NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 02: Ramon Santiago #39 of the Detroit Tigers hits a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees during Game Two of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium on October 2, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
There's definitely a time and place for a manager to call for a bunt. Game 5 of the ALDS against the New York Yankees, with the winner advancing to the next round, is not one of those situations.
Enough with the bunting, Jim Leyland.
I think everyone can agree there's a situation in which calling for a bunt is necessary. Perhaps in the late innings of a tied ballgame or down by a run, when scoring just one run will make the difference. Move a runner into scoring position by sacrificing an out and hope the next couple of batters (there's only one out in the inning, right?) can drive the runner in to score.
There are also occasions when the element of surprise makes the bunt an effective play. For instance, a squeeze play with a runner on third. Or when a speedy hitter sees one of the corner infielders playing too far back to field a bunt in time.
Some managers seem to fall a little bit too in love with the bunt, as if playing "small ball" somehow restores their baseball bona fides, returns the game to its origins, makes his team "play the game the right way" and all that. I don't know if that's what goes through Leyland's mind when he calls for the bunt, though it does often seem like the Tigers manager prefers a more "old school" approach, even though he has a lineup far better suited to swinging the bat and hitting for extra bases.
I don't want to come across as someone who's entirely opposed to bunting. There's definitely a time and place for it.
But I think most of us can agree that the first inning against a pitcher most everyone expected to melt down, with no outs and the leadoff batter on first base is not the ideal situation for a bunt. Yet that's exactly when Leyland called for Ramon Santiago to square up Tuesday night.
Even during the regular season, this would've been an annoying call. But during Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series against the New York Yankees? When a win would've eliminated the Yankees and put the Tigers in the ALCS?
I'm going to assume that Leyland thought building an early lead was important against a New York Yankees team that can score a lot of runs. No argument with that strategy. In the first three games of the series, the Yankees showed that no lead is safe (especially with Jose Valverde giving off gas fumes in his two ninth-inning appearances).
The plan backfired when Santiago couldn't lay down the bunt, instead popping out to third base. Calling for a bunt looked even more foolish when the runner on first base, Austin Jackson, showed he could move himself over by himself, stealing second base after Santiago made his out.
Giving the opposing team an out is no way to build a lead. Maybe you'll get one run, at best. I suppose the argument could be made that the bunt also kept the Tigers out of hitting into a double play. But you could also prevent your lineup from scoring multiple runs when your primary run producers are coming to the plate. And that's pretty much what happened Tuesday night.
There's no guarantee that Santiago wouldn't have made an out and failed to move Jackson to third, of course. But he was coming off a 2-for-4 performance in Game 3 and looked to be swinging the bat well. So why not see if he could keep it up? If he had been able to put the ball in play and not struck out or flied out, Delmon Young's groundout to third may have driven in a run. And if Santiago had reached base, you're looking at a 1-0 lead, a runner in scoring position with one out, and Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez coming to the plate.
Instead, the bunt only served to let A.J. Burnett off the hook during a first inning in which he hardly looked sharp and was on the verge of fulfilling every Yankee fan's fear. Burnett intentionally walked Cabrera, then walked Martinez to load the bases. But with two outs instead of one, there was less chance for the Tigers to capitalize on the situation.
Sure enough, Don Kelly lined out to center field to end the inning. Of course, as anyone who watched the game knows, it wasn't quite that simple. Yankees centerfielder Curtis Granderson initially made the wrong read on the ball, coming in instead of going back, but recovered to make a leaping catch for the third out. Everyone with a rooting interest in the Tigers put their heads in their hands.
I realize some of this is speculation. The Tigers may have squandered an ideal scoring opportunity anyway. But they had Burnett wobbling and blew an excellent chance to knock him to the mat. Yes, the Yankees eventually scored 10 runs and made the game a rout. But it may never have gotten to that point had the Tigers taken an early lead.
The hope is that Leyland won't make the same mistake in Thursday's decisive Game 5. Maybe he'll manage a bit differently with the game being at Yankee Stadium. Establishing an early lead is even more important with the home crowd looking for the favored Yankees to assert themselves over these upstart Tigers.
Let your guys swing away, Jim. This bunting stuff is for the regular season. The playoffs are no time to play it safe.