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THE HOT CORNER: Death by sacrifice bunt

by Jim Allen (Jul 16, 2009)

Give a Japanese team base runners, and you can bet bunts will follow. If it's the national team or an amateur squad, it's a cinch you'll see more of the dreaded little rollers than you care to count.

In Game 2 of the 37th series between university all-stars from Japan and the United States, no one was surprised to see the Japanese bunt at every opportunity. But expecting something does not always prepare one for the painful reality.

The Japanese beat the Americans 7-5 at Tokyo Dome on Monday with pitching and an opportunistic small-ball attack the hosts leveraged into a decisive six-run inning.

Every time a Japanese batter tried to drop down a bunt, one could almost hear the American stars thinking, "What? Come on take a real swing, play like a man."

The incessant bunting drove the Americans to the point of distraction, and once the visitors started to wobble, the big hits came one after another for Japan.

A one-out bunt single started the third-inning death blow. The subsequent bunt had double play written all over it, but starter Drew Pomeranz's throw sailed into the outfield. He hit the next batter. After a strikeout, Pomeranz went full to Keiji Nakahara, who took a full cut, lining a two-run single that tied the game.

After the third out, Waseda right-hander Yuki Saito returned to the mound with a four-run lead and dealt the Americans out of the game.

In total, three Japan batters had reached safely on bunts, three others sacrificed and nearly every batter showed bunt at one time or another.

"We call that Cali-ball, but it's more of a California thing," U.S. manager Rick Jones said when asked the last time he'd seen so many guys square away. "This takes it to a whole new level."

The bunt gave manager Tamotsu Enomoto a talking point.

"The Japanese style is to bunt and use your speed," Enomoto said. "I wanted to challenge them in that fashion."

This year's series is a stereotypical confrontation between big Americans and small Japanese. The position players on Jones' team are, on average, 6.3 centimeters taller and 6.2 kilograms heavier.

Japanese baseball men are fond of saying American baseball is "speed and power." It's a compliment, but a left-handed one. The underlying message is that Americans are physically gifted but don't really work at the finer points of the game the way the Japanese do.

Monday's victory, like Japan's World Baseball Classic triumphs, was proof that the finely honed Japanese game--"the short game," as Jones called it--can work wonders, at the right time and in the right place.

The Americans lost Game 2 because they didn't defend it well enough. In Sendai on Tuesday, they nearly succumbed again to bunt torture, but Japan's pitching couldn't hold an early three-run lead.

All things being equal, the bunt is an inefficient tactic. Successfully applied, it increases the chances of scoring a run, while reducing the chances of delivering a knockout blow. It makes sense when one run is all you need, with the optimal time being a late-inning tie.

Yet, the bunt--particularly the sacrifice--is looked upon by many in Japan as a kind of secret weapon when in fact, it's more akin to a bayonet charge against a heavily armed opponent. It works if it really takes your the enemy off his game. It's not recommended for general use, because it intentionally burns up outs at an usustainable rate.

A good bunt is a thing of beauty, but the practice of bunting in every situation is simply doctrine overcoming logic, a belief that endless effort spent perfecting an orthodox approach will invariably lead to success. At its best, it leads to the mastery of a beautiful but inefficient art. At its worst, it's an accepted excuse for failure.

"I don't think there's anyone in the States that executes as well as they do in Japan," Jones said speaking of Japan's bunt craft.

"It doesn't happen in our game very often. And if it does, it doesn't happen at this level."

It doesn't happen over there because the Americans don't share Japan's obsession for following diamond doctrine so far beyond the limits of common sense.


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