Nobody likes a backseat driver. Well, that’s not true. Everybody likes to be a backseat driver when it comes to managing a professional baseball team. Watching someone like Dusty Baker operate, it can be tough to not scream and pump the imaginary brakes while watching unfortunate scenes unfold before you.
Last night, the Reds and Cardinals played a classic game, a 16 inning September marathon with playoff implications. The teams fought back and forth, as Matt Adams put the Cardinals ahead only to have Billy Hamilton (with another assist to Ryan Ludwick for actually getting on base) steal a bag and score on a bouncing ball up the middle to extend the game off the bat of Zack Cosart.
The Reds had their chances, it seemed, until the bunts started flying around Great American Ballpark. Brandon Phillips, the great run driver-inner of our time, bunted after leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo reached in the 15th inning. A Joey Votto ground out moved Choo to third, an intentional walk to Jay Bruce put runners on the corners with two outs.
The winning run stood 90 feet away! It was in the bag for the Reds, right? Welp.
For whatever reason, batter Chris Heisey squared around to bunt with two outs and the winning run on third base. The runner on third, Choo, broke towards home plate as the batter showed bunt. Puttin’ guys in motion, making things happen on the basepaths!
Whoops, Heisey whiffed on the bunt and the Cardinals calmly erased Choo in a rundown, ending the inning and setting the stage for Matt Adams’ second extra innings home of the game.
Twitter exploded with criticism of Reds manager Dusty Baker, both for Phillips bunt and the botched squeeze attempt. What was he thinking?? The technically inept manager butchers another in-game decision! How could he possibly justify his actions?? The Cincinnati Inquirer got to the bottom of this catastrophe with the Reds bench boss
“You’re not going to try to squeeze bunt with two outs,” Baker said. “Heisey thought the third baseman was back. He was bunting for a hit. Choo was trying to score. He didn’t see the ball go past him. By then, you’re in no man’s land. That’s a tough way to lose.”
People on the outside tend to think of managers as autocratic overlords, dictating every tiny detail of every aspect of every game. Nothing that happens on the baseball field happens outside the purview of the manager, which makes him a perfect magnet for abuse and praise.
Except most of it is unearned. Last night, Chris Heisey saw the third baseman sagging back and thought he could get down a good enough bunt to win his team a crucial game. He’s a baseball player and he thought — incorrectly, it turns out — that he could make a baseball play. A more difficult play than most appreciate and more difficult than Heisey likely expected but a baseball play all the same. A risky but potentially brilliant play.
Maybe you want the manager to give the NO BUNTS sign or you think the Reds need to get out early and practice their fundamentals and drill these players within an inch of your life. Maybe that would work, but then again these are grown men with a lifetime in the game.
It seems obvious to us that bunting in that situation might be…less than advisable but if Heisey felt comfortable doing it, so what? The Reds lost, perhaps Dusty and his player will have a little chat about trying to do too much and trusting his abilities.
THAT is managing at the big league level: putting your players in the best position to succeed. Just like how Baker used Billy Hamilton again – he didn’t allow him to come to the plate or put on a glove, he used Hamilton as a pinch runner when he could best impact the game.
And impact the game he did, swiping second base off Edward Mujica and eventually scoring. Hamilton is just the second player in baseball history to record two stolen bases without making an official plate appearance. Not since the “pinch runner” days of Herb Washington has a position player been used in such a narrow and specific manner.
This is Dusty Baker’s job, just as it is the job of every other manager in baseball. Put them in a position, be it physically or mentally, where they can best get their work done. That’s all. Find another scapegoat – maybe you’d play a round of “Joey Votto is not a run producer?” Always an enjoyable time for the whole family.
And the rest
Another look at how mightily the Pirates struggled for a generation [SI Strike Zone]
More on Billy Hamilton [Fangraphs]
What is this, reasonable discussion on a sports topic? WHERE’S THE YELLING? TOO MUCH LOGIC, NOT ENOUGH #HOTTAKES
The Twins and Astros game was not a hot seller, you might be surprised to learn. [FTW]
The Red Sox scored a million runs last night on one thousand home runs. Included in that barrage was the 2001st hit of David Ortiz‘s career (a homer) and number 2000 – a double.