- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Mark Loretta once neatly fit the hit-and-run prototype. He makes contact, striking out only once every 10 at-bats or so; he is a right-handed hitter with an opposite field stroke that enables him to slam the ball through the first-base hole; he is not distracted by movement on the bases.
And, in the first seasons of his career, Loretta was not regarded as a high-caliber hitter, making it easier for managers to ask him to hit-and-run. If he grounded out while advancing the runner, well, no big deal. There were better hitters to follow.
The label of Loretta as a contact hitter stuck. "If anything, that hindered me early in my career," he said last week. "It typecast me ... as someone who just put the ball in play. The last two or three years, I've really tried to expand that."
He has, in a big way. Loretta racked up 65 extra-base hits in 2004 -- 47 doubles, two triples and 16 home runs -- and batted .335. He drove in 76 runs, scored 108 runs, both career-highs. But along with the increased run production, Loretta has maintained his reputation as an expert at the hit-and-run play: As the pitcher begins his delivery, the runners break, the infielders move to cover bases -- and the batter rips the ball through the holes created by the runner's movement.
"He just killed us with that," said one National League executive. "Seemed like every time you were looking up, he was hitting the ball to right field, moving the runners. Just killed us."
Said an NL scout: "Nobody executes that as good as he does."
The vast majority of major leaguers were raised as pull hitters: they were stars in Little League and high school and college and became conditioned to turn into pitches and pull them for maximum extra-base value. Many learn, through professional experience, how to hit the ball to the opposite field, a difficult transition; some never learn.
Loretta and a few other hitters -- Derek Jeter is another -- first learned how to hit the ball to the opposite field and up the middle.
Loretta hones this trait, usually using the first round of batting practice to hit the ball to the right side. There was a period in his career when he tried to force the ball to the right, no matter what the pitch location, but he "found that to not be very productive. Now I try to hit it where it's pitched."
The most important element of the hit-and-run for Loretta, he says, is expecting the worst pitch possible. If the pitch is a breaking ball low and away -- an almost unreachable slider, perhaps -- then he will be mentally ready for it. If he's thrown a fastball high and inside, off the plate, he'll be prepared to react. And if the pitcher happens to throw a pitch in the strike zone, that will be easier to handle, by comparison.
Normally, with a right-handed hitter at the plate, the second baseman will cover the bag and the shortstop will hold his ground, but if they sense a hit-and-run is coming, they can make the signal to switch coverage: The second baseman can glance at the shortstop, using his glove to hide his face from the hitter, and open his mouth. I'll hold my position, and you cover second base.
That way, if the batter tries to hit-and-run to the right side, the second baseman will be in position to make a play, rather than opening a big hole on the right side. It's a mental chess match for the middle infielders, and Loretta, as a hitter, doesn't play along. He chooses to focus on the pitcher. "I don't try to anticipate what they're going to do," he said. "If I tried to do that and react to it, I feel like I would lose my focus. When it works out that way" -- the shortstop is covering second, and Loretta bounces a hit through short -- "it's more of a fluke. I don't think you can steer it on a consistent basis."
Loretta does try to track the movement of the baserunner, especially in moments when he thinks that the sign for the hit-and-run was missed -- maybe because of the way the sign was given, maybe because of the reaction of the baserunner. Loretta, staring out at the pitcher, will peripherally see first base, and if the baserunner doesn't break as the pitcher starts his delivery, then the play is off and Loretta adjusts. "You can kind of anticipate when he's missed the sign," he said.
Loretta often will put the hit-and-run play on himself, sometimes while waiting in the on-deck circle for an inning to begin. He's apt to tell the lead-off batter, Hey, if you get on first base, let's hit-and-run on the first pitch.
"That way, you put it into his head right away," said Loretta.
But it may be, too, that Padres manager Bruce Bochy will want Loretta to swing away, look for a pitch to drive. He might be the best hit-and-run man in the game, but it's not a skill that defines him anymore.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.
Mark Loretta has a great knack for making contact. Call him the master of the hit-and-run play.