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'Bermuda Triangle' becoming danger zone for infielder, outfielder

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, July 4, 2010

There are spots on every baseball field, one behind first base and another behind third, that are just beyond the normal range of most infielders but too shallow to be an easy play for a corner outfielder.

Players call them the Bermuda Triangle. When a fly ball falls there, it can turn into a bloop double. When one player runs into another there, it can turn into two weeks on the disabled list — or worse.

"It's tough when it's out there in the middle of nowhere," Pirates infielder Bobby Crosby said. "We've got to try to make the play. Hopefully, we just bump shoulders."

Sometimes, they bump more than that. In a recent four-day span, the Pirates had two second basemen go down with head injuries in scary collisions in the Triangle.

On June 25 in Oakland, Neil Walker sustained a concussion when the back of his head smacked off right fielder Ryan Church's leg. Walker was sent back to Pittsburgh for a second round of medical tests and has not yet returned to action.

Monday in Chicago, Crosby was conked in the jaw by right fielder Lastings Milledge's elbow. Crosby was too woozy to keep playing and sat out the next two games.

Both balls fell for doubles.

"I hope I don't see any more (collisions)," manager John Russell said, "before we run out of second basemen."

Church is aware of the danger. In 2008, he sustained a concussion when he collided with infielder Marlon Anderson during a Mets spring-training game.

"I'm surprised you don't see it happen daily, all over baseball," Church said. "I've had numerous close calls. But all it takes is one."

Most of these types of collisions happen for a simple reason: players are merely following their instincts.

"What do we train them to do• Go get it," Pirates bench/outfield coach Gary Varsho said. "The last thing you want to do is have a ball drop because you pulled up. I was never taught to pull up because I might run into somebody. The objective is to get the out, and let the consequences happen."

Church and Walker collided as they were chasing a pop-up at the Oakland Coliseum. The ballpark has a wide swath of foul territory down the lines, which allows fielders to aggressively pursue fly balls.

The Pirates' corner outfielders were shaded toward center to cut down on the gaps, so Church had a long way to run to the ball. As he closed in, Church had a sense Walker was nearby.

An instant before they collided, Church turned his body slightly and tried to stay high. Walker slid low and clipped Church's leg.

"If I had still been going full-bore, we'd probably both have ended up in the hospital," Church said. "If I'd just come in straight and not let up, I could've broken my leg, and (Walker 's injury) could've been a hell of a lot worse."

All players are instructed to shout, 'I've got it!" when chasing a pop-up. It's easy to hear that warning on a Little League field, but not so much in a major-league stadium packed with thousands of screaming fans.

"What we teach is more than just saying, 'I've got it!'" Varsho said. "You've got to visually do something."

Monday in Chicago, four innings after the Crosby-Milledge pileup, the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano hit a towering pop-up. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno spread his arms wide as a warning to left fielder Jose Tabata, who pulled up and let Cedeno make the catch.

But neither Church, Walker, Crosby nor Milledge had time to make a hand signal. Their vocal calls were hoarse — "Try it sometime," Varsho said. "Turn up the treadmill, run as fast as you can, then try to say, 'I've got it!'" — and drowned out by crowd noise.

The results were predictable. And painful.

"We're taught (to) go get the ball," Church said. "So you just go and, hopefully, someone peels off at the right time. If not, something's going to happen. You can't fault anybody because everybody's playing hard."

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