If endless practice is the heart of Japanese baseball, the ultimate manifestation of the game's soul is the sacrifice bunt.
The doctrine is simple. When the leadoff man reaches in a close game, the next man, provided he is not a heavy hitter, goes up to advance the runner at all costs--with the typical cost being an out.
The plan is for one of the subsequent batters to single the runner home. Sacrificing an out to advance just one runner increases the chance of scoring one run, while decreasing the chances of scoring more than one. It's extremely efficient when one run will make a difference, such as in the eighth or ninth inning of a tie game.
Japan's doctrine, however, dictates the sacrifice may be used from the start to scratch out a lead. Depending on the game situation, managers will opt for other tactics, but no manager here will ever face a storm of criticism for bunting in the first inning.
Thus, it was no surprise at Koshien Stadium on Sunday when Giants No. 2 hitter Tetsuya Matsumoto tried to sacrifice after the leadoff man singled to open the game. The irony is that the Giants were able to score five runs in the inning because Matsumoto failed to do his duty.
After fouling off a one-strike bunt, Matsumoto was forced to swing away. He smashed a grounder under the glove of Hanshin pitcher Randy Messenger and just past shortstop Takashi Toritani.
The single put two on with no outs, a vastly better opportunity then the one manager Tatsunori Hara had been playing for. His lead runner was in scoring position as planned with another on first base. With no outs, Hara's team had three chances to score instead of just two.
The next two hitters made easy outs. Had the sacrifice gone according to plan, those outs would have ended a scoreless inning. Instead, No. 5 hitter Shinnosuke Abe came to bat with two on and two out. His fly to left center fell just beyond the reach of two Tigers defenders for a two-run double and the Giants were on their way to five runs.
Asked by The Hot Corner after Yomiuri's 6-4 victory if the Giants had lucked out by failing to bunt, Hara was of two minds.
"We were not better off," Hara said. "He [Matsumoto] has to execute in that situation."
When it was pointed out that a successful sacrifice would have meant no runs in the inning, Hara admitted that was the case. He followed up, however, by delivering a doctrinal counterpunch.
"Ideally, the No. 2 man bunts the runner over and the Nos. 3 and 4 batters continue the process [get the run home with a hit]," the skipper said.
Unfortunately, a bunt sign doesn't guarantee a successful sacrifice--something Hara is painfully aware of. His club has succeeded in just 66.7 percent of its sacrifice attempts. Every other Central League team is above 70 percent and every Pacific League team above 80 percent.
A successful sacrifice is also no guarantee the subsequent batters will hit. Even when all the components come together, the practice rarely leads to big innings.
One could also ask whether using a player of Matsumoto's caliber to bunt makes sense. Since becoming a regular in 2009, he has hit .321 with a runner on first base--he's batting .268 in all other situations. That's an awfully high average to sacrifice in the first inning.
Hara is not alone, of course. Most Japanese managers would do exactly the same regardless of who is batting second. Few other managers, however, can match Hara's record of winning four league titles in six seasons.
That success is due, not to Hara's tactical acumen but to his giving playing time to guys like 2009 Rookie of the Year Award-winner Matsumoto, and 2008 winner Tetsuya Yamaguchi. Both signed on developmental contracts after being passed over in the regular amateur draft.
Until Hara became manager, Yomiuri's farm team was primarily a junkyard for players wanted only as emergency replacements. Hara has made it a proving ground for players like Yamaguchi, Matsumoto, Kenji Yano, Yoshiyuki Kamei and Hayato Sakamoto to earn first-team jobs and develop into pennant winners.
It's an admirable accomplishment.
Now if only Hara and other Japanese managers could sacrifice doctrine for the sake of logic--instead of doing it the other way around.