Bunt Forced Trauma

Brett Basham had the best view of the conspicuous confusion that repeatedly resulted from one of the most fundamental plays in baseball. The pitch came to the plate, the hitter squared and the ball bounced from the bat and rolled through the infield.

But instead of seemingly simple putouts, the Rebels stumbled through the assignments and provided Arkansas with opportunities – ones that simply added heft to an already electric Razorback offense.

The much-discussed power came with nine home runs during the weekend, but Arkansas' precision with the bunt provided just as much trouble for the Rebels. The small-ball execution kept innings alive and frustrated Ole Miss.

Two days later, the Diamond Rebs began practice with infield defense drills and were quick to point out that the inefficiencies with that area must improve. That wasn't the question. However, how to fix it was.

Basham thinks it is a combination of factors, not one simple repair.

"It had a lot to do with every position," Basham said. "The guys were just too tentative I think, and we all just wanted to be aggressive and go after the ball. That is just inexperience I guess."

His guess was inexperience, and that opinion is similar to other players as well. The misplayed bunts revolved around a trio of positions – whichever pitcher was on the mound along with second baseman Zach Miller and first baseman Matt Smith.

The pitchers seemed to make acceptable efforts toward first base, but Miller and Smith both accepted a portion of the blame for the complications.

In a perfect situation, Smith and Miller work together, reading the ball and each other simultaneously. Smith gets the ball if the pitcher doesn't, while Miller is on the bag ready for the toss if needed.

Saturday wasn't perfect.

Instead, Miller had trouble getting over in time, and Smith delayed just long enough for the runners to get the upper hand down the line. Arkansas deserves some credit for execution, but mental errors by the Rebels helped in the results as well.

Most notable were back-to-back bunts, in the second game of the series, by the Razorbacks that kept an inning alive for Tim Smalling, who launched one of his four home runs on the weekend, a three-run shot. The Hogs planned for sacrifices, but instead, the runners moved and no outs were recorded.

"It isn't that we gave up the run, we didn't get the out," Mike Bianco said. "Those are supposed to be sacrifices. Well, they put the ball on the ground, and we didn't take advantage. Both those guys should have never been safe.

"On the first one, we had Smith back on the grass, and all that is is a good bunt. We should have fielded it. Smith went after it, and then couldn't get back to the bag. The second, the problem was that Miller has to get to the base. In that situation, he has the base, and Smith is supposed to come charging in."

Smith is a converted outfielder that has only been in the infield since this past summer. While he has shown lot of athleticism and potential with his range, the decision-making is still a work in progress.

"They (coaches) are always hollering at me before every batter, ‘Matt, be ready for the bunt.' I'll shake my head and say OK," Smith said. "It is one of those things where if the pitcher doesn't get there in time, and I am not all out, he is going to be safe. They want me to field it and chase after him instead of flipping it. Me flipping it just takes more time.

"I have a hard time reading whether the pitcher will get it or not. I will hesitate just enough that it throws the timing off the bunt defense. Bianco told me to go after the ball hard whenever I was in doubt. The pitcher will always be moving that way.

The freshman believes added practice will settle the situation.

"During PFPs (pitcher's fielding practice) we do it some, but we don't really work on push bunts like that," Smith added. "They hit us ground balls and work on feeding the pitcher. As far as actual bunts, we work on sacrifices more so than push bunts."

While Smith's dilemma is all about adjustments and quick timing, Miller's job is to recognize the bunt and go all out toward first base.

"I should be there no matter what," Miller said. "Push bunt, just a sac, anything like that. That is what we are doing today. Practicing to try to get that down. There are no excuses."

However, moving to the bag takes a certain amount of instincts and athletic ability. With a runner on first, Miller is situated close to second base in double play depth. That makes covering a difficult task.

"Those were double play situations, and I am in double play depth, but he said I should still be over there," Miller noted. "It is just like a sac. It's tough. We don't want to leave too early because they could pull back or slash. It is kind of like a fake punt in football, you have to be alert no matter the situation."

The entire infield has to be focused. One player out of position complicates the play and will most likely result in the bunter being safe at first. As the final three weeks of the regular season begin, Ole Miss must take advantage of every out that is offered.

"It is all about being confident and not rushing or being unsure," Basham said. "It is all about execution. Our pitchers do a really good job of covering the base. It is as if guys are putting them in tough spots and it is hard to gauge. It really is a tough play for our infielders. It seems like guys are just putting it in perfect spots every time.

"But wasted chances for outs can't happen, especially in tight games. We have players that are capable, and I know we will fix it. That is what practice is for."

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