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Lessons in Small Ball…Or How to Avoid Winning a Ballgame
2003-10-14 01:24
by Mike Carminati

The Cubs-Marlins series may very well be decided tomorrow as the two clubs travel back to the City of Big Sosas. I think that the series may have been defined by two extremely close, eleven-inning games, the opener and game three.

Game one was a classic that had everything. The Marlins showed great resolve in pulling out the victory. I predicted at the time that it would set a tone for the series. That said, I know believe that game three will end up being the series' defining moment.

The Cubs ended up winning 5-4 in game three. It was a game that started as a pitchers' duel between Mark Redman and Kerry Wood and ended in a nail-bitter with potentially the tying run caught off second in a rundown. For me though, the game was an exercise in the limitations of small ball and perhaps proof that Dusty Baker is deserving of the glowing accolades that the media accord him.

Witness the following:

In the top of the first inning, with Kenny Lofton at first and no outs Mark Grudzielanek bunted Lofton to second. Lofton then scored on a Sosa single (Cubs 1-0).

Top of the fourth, with Damian Miller on first and one out, Kerry Wood sacrificed to Miller to second. The Cubs fail to score (Cubs 2-1).

Bottom of the seventh, the Marlins had Alex Gonzalez on second and Mike Lowell on first. Juan Pierre sacrificed to move the runners up. Both later scored. (Marlins 3-2).

Bottom of the eighth, with Miguel Cabrera at first and no one out, pinch-hitter Mike Mordecai bunted Cabrera to second. Cabrera later scored on Hollandsworth's two-out single.

Bottom of the ninth, Juan Pierre bunted for a hit to lead off when he caught Aramis Ramirez napping. Luis Castillo then sacrificed Pierre to second. The next batter, Pudge Rodriguez was intentionally walked. The Marlins failed to score.

Top of the eleventh, Lofton was at first with one out. Pinch-hitter Doug Glanville tripled with the ball got beyond left fielder Jeff Conine. Lofton scored the eventual winning run on the play.

Bottom of the eleventh, with two out and Luis Castillo representing the tying run at second, Derek Lee apparently grounded out to end the game. But Ramirez dropped the ball. Seeing this Castillo broke for third. Just then Ramirez regained the handle on the booted ball and picked Castillo off in a rundown.

So the Cubs started bunting in the first inning (!). The initially had success but after a failed, peremptory attempt—the pitcher was up—in the fourth, they changed their strategy and eschewed the bunt. In the deciding eleventh inning, with the speedy Lofton at first and the equally speedy Glanville at bat (i.e., very low probability of a double play) with one out, Glanville did not take the safe route and bunt the runner into scoring position and hope for the best. They made a preemptive strike, as Glanville hit away and stroked the winning hit.

Meanwhile, Florida latched onto the sac bunt and refused to stop suckling at her teat. The Marlins used a bunt in three straight innings (7, 8, and 9). They scored with the play in the seventh, and in the process took the lead in the game. After losing the lead momentarily, they evened the score using a bunt in the eighth. However, they went to the well one too many times: in the ninth all the bunt did was allow the Cubs to walk their hottest hitter Pudge Rodriguez which helped prevent them from scoring. The Marlins also used their superior speed to end the ballgame perhaps immaturely with the Luis Castillo was caught off of second.

What are my conclusions from this? If you bunt early, you give the pitcher an extra out and allow him to work through whatever problems he may have, while stymieing whatever big inning is possible. Don't bunt late in the game and give the opposition a reason not to pitch to your best hitter. And moving a runner into scoring position with small ball is nice but so is a nice extra-base hit.

The rest of the NLCS series is compressed of lopsided Chicago victories and a masterpiece by Josh Beckett. With the series winding down the story of the series may be told in the few close, low-scoring games. The Marlins' used sheer will to win the first such game but the Cubs used an evolving but superior strategy to win game three. Game six comes tomorrow and with Mark Prior and the surprising Carl Pavano—hasn't allowed a run in the postsseaon in five appearances— pitching it could be another low-scoring affair. For the Marlins sake, I hope the don't bunt three straight innings again.

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