by Jason Durden
The Texas Rangers won their opening day game against the Seattle Mariners 3-2 behind a great outing by Cole Hamels, despite the offense only mustering one hit. The Mariners and Felix Hernandez had appeared to have complete control of the game when the Rangers came to hit in the fifth inning and then momentum decided to flip and the Rangers took the game over in an unconventional manner. It was in this inning that the Rangers caught lightning in a bottle and took the lead despite barely hitting a ball out of the infield, but it had a lot to do with Felix Hernandez losing his control suddenly and the Rangers putting some pressure on the big righty at the right time.
The bunt is always a controversial topic and statistics show that at the MLB level it is typically ill-advised to give up outs to move a runner(s) 90 feet. But, there are always a few moments or two in a home stand or series that the perfectly timed bunt can turn the table in your favor and really change the outcome of the game. That moment occurred today in the fifth inning when Robinson Chirinos bunted and moved Andrus to second with Odor already standing at third. There are a few reasons why this was such a great call and may have been the spark that ignited the 3 run fire which ultimately led to a Rangers opening day victory.
Rattling His Cage
Felix Hernandez had shown signs of being a little wild early in the game with the leadoff HBP to Deshields in the first inning, a walk to Beltre in the same inning and a free pass to Andrus in the second. These three hiccups were overshadowed by how dominant and nasty his stuff was, but regardless it did look like King Felix was going to have some command issues early. But, then he settled in (like most great pitchers do) and he mowed through the Rangers lineup in the third and fourth innings with back to back three up and three down innings. Felix Hernandez looked like he was settling in and it was going to be difficult to scratch anything across the plate the rest of the afternoon for the Rangers. But, then the sequence of the fifth inning created an opportunity to rattle his cage a little and try and shift the momentum of the game back to the Rangers favor. Odor led off with a walk and then promptly stole second. Andrus reached on an error, so all of a sudden it was 1st and 3rd with no outs for the Rangers with Hernandez reeling a little bit. Jeff Banister asked Robinson Chirinos to sac bunt Andrus to second with an opportunity to get the tying run in scoring position. Normally, giving up an out to move a trail runner into scoring position is not the strategical play, but this was an opportunity to rattle Felix’s cage and force him to bounce off the mound and possibly field his position, but more importantly an opportunity to tie a ballgame in which the Rangers hadn’t been able to get a hit and were being handcuffed by one of baseball’s best pitchers. They were now one extra base hit away from evening this game up and negating a dominant first four innings by a great pitcher.
Turning it Over
Another reason why the sac bunt in this situation was a great call and play for the Rangers was it allowed the Rangers to turn their lineup over and get the bat in Deshields’ and Choo’s hands with two runners in scoring position. In their previous at bats against Hernandez, both Deshields and Choo hit fly balls. Banister may have been hoping for a similar result in these at bats, which would have given the Rangers at least one run at the very minimum. By turning the lineup over with the sacrifice bunt, Jeff Banister forced Felix Hernandez to feel the pressure of the top of the order in a crucial moment during this ballgame. Knowing that Fielder and Beltre were standing on the top step may have been the mental edge that Banister had hoped to gain at this particular moment.
There are certain moments during the course of a game when staying out of a double play is more important than protecting an out. Had Banister given Chirinos an opportunity to swing away and he had hit into a double play, it would have been a 2-1 Mariners lead with two outs in the fifth, plus Hernandez would have limited his pitch count total as well. Cutting the lead in half would not have been a terrible option, but Banister decided at this moment to push his chips all in and go for the big inning and take control away from the opposing dugout once and for all. He was going to give his guys a chance to tie this game with one swing of the bat. It also served as a perfect time to put pressure on a dominant starting pitcher and do everything you can to get into that bullpen as soon as possible. Obviously, none of this is possible if Hernandez had found his command sooner or if his defense had not made two errors in this frame alone, but sometimes putting your foot on the gas pedal creates some of those moments.
While most of the time I frown on using the sacrifice bunt at the MLB level, there are certain times like today when I feel it is a valuable tool to steal some momentum or at the very least disrupt the timing of the pitcher. Hindsight is 20/20 and all things can be picked apart once the moment is over, but Jeff Banister played the right cards yesterday and all things came together at the right time and this was the difference in the ballgame.
Jason Durden is a senior writer for Ballpark Banter. You can find him on Twitter @JasonDurden9.