How a Tampa college team pulled off the 'KK play'

June 6th, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. -- The game was lost, and Joe Urso knew it.

The top-seeded University of Tampa Spartans were tied at 2 in their NCAA Division II South Regional game against the Nova Southeastern University Sharks on May 22, but Nova Southeastern had loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. When Nova Southeastern’s next batter hit a fly ball to left field, Urso put down his notes, said a few words to associate head coach Sam Militello, bowed his head and began walking down the home dugout at UT Baseball Field.

“I hate to say I gave up,” said Urso, Tampa’s head coach since 2001, “but I just knew the season was over.”

Then he heard the shouts from his players: “He left early! He left early!”

Urso looked up in time to watch Spartans outfielder Jordan Lala, who’d made the catch in left-center, throw the ball to third baseman Anthony Nunez. Then he saw the call from third-base umpire Ryan McCraney: The runner at third had, indeed, left before Lala caught the ball. He was out on appeal. No run scored. The game continued, and Tampa went on to win, 3-2, in 12 innings.

The Spartans had Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier -- and a trick move now known as the “KK play” -- to thank for keeping their season alive.

Kiermaier always practices with the UT baseball team before reporting to Spring Training, and this year was no exception. Urso credited the “first-class” Kiermaier for acting at times like a player-coach in his workouts, as the Platinum Glove Award winner often goes out of his way to help with Tampa’s outfield defense and baserunning. One day this spring, Kiermaier shed some light on a play he’s often practiced but never used in a game.

The idea behind the “KK play” is for an outfielder to set up as usual under a potential sacrifice fly, holding his glove high so it looks like a routine catch, then pull off a last-second move to make the catch just before the ball hits the ground. If the plan works, the runner at third base will break for home during that split-second delay.

It’s a risky play, best suited for a desperate situation -- like, say, the bottom of the ninth inning with the season on the line. Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski attempted to pull off the “KK play” on Saturday, albeit unsuccessfully, turning and crouching before catching Jesús Sánchez's walk-off sacrifice fly in a 5-4 win at Marlins Park.

“You’ve definitely got to work on it and try to perfect it where you're also deking the runner at third,” Kiermaier said recently. “In the heat of the moment, from a baserunner, we're timing him up and watching that ball go in the guy's glove, and you're just hoping they leave a half-second too early. And that's the name of the game, just things that pop through my mind as my career has gone on.

“It's like, 'I think this could work.' And the University of Tampa proved us right.”

Lala executed the play perfectly, faking the catch up high then dropping to his knee to secure it. McCraney, the umpire, had the awareness to see what happened -- which was critical without the safety net of an instant-replay review. And the Nova Southeastern baserunner was as aggressive as Tampa had hoped, leaving when he thought Lala should have caught the ball rather than when he actually did.

“Honestly, it was a miraculous-type play that I don't think you'll ever see again,” Urso said last week following his team’s Super Regional elimination against Rollins College. “It still goes down as one of the greatest plays in UT history. But if you win a World Series, then it really is a play that would have never been forgotten.”

But Urso didn’t even know Lala had the “KK play” up his sleeve until it happened. Urso works with the team’s infielders, while assistant coach Nick DeTringo handles the Spartans outfielders. So he was baffled when DeTringo informed him they’d been preparing for that specific situation since Kiermaier introduced the idea months before.

“He’s like, 'Yes! KK taught us, if we were ever desperate and needed this play, it could come in handy one day,’” Urso said. “Nick kept working on it with the outfielders, even when KK was gone. … They were kneeling down during a timeout and they said, 'This would be the perfect time for the KK play.' So they were starting to play it in their heads of how to do this -- I mean, just amazing.

“He's been awesome on the field and in our community, but what he's done for me as a coach and for my players to be around the best defensive outfielder in the game -- it's special every day.”

As Tampa was celebrating its unlikely victory, Urso called Kiermaier and left a voicemail. Players and coaches were still jumping around and screaming, but Lala and his fellow outfielders shouted into Urso’s phone, “We did it! We pulled it off! The KK play, we pulled it off!”

The call came at a good time for Kiermaier, who checked his phone during a rain delay in the Rays’ 7-6, 11-inning loss to the Orioles in Baltimore. He couldn’t help but smile. He didn't make the play, but he could be credited with an assist.

“I talk about outfield defense all the time, and I just preach being unorthodox, just thinking about certain situations in your mind. And that's a play that Jordan Lala thought of in that moment,” Kiermaier said. “So I can take a little bit of credit, but for the player to execute in that moment when it matters most, he deserves all the credit. They do. Good for them. What a team.”