Runners must be aware of when the pitcher has gained possession of the ball inside the circle. There is a difference in the codes with regard to the runners’ obligations:
• ASA, NFHS, USSSA – if runners are moving between bases when the pitcher has possession of the ball in the circle, they may continue going toward that base, stop once anywhere between the bases, then go to either base.
• NCAA – if runners are moving between two bases they may immediately stop and go back, but if they keep moving forward they may not go back to the previous base unless the pitcher make a play, feigns a play, loses possession of the ball, or leaves the pitcher’s circle. .
Here is an example of why this difference is important to know. After ball 4 on the batter with R3, the BR may round 1b and continue running toward 2b. If the defense does not play on her, she may stop just before 2b and then return to 1b. Why would she want to do this? Obviously the offense wants the defense to make a play on the BR so R3 can attempt to score. If the BR returns to 1b, she can attempt to steal on pitches to the next batter, giving the offense another try to induce the defense to make a play so R3 can score. This is not allowed in college softball games – once the runner has determined a direction, she may not reverse direction (a few exceptions – see the rule).
For both the batter-runner and any runners, once they are stopped at a base and the pitcher has possession of the ball in the circle, they must stay on that base or be in violation. When this rule is violated the ball is immediately dead. All other runners return to the last base legally touched at the time of the dead-ball. In all codes if multiple runners violate this rule on the same play, the umpire must determine which runner violated the rule first and declare that runner out. It is not possible to get multiple outs for a look-back rule violation.
Other thoughts to look back on
Both the offense and the defense are allowed to finish their responsibilities after the ball is hit. The runners are allowed to stop for a very quick half-second while off a base, see where the ball is, and if it is in the circle with the pitcher, then decide to advance or go back. Likewise, when the ball is hit the pitcher becomes a defensive player. If she fields a batted ball in the circle or receives a relay throw to the plate while standing in the circle, she is acting as a defensive player. The umpire must judge when she has stopped playing that role and decided to keep the ball so she can stop the current play and begin the process of pitching to the batter.
Although this rule is called the look-back rule, there is no requirement for the pitcher to look at the runner and in so doing cause her to go back to a base. As long as the pitcher has control of the ball in the circle and is not trying to make a play, runners have to advance or return, regardless of whether the pitcher is looking at them. However, if the pitcher makes any move which the umpire judges is an attempt to play on a runner, then the look-back rule is no longer in effect. This could include the pitcher raising her hand as if to throw the ball or making an aggressive step toward the runner, even if she stays in the circle.