SAN FRANCISCO – The ball struck Gregor Blanco's bat for the smallest hit on the biggest night, and the only thing the San Francisco Giant could think of as the white orb swirled on the grass not far from home plate was, "Go fair."
This was no simple feat in the din made by 42,982 in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night. The Giants needed a run in a scoreless tie, there were runners on first and second, nobody was out and Blanco had one task: Bunt. Sacrifice himself. Move the men on first and second to second and third.
So as the ball rolled on the grass and the Detroit Tigers converged upon it, Blanco would not forget the lessons of Tim Flannery.
The Giants third base coach is something of a bunting sage, a master of getting players to push the ball 30 feet on the ground in the selfless act of moving teammates one base ahead. If you play in San Francisco, chances are you are going to meet Flannery many times in the batting cage, bat parallel to the ground, ball dropping off the end of the bat. It's a critical skill, he believes, especially on a team like the Giants, deep in pitching but not in power – a club for whom making one run is a precious need.
"Slingshots and rocks," Flannery calls San Francisco's offense.
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Bunts, walks and stolen bases over booming home runs.
Three times a week Flannery has the Giants work on their bunts. Players known for their bunting, men like Blanco, who are not on the roster for their power, take extra practice in the cage under the stands, tapping balls lobbed by coach Joe Lefebvre. They create situations: runners on base, the game on the line, pressure, pressure, pressure. The way Flannery sees it, rarely is a player bunting in a non-critical situation. Usually a successful bunt is a necessity. And to him there is no harder bunt to make than that moment in the seventh inning on Thursday when Blanco absolutely had to move the runners up an extra base.
Complicating things, Flannery added, was that Drew Smyly, the Tigers' pitcher at the time, couldn't throw a strike. It's always harder to bunt against someone who is all over the place.
How many times has Blanco heard this? How many times have all of them? Bunt. Bunt. Bunt. Keep it fair. Keep it fair. Advance the runners.
Many around baseball don't like the bunt. A younger, newer group of managers and general managers believe bunts are wastes of outs. They say it's often better to try and get a hit and score a run from second base than give up an out to move the runner forward. Giants manager Bruce Bochy doesn't like to bunt early in games. He thinks it is safer to save the outs. But bunting has become such a part of the Giants' culture that many of their players sacrifice on their own, even when given the sign to swing away.
"It's not always what we want to do," Flannery says of those moments. "That's what [the players] feel as a team is the best thing to do."
On Thursday Blanco was not in one of those moments. The bunt sign had been given. He was required to move the runners up. But his first attempt was foul. Flannery jumped out of the third base coach's box and ran up to Blanco.
"Don't be so fine," he told the hitter.
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So the next pitch Blanco wasn't. He watched the ball hit the ground but immediately saw a problem. The ball was rolling along the edge of the grass near the third-base line. At AT&T Park, with the way the baselines are cut, the foul line is precariously close to the edge of the grass. It if falls off the grass, the ball is almost certain to roll foul. And the way Blanco's bunt was going it was headed foul.
Blanco gulped and started to run. Standing nearby in the third base coach's box, Flannery was sure it would go foul. So did catcher Gerald Laird who stood above the ball and waited for it to roll foul.
Only the ball never did. As predicted, it rolled off the edge of the grass and along the line. Laird refused to touch it, nobody did. Then the ball stopped. On the dirt next to the line. Fair. Blanco reached first. Now the bases were loaded and nobody was out. The next hitter, Brandon Crawford, hit into a double play. Hunter Pence, the runner on third, scored. The 0-0 game was suddenly 1-0 and the Giants essentially won the night right there, even though the final score read 2-0.
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"He's our bunter," Flannery said of Blanco.
As the year has gone on, Flannery thinks the Giants have developed even more of a selfless personality. He sees new second baseman, Marco Scutaro, acquired in a summer trade with Colorado, as the reason. Scutaro has taught them so much about bunting and moving runners up a base with balls that are intended to be outs.
"He's made a difference on a lot of ballplayers in this clubhouse," Flannery said.
But in the seventh inning Thursday the most important hitter in the Giants' lineup was the man asked to do the smallest thing. His ball travelled about 30 feet. It didn't have to do any more.
All it had to do was stay fair.
And the smallest hit became the biggest play.
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