The bunt and the big inning

Gene Mauch, baseball’s most famous losing manager, liked to bunt early and often and defended it by saying that, “You’d be surprised how often you play for one (run) and wind up with three.”

That’s a quote cited by in a remembrance of Mauch’s ’64 Phillies, who lost a six-and-a-half game lead with 12 games to play, bunting most of the way. Given Mauch’s ’64 Phillies, and that his 1982 Angels blew a 2-0 lead in the ALCS, and his ’86 Angels blew a 3-1 series lead and 5-2 lead in Game 5 of the ALCS, maybe he’s not the best advocate for the tactic.

But maybe the late Mauch, who died in 2005 without ever reaching the Series he was often so close to, would have been vindicated by Monday’s National League playoffs games. The Nationals, desperate to score at all after not doing so for 20 straight innings, bunted for one run and scored three in the seventh to beat the Giants 4-1. The Cardinals, able to score only on Matt Carpenter home runs in the previous 16 innings, bunted for one run and scored two to beat the Dodgers.

Who knew the sacrifice bunt could precipitate the big inning? Besides Mauch?

The Nationals might not have done it the way Mauch planned. They got two runners on in the seventh inning vs. Madison Bumgarner, which seemed like a crooked number already considering his scoreless streak was one ahead of the Nationals’ (21-20). Wilson Ramos, who hit .325 this year vs. lefties like Bumgarner, failed to bunt twice. But manager Matt Williams, who didn’t stick with starter Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2, did so with the bunt and Ramos dropped such a good one Bumgarner made an errant and ill-advised throw to third. Two runs scored and a third followed when Asdrubal Cabrera singled. Score one for stubbornness, and not for the Sabermeticians who abhor the bunt.

Three runs in four batters — equaling the three runs the Nationals had scored in the previous 33 innings — was a bounty for Doug Fister, who the Tigers were reminded is a pretty good postseason pitcher (career ERA: 2.60). Regular-season, too (3.34).

The misplayed bunt is ominous for the Giants, who might have thrown away their best chance to win the series. They’ve scored just six runs in 36 innings and start Ryan Vogelsong, a below-average pitcher (ERA+ of 85) in Game 4 and Jake Peavy, who hasn’t finished the sixth inning in six postseason starts, in Game 5, if necessary.

And one more thing: Nats outfielder Bryce Harper has homered twice and nearly missed winning Game 2 with another. He doesn’t always run out fly balls but Monday he ran after them, catching one before he and/or the ball bounced off the wall, diving to catch another. “Probably the best catch I’ve seen him make all year, to be honest with you,” Denard Span, the center fielder Harper wanted to replace if he was making out the lineup, told the Washington Post. “All year, I’ve seen him be tentative with the wall out there. So to me, that was the best catch. Normally, he shies away from the wall. He had no fear.”

I’m guessing their lockers aren’t next to each other. The Dodgers should have plenty of fear because their series with the Cardinals is hauntingly familiar. The Cardinals bunted Yadier Molina to third with one out, also in the seventh, and scored twice when Kolten Wong homered.

The Cards’ 2-1 series lead forces the Dodgers to return Clayton Kershaw to the mound on three days rest, just like last year when the Cards led the NLCS 3-2. Kershaw held the Cards to just seven runs in that one, losing 9-0. That’s one less run than he allowed in this year’s Game 1 when he gave up eight.

Manager Don Mattingly has no choice, because neither Dan Haren nor the middle relief behind him is reliable. Haren had a 4.02 ERA and 87 ERA+ — think Vogelsong in Dodger blue. And the Dodgers bullpen has an 8.52 ERA — that’s not Tigers bad, but it’s not good enough to get from Haren to closer Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers’ pen has given up three home runs in 6.1 innings, Wong’s by Scott Elbert, who pitched just 4.1 innings all year for the Dodgers.

Elbert spent most of the season hurt or in the minors, and he wasn’t very good at either. That begs the question of why he was called on in the seventh inning of a tie game, and the answer is that no one else seemed any better, which may be true.

Matt Kemp blamed home plate umpire Dale Scott, saying Scott’s strike zone was “terrible.” Kemp is right in that Scott wasn’t very good, but it’s always the losers who are the critics and the winners who appreciate the art.

But no matter how bad Scott’s strike zone, Matt Carpenter didn’t have any problem with it.

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