Photo Credit: Jim White

A baserunner caught in a rundown between two bases can be among the most exciting plays in fast-pitch softball, but it also creates a challenging situation for umpires.

The umpires must be alert to the possibility of obstruction as the fast-paced, back-and-forth action unfolds. There’s also a chance of the baserunner violating the basepath guidelines as she tries to avoid being tagged. And what happens when the rundown ends with two runners occupying the same base?

For umpires, the starting point in sorting out that type of baserunning blunder is understanding the rules that govern runners occupying bases and the definition of a runner’s basepath. The guidelines are similar for the major rules codes.

A runner who has acquired the right to a base by touching it before being put out is entitled to hold the base until she has legally touched the next base in order or is forced to vacate it for a trailing runner. Two runners may not occupy the same base simultaneously. In the case of a rundown, if the trailing runner occupies the same base the first runner has left, the trailing runner cannot be put out while occupying that base. If the first runner, however, returns safely to the base she left and both runners are then occupying the same base, the trailing runner is out if touched with the ball.

A runner’s basepath is defined in all rules codes as the imaginary direct line, and three feet to either side of that line, between a base and a runner’s position at the time a defensive player is attempting to apply a tag. A runner who attempts to avoid a tag by running more than three feet to either side of a fielder with the ball in her possession is declared out.

In the chaos that can occur during a rundown, umpires must maintain focus in order to make the correct ruling when two runners end up at the same base. During one game, Brian Sonak, State College, Pa., encountered a situation in which the batter-runner arrived at third base only to watch the runner who had been on base return to third when the defense threw home. The pitcher, catcher and third baseman converged on third base along with the two runners. The catcher, holding the ball, tagged the lead runner who had returned to third base. Sonak, the base umpire, gave a “safe” signal but no accompanying verbal call. The runner who had been tagged suddenly took off for home plate, which the defense had left unattended.

“Because we were patient, knew the rules and knew who was entitled to the base, we ended up with no outs and a run scoring,” Sonak said via email.

The key to the ruling is that the batter-runner, as the trailing runner, was not entitled to third base. Had the defense tagged the batter-runner while both players occupied third, it would have resulted in an out.

Sonak, who was chosen to umpire in the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s 2017 Men’s Softball World Championship and works NCAA, USA Softball and NFHS competition, said the key to correctly ruling on baserunning situations is for each umpire to execute his or her responsibilities. In the two-umpire system, for example, the base umpire is responsible for runners touching first base, second base and the last runner touching third base. The plate umpire is responsible for runners touching third (except for the last runner) and all runners at home.

Ensuring that baserunners touch each base as they pass it or return to it is especially important in the event that the defensive team makes an appeal that a runner missed a base. All rules codes provide for two kinds of appeals: live-ball appeal and dead-ball appeal.

In a live-ball appeal, a fielder in possession of the ball touches the base missed or tags the runner committing the violation while informing the umpire of the appeal. In a dead-ball appeal, time is called and any defensive player in the infield or the coach makes a verbal appeal that specifies which runner missed which base. The umpire then makes a ruling. A dead-ball appeal must be made before the next pitch, legal or illegal.

If a runner fails to touch home plate and is not tagged by a defensive player holding the ball, the situation can result in an appeal play. The mechanics used by the umpire, however, differ between NCAA and the other codes.

In NCAA play, the umpire is instructed to make no signal, verbal or nonverbal. In NFHS, USA and USSSA, the umpire should hesitate slightly to ensure the plate was missed and no tag was made, then declare the runner safe. All codes allow for the defense to make an appeal by tagging the runner or home plate, at which point the umpire will rule on the appeal.

A play at first base in which the batter-runner passes the base before the throw arrives but fails to touch the base also can result in an appeal play under all rules codes. The batter-runner in that situation is considered to have touched first base unless a live-ball appeal is made before the runner returns to the base.

A baserunner leaving a base too soon on a legally caught fly ball is another example of an appeal play. The runner is released from the base when the fielder first touches the ball; it is not necessary to wait until a catch is completed. Umpires must glance between runners tagging up and the fielder preparing to catch a fly ball in order to determine if a tag-up is legal.

Among the more unusual baserunning situations is a runner passing another runner. In all rules codes, the runner who passes a preceding runner before that runner has been put out is immediately declared out. Umpires should be especially alert to that situation when a runner is on first base and the batter-runner hits a fly ball that appears likely to be caught. The runner typically will hesitate between first and second base to see if the ball will be caught. The batter-runner may make an aggressive turn past first base and end up in the same area as the runner on base.

There is an exception in which a preceding runner can be passed legally — if the preceding runner is obstructed, she is awarded the base she would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, had there been no obstruction. The ruling also applies to runners following the obstructed runner.

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