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October 7, 2014

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game Three Recap: The Bunt Heard 'Round the World

by Doug Thorburn

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Everything was going San Francisco's way as the teams prepared to begin Game Three of the NLDS between the Nationals and Giants. The orange-and-black had defeated the two-headed monster of Strasburg and Zimmermann on hostile ground, and were sending their top starter to the hill in front of the home crowd with hopes of a series sweep for the underdog Giants. The Nats, on the other hand, were in survival mode, just hoping to force another game of baseball as they faced elimination.

For six innings, Madison Bumgarner and Doug Fister traded zeroes. Bummer was a bit more dominant, running the fastball up to 95 mph as he continued to pump playoff adrenaline. His average velocity has been higher over the past two starts than at any point of the regular season, and he came out firing 95 mph bullets in the first inning of Game Three. Bumgarner punched out six Nationals and didn't walk a batter for the first six frames, carrying a pitch count of just 70 as the seventh inning got started. To top it off, both pitchers had to deal with a roving strike zone, as home plate umpire Tom Hallion was defying the tracking systems and getting dirty looks from the mound due to his unpredictable calls.

Fister was not quite as economical, with a higher pitch count to go with three strikeouts and a trio of walks (one of which was taken by Bumgarner), but Fister's particular brand of weak-contact induction had been equally effective for the first two-thirds of the game. He got some help in the bottom of the fourth when Brandon Belt took off on a hit-and-run attempt, only to be thrown out easily by catcher Wilson Ramos when the hitter left the bat on his shoulder. Fister is extremely quick to the plate, and only one base runner had even attempted a steal against him this season, so Belt was essentially a dead duck when Crawford failed to execute his portion of the hit-and-run.

In the top of the seventh inning, the Nats got something going. Ian Desmond led off the frame with a single to right, and Bumgarner followed by issuing his only walk of the game, putting Bryce Harper aboard for the two on, no out situation. It was the best opportunity that Washington had garnered all game, but as the slow-footed Ramos strode to the plate, the biggest thought on everyone's mind was the possibility of a double play.

Ramos squared on the first pitch but pulled back, only to watch strike one. He squared again and took a ball, and then pulled the same trick as he watched strike two. The Nats catcher appeared indecisive, which makes sense for a player that had not successfully laid down a sacrifice in more than three years, but he was undeterred. Ramos squared again with the threat of a two-strike foul looming, and though bunting might be the most mundane of baseball plays, this particular bunt would spark bedlam:

The Nats didn't just avoid the double play with a productive out, they plated two runners and had another in scoring position with no outs, all thanks to Bumgarner's attempt to nail the lead runner at third base. The damage included a 2-0 deficit and a wounded third baseman, as Pablo Sandoval was crumpled on the ground after the play (though he would stay in the game and make a tremendous diving catch moments later). Asdrubal Cabrera's RBI single the next at bat made it 3-0, and though his hit would have plated both runners in a scenario where Ramos merely had a successful sacrifice, the mental anguish associated with the Giants' self-inflicted wound was palpable.

Bryce Harper hit a monster homer in the top of the ninth, his second blast of the series, which gave the Nats a cushion when San Francisco plated one in the bottom half, but the turning point in this ballgame was surely the bunt gone wrong. The sac bunt has been a focal point this postseason, thanks in part to the success of the Royals and their bunt-o-holic manager Ned Yost, and the Ramos play temporarily put the sac at center stage. For the team with the best record in the National League, whose season was founded on excellent pitching and a deep lineup, it's poetic justice that their survival was made possible through a small-ball tactic (with questionable utility) that was executed by the least likely player in the lineup.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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