Small ball can pay off in big ways

Posted March 24, 2009, at 8:58 p.m.

Small ball refers to ways of manufacturing runs without a power-hitting lineup.

Bunting and base-running are two key components in small ball.

Former University of Maine standout and assistant baseball coach Mike Coutts, the new coach at Deering High in Portland and the owner-director of the Frozen Ropes indoor training facility in Portland, has offered some small ball tips.

Bunting. Coutts calls bunting a “lost art.”

He said there are a variety of footwork patterns for the sacrifice bunt, including turning both feet so they are facing the pitcher, pivoting with both feet, or taking the back leg and pointing it toward the pitcher.

No matter which one you choose, he said, you have to move closer to the plate and move up toward the pitcher.

The knees and elbows are bent and the bat must be angled forward and slightly upward at the top of the strike zone.

The bat should be in front of the plate so you can keep the ball fair. And don’t jab at the ball.

The bottom hand is near the knob of the bat and the top hand slides up to the middle of the bat. The thumb and first two fingers control the bat.

Hitters should accordion their bodies up or down depending upon the location of the pitch and watch the ball hit the bat. They should angle the bat toward the placement spot.

If you want to deaden the bunt, bunt it near the top of the bat. If you want to bunt it hard, bunt it with the sweet spot.

Bunting for base hits is a little different.

The trick is to wait until the last possible second.

Slide the back foot directly back as the ball arrives and try to get a running start, but make sure you see the ball hit the bat.

Coutts said players should practice bunts against high-velocity pitches at game speed.

He added that everyone should be able to bunt and the threat of a bunt creates an unpredictability that can lead to more hitting room because the corner infielders have to play in more.

Slashing is a grossly underutilized weapon.

A slash involves faking a bunt, drawing the bat back and slapping the ball on the ground through one of several holes created by infielders running to cover a base or coming in to field a suspected bunt.

You get into bunt position and, when the pitcher strides toward the plate, bring the bat back toward your back shoulder, slide your bottom hand up the bat to meet the top hand and hit down on the ball.

“You’re using three-quarters of the bat,” said Coutts.

Even if you fake a slash occasionally, it can open up your bunting game because infielders won’t be so inclined to sprint down the lines when you square around to bunt.

Stealing bases. Coutts preaches getting a good lead two and a half strides off the bag, parallel to the bag, and reading the pitcher’s back heel. He has to lift the back heel to throw over to first.

If he doesn’t, take off.

Other coaches will tell you to watch the front knee or front shoulder of a right-hander and take off as soon as they turn in toward the pitcher’s body.

With lefties, wait until the front knee or shoulder heads to the plate.

Coutts said get a good secondary lead like two shuffle steps just after the pitch leaves the hand so you’re ready to run when the ball is hit.

It also helps set up the delayed steal. After you take your two shuffle steps, wait a split second or two and then take off. Or you can wait and run when the catcher releases his throw back to the pitcher.

Inattentive infielders or ones who wander far from the bag help the odds.

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