ST. LOUIS – The bunt might be the most reviled play in modern baseball, the domain of incompetent managers who don’t understand the value of an out and hoary old-timers who believe in the nobility of sacrificing oneself. Nothing works the sabermetric masses into a frothing, dogmatic tizzy quite like a bunt.
Imagine the cognitive dissonance, then, at the sight of Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon in Game 2 of the National League division series on Saturday. Maddon is the thinking man’s manager, keen to matchups and platoons and the kinds of numbers so detailed they never enter the public domain. The same guy who, two years ago, said: “I think the bunt is an overrated play.”
And here he was in the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, calling not for one bunt but bunts on back-to-back plays, and in a vacuum it seemed like the ghost of Gene Mauch inhibited his body and implored him to bunt like he’d never bunted before. And of course it worked, this being Joe Maddon, this being the 2015 Cubs and this being a series that deserves to see itself to an epic conclusion.
Fueled by buntmania – and the titanic two-run Jorge Soler home run that followed it – the Cubs evened the NLDS at a game apiece with a 6-3 victory over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. With Jake Arrieta primed to pitch in Game 3, the series shifted in the Cubs’ favor with a pair of deadened balls from the Cubs’ No. 8 and 9 hitters and the sort of poor execution atypical for a Cardinals team that prides itself on fundamentals.
The situation presented itself more because of folly than anything the Cubs actively did. Cubs outfielder Austin Jackson hit a double-play ball with one on and no outs in the second inning, and second baseman Kolten Wong biffed the relay throw to first base, allowing Jackson to take second. He stole third base, and Miguel Montero walked, putting runners on first and third, the sort of situation that might induce Maddon into thinking about bunting.
Plenty of factors went into his choice. Chief among them: Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ pitcher and the batter, is dreadful at the plate. Only six times this season did Hendricks lift a fly ball anywhere close to sacrifice-fly range. A strikeout would be bad. Another chance at the double play would be worse. A squeeze bunt, in this scenario, presented the likeliest chance to score a run, something the Cubs couldn't muster in a Game 1 loss.
Maddon’s animus for the bunt is geared more toward the sacrifice than the squeeze, which can be an effective play when deployed at the proper time. “One’s to advance a runner,” Maddon told Yahoo Sports after the game in his office. “One’s to score a runner. There’s a difference.”
When the Cubs called for the safety squeeze – in which Jackson would break toward home once the bunt was laid but not before, like its breakneck brother, the suicide squeeze – they understood, too, that it had been more than four years since Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia had fielded a bunt with a runner on third. His last squeeze came on Sept. 26, 2011. The rust was apparent.
On Garcia’s second pitch, a 90-mph cutter, Hendricks pushed a bunt back toward the mound. He was worried he hit it too hard. In truth, he did. All that time in recent weeks in the batting cage with pitching coach Chris Bosio throwing harder-than-usual batting practice to simulate game situations, all the bunts laid for a time exactly like this, and he had put the Cubs in danger of stifling a rally with a 1-0 deficit.
As Jackson broke for home, the Cubs heard someone yell: “Four!” That meant for Garcia to throw the ball home. His first instinct was to look at first base, though, and by the time he twirled home, Jackson was too close to the plate for a play. Garcia wheeled back toward first base, his feet in terrible position to throw, and skipped a ball past the base and into the outfield. Montero moved to third base. Hendricks took second. The second error of the inning tied the game and left the Cubs primed to score more.
“It’s hard to watch a club that’s played so well defensively, see a couple things that are kind of uncharacteristic for us,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “But they do happen. We gotta figure out ways to get around them.”
They didn’t Saturday. Considering how poorly Garcia handled the first bunt, Maddon relayed the signal into third-base coach Gary Jones, who passed it along to shortstop Addison Russell: another squeeze. Russell didn’t blink. “We have that in our game already,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t utilized it yet. As a team, we practice bunting – the reads, the jumps. We study that stuff. We’re putting it more in effect now because it’s more crucial.”
Montero scored on Russell’s bunt, Hendricks came around on Dexter Fowler’s infield single and Soler’s home run put an ugly capper on the night for Garcia, who departed after the second inning with what the Cardinals later said was stomach issues. The rest of the 47,859 at Busch Stadium felt queasy knowing what the Game 2 loss meant.
Jake Arrieta is raring to go in Game 3 and ready to continue his historic run that most recently thrust the Cubs into the division series. His shutout of the Pirates in the wild card game was the latest in a line of otherworldly performances, and if the Cardinals don’t play Alan Turing and crack his seemingly unbreakable code, they’ll face the insanity of Wrigley Field and potential elimination.
To find themselves in that position on account of two bunts from a Joe Maddon team was particularly surprising. The Cubs’ 32 sacrifice bunts this season were the second fewest in the NL. They’re thumpers, perfectly happy to strike out in exchange for the league’s second-best OPS after the All-Star break. Small ball wasn’t their thing until it was.
“Everything has to be set up properly for that,” Maddon said. “It just was. I mean, that happens every so often. I guess it’s a harvest moon possibly.”
Actually, the harvest moon was two weeks ago, a few days before the Cubs started practicing their extra bunting. October is a different time, playoff baseball a different game, identities shed and traded for whatever avatar works on a particular night. On Saturday, for the Chicago Cubs, they were the team that won by hitting the ball 30 feet. And they were just fine with that. There’s nothing overrated about winning.