I am not going to lie. The cards are stacked against a team that has to play short-handed with eight (or nine, in the case of Slow Pitch Softball) players. Players will have to play out of position, and weaker or newer players will have to assume more responsibility than they are used to. There will be holes in the defense, no matter how good the players are, and defensive plays and coverage will have to change on the fly for the game. And, no matter what a short-handed team does to compensate, a good opponent under normal conditions can become insurmountable when playing short-handed, particularly if they have batters who can place the ball where the defensive holes are.
A short-handed team does have a fighting chance if it plays smart and is coached well. Unfortunately, there are no specific “thou shalts” that cover every short-handed situation (what works for a 12U Rec game probably would not work for an “A” Adult Slow Pitch Softball game), but there are some guidelines that should help any team facing such a predicament. This article assumes that there are enough front line players to pitch, play first, and catch (for Fast Pitch) – if a team does not have those positions covered with viable talent, then my recommendation is to treat the game as a scrimmage, take your lumps, and move on.
So, here are some guidelines and observations that may help a coach get through a short-handed game with his sanity intact:
One definite advantage that a short-handed team has is everyone bats more. Even weak batters can get comfortable at the plate if they see a pitcher often enough, and stronger batters come up one or two times more than normal in the game. Lineups can get on a roll where they bat around or come close to doing so each inning.
Another possible advantage is that the opposition may lose focus as they think the game will be won easily. It is hard to look out on the field, see eight players, and not think “We’ve got this in the bag!” The opposition is likely to get down, particularly with younger players, when they are in a much tougher fight than they expected. On the flip side of the coin, the short-handed team can take on a “David” mentality and actually begin to believe that they can slay Goliath after a successful inning or two.
I recommend put your best athletes where they will touch the ball the most. In a recent short-handed 12U rec game, I had 3 players that I consider “front line”. Their normal positions were pitcher, shortstop and first base. I needed a catcher (equal in importance to having a good pitcher, in my opinion), and fortunately my first baseman had caught a couple of years ago. This left a hole at first, and instead of moving my shortstop to the position, I rolled the dice and put a girl there who had never played there, but had caught the ball well in practice. She was probably the best of the non-front line players.
Coach like a river boat gambler, think outside the box, and know the opponent’s weaknesses. In our short-handed 12U game, our opposition had three left handed batters who all swung late on the ball, so I put our defense in a “reverse shift” when they were up. I had my Left Fielder playing right behind the 3rd baseman and my Right fielder playing Left Center, conceding right field! Yet not one hit burnt us and indeed, the “reverse shift” led to some outs we may not have gotten otherwise. Also, aligned with what I mentioned above, I had my shortstop play on the grass for slow right-handed hitters and had her try to get to balls hit to the outfield before my outfielders could get to them. Then I had my pitcher cover second base on any ball hit to the outfield, as my second baseman was a new player who was very shaky with her glove.
Unconventional, yes, but it was a defense that gave us a fighting chance.
Finally, win or lose (or tie, as we did), a team can emerge from a short-handed game closer and stronger than before. For example, in our 12U game where I had to put the “best-of-the-rest” player at first I figured, “What the heck? We have nothing to lose.” Not only did it work out, but it worked out so well that I discovered our new first baseman. This freed up my former first baseman so I could move her to a position where her speed and cannon of an arm could be better utilized, improving the overall team defense significantly. Additionally, my eight girls (plus the injured player on the bench) went through the fire together, and became an even closer-knit group than they were before (which is saying a lot). They developed a confidence and swagger that said, “We can win under any circumstance.”
While I would be OK if I never had to play short-handed again, doing so does present a unique environment that can help a team grow in unexpected ways. Instead of seeing a hopeless situation, I recommend a coach look at such a game as an opportunity to thrive.