In baseball, the "hit and run" is a play, designed to jump start the offense, in which a baserunner starts to run before the pitch is thrown (as if he were stealing a base), and the batter attempts to hit the ball in the gap vacated by the fielder who moves to cover the base the runner is running to. The object of the hit and run is to advance the runner two bases on one play, as well as to make it easier for the batter to get a base hit.
How it works
The hit and run is most commonly attempted with a runner on first base. As the pitcher begins his windup, the runner breaks for second base, causing one of the middle infielders to move toward second base as well to field a possible throw from the catcher. Most batters pull the ball, so in the case of a right-handed batter the shortstop will cover, whereas in the case of a left-hander, the second baseman will cover. Thus, most hit and run attempts require the batter to hit the other way, a fairly difficult task which demands excellent bat control. If the play is executed successfully, there will be runners on first and third, rather than first and second as would be the case on an ordinary single.
The hit and run is especially useful for getting slower runners to third base on a single who ordinarily would never make it without the running start. With good runners, it guarantees they will make it to third base. The hit and run also has the added benefit of avoiding a double play on a ground ball, even if the hitter is unsuccessful in getting a hit.
The hit and run can be devastatingly effective in the hands of a team with batters skilled enough to pull it off with consistency. For such a team, a lead-off walk or base hit can be turned into a run almost every time, because they will immediately execute the hit and run, putting a runner on third base with no outs - a situation which virtually guarantees a run will score.
The hit and run is not without some risk, however. If the batter hits a line drive and it is caught, the runner will be easily thrown out in a double play. Also, the batter must make do all he can to make contact with the ball to protect the runner. Otherwise, the runner could be thrown out by the catcher. If the defending team suspects that a hit and run is in the works, they might call for a pitchout, leading to an easy caught stealing play.
An alternative to the more common runner-on-first hit and run is a hit an run attempted with a runner on second base, or even runners on first and second. In this case, the hitter can try to hit the ball in the hole vacated by the third baseman as he moves to cover third. This is easier for right-handed pull hitters, although the hole is somewhat smaller. In this type of hit and run the goal is to make it easier for the runner to score from second on a ball put in play.
Another variation of the hit and run, fairly rare, is the bunt and run. This is usually attempted with a runner on second base. As the third baseman moves to cover third base, the batter tries to bunt the ball up the third base line. Since the third baseman is covering third, there will be no one to field the ball if all goes well. The runner can sometimes even score from second on such a play.
There is also a play very similar to the hit and run, known as "run and hit". This play is only done with a fast runner who would be likely to be able to steal the base anyway, and the batter has the option of swinging or not swinging at his discretion.
A vanishing art
Although often cited as one of the best examples of teamwork in baseball, the hit and run is often lumped in with a set of strategies somewhat denigratingly known as "little ball", and is becoming increasingly rare in the modern professional game. As power hitters proliferate, and the home run becomes the preferred method of scoring runs, teams are loathe to put constraints on their sluggers by making them shorten up their swings and play for singles. As the reasoning goes, why worry about moving a runner to third when you could just hit a two-run homer? In addition, many modern players simply do not want to put in the endless practice required to perfect the skill of hitting a ball into the hole the other way.
Nevertheless, the hit and run remains a highly effective play in the right situation with the right runner and the right batter. Once in a while a whole team adept at the play comes along, such as the 2002 Anaheim Angels, who rode "little ball" and the hit and run play all the way to a World Series title. And even on power-hitting teams, if they have a smart manager, the hit and run play occasionally pops up if the situation is right (often when one run is needed to win or tie), and sometimes still makes the difference between a win or a loss in crucial games.