Why the bunt was Oregon State's enemy, frenemy and finally savior in a classic College World Series win
Oregon State nearly squandered its best offensive start to an inning in Game 2 of the College World Series due to a poorly executed bunt, but three perfectly executed bunts led to the Beavers scoring a go-ahead run in the fifth inning and the game-tying run in the ninth. Therefore, the team's tumultuous relationship with bunting in Wednesday's 5-3 win was a net positive.
Oregon State bunted five times in Game 2 – twice for a single, twice for a sacrifice that advanced a baserunner to second base and one very costly bunt that resulted in a rally-killing double play.
Here's an examination of the good and the bad from the Beavers' bunting performance against Arkansas.
In a 1-1 ballgame that was generally lackluster offensively at the time, Oregon State bunted twice in the span of three batters in the top of the fifth inning, after first baseman Zak Taylor hit a one-out single through the left side of the infield. It was the team's fifth hit — and fourth single — in as many innings.
Next up was sophomore Preston Jones, a .288 hitter who was starting in center field in place of injured starter Steven Kwan, who was batting ninth in the order. The speedy Jones dropped a bunt down the third-base line that allowed Taylor to advance to second, while Jones was safe at first.
Arkansas then replaced starter Kacey Murphy with Jake Reindl and leadoff hitter Nick Madrigal drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases.
Cadyn Grenier then pushed across the go-ahead run with a brilliant squeeze play where Grenier, a righty, took a breaking ball on the outside of the plate and pushed it down the third-base line, just on the edge of the grass infield. Taylor scored and Arkansas third baseman Casey Martin's throw to first was too late to catch Grenier.
"Yeah, (the bunt) was my call. And it felt great," Grenier said postgame. "It worked perfectly. All I can say about that is learn to bunt, kids. It's important."
Beavers coach Pat Casey echoed Grenier's statement about bunting in key situations.
"It's like Cadyn said, he laid down a drag bunt of his own with the bases loaded, and I'm going, 'Wow,'" Casey said.
"When he was a freshman, he said, 'I've never bunted in my life, Coach.' 'So I said, Well, the way you're hitting now, you need to learn how to bunt.' He's made some great adjustments. And that was big. He did that on his own. I give him the freedom to do that."
The Razorbacks made another pitching change with the bases loaded and one out for Oregon State, and reliever Kole Ramage escaped the jam with a strikeout and a groundout. Oregon State, despite leaving three runners on base, entered the bottom half of the inning with a 2-1 lead.
In the ninth inning, down to its three final outs and trailing 3-2, Oregon State tied the game, and eventually took the lead that it wouldn't relinquish, thanks to a sacrifice bunt. After Taylor battled through an eight-pitch at-bat that resulted in a leadoff walk, Andy Armstrong pinch hit for Jones and pushed a high-and-inside fastball down the first-base line for a sacrifice that allowed Taylor to advance to second.
Taylor moved to third on Madrigal's soft groundout to first, then he scored on Grenier's RBI single through the left side. Trevor Larnach's ensuing two-run home run then gave the Beavers the lead for good. But the initial rally was made possible by Armstrong putting Taylor in scoring position with his sacrifice bunt.
After Oregon State perfectly executed two bunts against Arkansas, the team's third bunt attempt of the game couldn't have ended worse for the Beavers.
Oregon State began the sixth inning with its best offensive start of any inning of the game but the Beavers' momentum quickly fizzled out after poor execution in the batter's box and on the base paths.
After third baseman Michael Gretler reached first base on a throwing error, designated hitter Tyler Malone singled up the middle, setting up runners on first and third with nobody out. But four pitches later, the Beavers were returning to the field to play defense in the bottom half of the inning, unable to capitalize on their optimistic start.
Jack Anderson, who pinch-hit for Kyle Nobach and then replaced him in left field, attempted a safety squeeze in hopes of scoring Gretler. Unlike a suicide squeeze in which the runner on third runs home at full speed as soon as the pitcher begins his motion to the plate, a safety squeeze is predicated on the baserunner making sure the batter makes contact on the bunt before he runs home.
While Jones and Grenier layed down textbook bunts down the third-base line in the previous inning — hard enough to bounce out of the catcher's reach, soft enough to prevent an easy play for the defense and delicately enough to stay in play without risk of rolling foul — Anderson popped his bunt back toward Kole Ramage on the pitcher's mound.
Watch the play below.
Anderson showed bunt before Ramage's release on the pitch and the ball was located fairly low on the outside half of the plate. If you look closely, you'll see that Anderson's left knee was actually flat on the ground in the batter's box. Due to the location of the pitch, Anderson was forced to drop the bat head such that his hands were higher than the barrel of the bat.
Baseball players are taught to bend and move their knees, and body, vertically in order to provide better control of the ball when bunting rather than rotating their wrists to drop the barrel of the bat, which can lead to a pop-up on a bunt attempt.
Ramage fielded his position incredibly well, making a shoestring catch simultaneously as he planted his left foot — his fourth step since Anderson made contact with the pitch. A small but incredibly important detail: Ramage was able to catch the ball on the fly without needing to dive or losing his footing and falling down, because doing so likely would've ended the double play opportunity.
Gretler was almost halfway down the basepath to home plate when Ramage caught the ball. If you watch the play closely, Arkansas catcher Grant Koch points for Ramage to throw to first base, where the Razorbacks also had a double play opportunity, but Ramage correctly focused on the lead runner at third base.
In roughly a second and a half, Ramage completed the catch, turned, planted his feet and fired an accurate throw to third base, where Martin was positioned in front of the bag, blocking Gretler's path to the base, for the tag.
In the span of six seconds, Oregon State went from having runners on first and third with no outs — and pressing to score the tying run, as seen by the Beavers' decision to attempt a squeeze — to having a rally-killing double play that resulted in two outs and a lone runner on first. Two pitches later, Ramage induced an inning-ending groundout to preserve a one-run lead.
Oregon State's ninth-inning magic, which benefited from a sacrifice bunt, allowed the Beavers' final rally to overshadow the nightmare of an inning they had offensively in the sixth. With runners on first and third and no outs, Oregon State should have hoped for — at the very least — one run to tie the game.
While Adley Rutschman's home run in the fourth inning and Larnach's bomb in the ninth will make the highlight reels, and deservedly so, Oregon State also showed its ability to play small ball in its Game 2 win to stay alive in the CWS finals. While their gaffe in the sixth inning could have left the Beavers wondering "What if?" all offseason had they not rallied in the top of the ninth, their bunting was a net positive on Wednesday.