases-loaded walk, balk, sacrifice fly, steal of home, or a ground out.
The last way, the ground out, can be done on purpose with a well-placed bunt as the runner takes off for home. It’s the suicide squeeze play, one of the most thrilling plays in baseball, but a risky gambit if not executed with precision.
The play is situational. It depends on a host of variables, not unlike chess. It requires a speedy runner on third base, a batter who knows how to bunt, and an opposing pitcher who’s not wild. It also helps to have a 2-0 or 3-0 count on the batter, so that a pitch-out is unlikely. Moreover, the manager must consider the score, the inning, the number of outs, and who’s on deck. It makes no sense to squeeze if behind by multiple runs in the late innings with a man on base and a slugger on deck.
Clear communications and precise execution are absolute requirements. The runner is often told verbally (not by signs) by the third-base coach that the squeeze is on. If the runner is signaled that it’s on, he must return a signal to assure the third-base coach that he knows it’s on. The batter also is signaled by the third-base coach and must acknowledge with the proper signal that he knows the squeeze is on. It’s often said that much of a good relationship depends on good communication. Baseball is a lot like life . . . except with better pay. (And some games seem to last a lifetime!)
As the pitcher looks in for the sign from his catcher, the runner edges off third base. He can’t do anything out of the ordinary, lest he divulge the play. As in poker, this would be a disastrous tell. If the pitcher smells a squeeze, he can throw high to the catcher and the runner is dead. Hence suicide. The batter also must be a good actor, showing nothing unusual until the last moment.
When the pitcher is well into his windup, the runner bolts for home. Now it’s all on the batter. He has one simple thing to do under pressure: bunt the ball into the ground. If he does, the run scores. The beauty of the suicide squeeze is there’s no defense against it. The batter will most likely be thrown out at first, and usually is. No matter. His only job is to get the ball on the ground so the run scores.
A game of inches? Yes, and a game of great mystery, suspense, and thrilling surprises. And a game that has evolved sometimes to the joy of fans, sometimes to the consternation. I still don’t like inter-league play. But aspects of the game, like the magic of a suicide squeeze, keep an awful lot of us looking forward to Opening Day and wishing “Season’s Greetings” to our fellow fans.