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There are many ways a triple play can be performed; most of them are done with runners on first and second base. Typically, a ball hit to the shortstop or third baseman is fielded, the runner heading to third is forced out or tagged out, the ball is thrown to second base for a force play, and then finally to first to throw out the batter. Another common sequence (to the extent such plays can be called common) is a line drive to the shortstop or second baseman that is caught without the runners noticing or after they have taken large leads (as in the case of a hit and run), the runners then being forced or tagged out when they fail to tag up.
Triple plays are relatively rare, since a triple play requires at least two runners already on base, no outs, a batted ball hit in a way that allows it to be fielded cleanly so that three baserunners can be put out or unusual incompetence in baserunning, and quick action from the fielders to perform. The unassisted triple play, a triple play in which only one fielder handles the ball, is the least common type of triple play, and is arguably the rarest occurrence in baseball: it has happened only 15 times since 1900 at the major league level. Triple plays, even of the unassisted variety, are not extraordinarily difficult for major league fielders to achieve; their rarity is due to their dependence on specific circumstances arising in a game.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, there have been 691 triple plays in Major League Baseball from 1876 to April 13, 2013. The most recent triple play, number 691, was recorded April 12, 2013 by the New York Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium, which was scored 4-6-5-6-5-3-4. In the eighth inning with runners on 1st and 2nd, second baseman Robinson Cano fielded a ground ball, tossed the ball to shortstop Jayson Nix, who forced the runner out at second base, then threw to third baseman Kevin Youkilis. There was a rundown, with Youkilis throwing to Nix and Nix throwing back to Youkilis. After tagging the runner out, Youkilis threw to first baseman Lyle Overbay, who threw to Cano to tag the batter, Manny Machado, out at second base.
In 1973, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson started two 5–4–3 triple plays: one on July 7 against the Oakland Athletics' Gene Tenace, and one on Sept. 20 against the Tigers' Frank Howard. In both cases, Bobby Grich was the second baseman.
Playing against the Boston Red Sox on July 17, 1990, the Minnesota Twins became the first (and to date the only) team in baseball history to turn two triple plays in the same game. Both triple plays were 5-4-3 plays (Gary Gaetti - Al Newman - Kent Hrbek). Jody Reed was the first out in the fourth inning play and the final out (batting) in the eighth inning play. Despite their defensive heroics, the Twins lost the game 1–0.
While playing with the New York Yankees in 1982, Bobby Murcer, Graig Nettles, and Roy Smalley got caught in a bizarre 2-5-3-1 triple play. Smalley had struck out (Out #1), and meanwhile the runners from 1st and 2nd had taken off in an attempt to steal second and third. The ball was thrown to 3rd (played by Gary Gaetti). Gaetti chased Murcer back to 2nd base and tagged him but he was called safe. Gaetti then threw the ball to 1st baseman Kent Hrbek to tag Nettles who was caught between 1st and 2nd (Out #2). During this, Murcer had attempted to take off from 2nd again. The ball was thrown from Hrbek to 3rd base to pitcher Terry Felton, who was now covering 3rd base and tagged Murcer (Out #3).
The rarest type of triple play, and one of the rarest events of any kind in baseball, is for a single player to complete all three outs. Typically, this is achieved when an infielder catches a line drive near second or third base (one out), tags the base to double up the runner who started play there (two out) and tags an advancing runner before he can return to his original base (three out).
The most recent unassisted triple play in Major League Baseball occurred on August 23, 2009 when Eric Bruntlett of the Philadelphia Phillies turned the first ever game-ending unassisted triple play in the National League, in a game against the New York Mets. In the bottom of the ninth inning with men on first and second, Jeff Francoeur hit a line drive up the middle, where Bruntlett (substituting for Chase Utley) was covering with both men moving. Bruntlett caught the ball, tagged second to double up Luis Castillo and then tagged Daniel Murphy from first, thereby completing the triple play. This was only the second game-ending unassisted triple play in MLB history and the first since 1927.
Political columnist and baseball enthusiast George Will, in a baseball quiz in Newsweek for April 6, 2009, p. 60, posed one hypothetical way that a triple play could occur with no fielder touching the ball. With runners on first and second and no outs, the batter hits an infield fly, and is automatically out: One out. The runner from first passes the runner from second and is called out for that rule's infraction. Two outs. Just after that, the falling ball hits the runner from second, who is called out for interference: Three outs.
Whenever a batter or runner is out without a fielder touching the ball, rules book section 10.09 provides for automatic putouts to be assigned by the official scorer. In this case, the first out would be credited to whoever the official scorer believes would have had the best chance of catching the infield fly. The second and third outs would be credited to the fielder(s) closest to the points the runners were, when their respective outs occurred. Under the scenario described above, the same fielder (the shortstop, for example) could be credited with all three putouts, thus attaining an unassisted triple play without having touched the ball.