Commentary

Garrido, Texas have small-ball success

Updated: June 10, 2009, 11:47 AM ET
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- It's the humblest of offensive weapons, a strategic admission that scratching for runs will sometimes work as well as playing for big innings.

But as always, Texas coach Augie Garrido is college baseball's biggest proponent of the bunt, a simple play he thinks is undervalued in modern baseball thinking.

[+] EnlargeDavid Hernandez
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesDavid Hernandez and the Longhorns lead the nation with 96 sacrifice hits in 61 games.

"If hitting is the hardest skill in sports, than why in the hell are you going to concentrate on trying to beat somebody with hitting?" Garrido asked. "Find something else. Running is easier. Bunting is much easier."

Like most of Garrido's teams, this season's Longhorns have turned bunting into an offensive art form. Now it has helped boost them into the College World Series for the first time since 2005.

Texas ranks next-to-last among the eight Omaha-bound teams in batting average this season, and was only eighth among the 10 baseball-playing teams in the Big 12. But the Longhorns lead the nation in sacrifice bunts and set an NCAA single-game record with seven in the opening-game victory over TCU in their super regional Saturday night.

"Bunting is something that if we execute it properly, you can't stop it," Texas third baseman Michael Torres said. "If you do it right and put it in the right spots, you can't defend it. We have a lot of confidence in what we can do."

A Texas version of an offensive rally often starts when the leadoff runner reaches base. Invariably, he will be advanced by a sacrifice, which will give the Longhorns the opportunity to drive him home from scoring position.

"People forget [the Longhorns] get the bunt over but somebody follows with a clutch hit," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "The bunt is a big part of it, but the clutch hitting that Texas gets afterwards is just as big.

"All I heard going in was how Texas wasn't supposed to be a good offensive club. They swung the bat against us pretty well. I think they are an underrated offensive team. But I think their team feeds off [getting] the leadoff hitter on, getting the bunt over, and then it snowballs after that."

Brandon Loy leads the Longhorns with 24 sacrifices. With a long run in Omaha, he conceivably could challenge former Longhorn Todd West's NCAA record of 29, set in 2000.

I think their team feeds off [getting] the leadoff hitter on, getting the bunt over, and then it snowballs after that.

--TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle, on Texas

But Loy is not alone. Every member of the Longhorns team has at least six sacrifices this season. And their most productive offensive player, first baseman Brandon Belt, is tied for the team lead in homers and RBIs and is second with nine sacrifices.

For some players, taking the bat out of their hands would be an affront to their egos as offensive players. But not the Longhorns, according to Garrido.

"Not if they want to play," he said, chuckling.

In a way, the Longhorns are throwbacks to an era in which teams wore sliding pads, flannel uniforms and traveled between cities in Pullman sleepers. They employ a strategy that hasn't been seen in major league baseball on a consistent basis since early in the 20th century.

Baseball sabermetricians such as Bill James have often stated that sacrifice hits are wasted outs and have helped devalue the play in modern baseball philosophy.

But considering that Texas is playing in a huge ballpark with players who aren't quite as proficient as their professional counterparts makes the play much more useful in college baseball than at the higher levels of the game.

"He's talking about major league players, professional players," Garrido said of James. "But we're talking about players who aren't nearly as experienced, not nearly as big or strong. The speed of this game is slower and the distances are extremely different.

"I do respect Bill James and have read a lot of his stuff. I know he knows some really cool things about this game. But the question is what works here."

[+] EnlargeAugie Garrido
John Rivera/Icon SMIAugie Garrido's small-ball focus might be old school, but it's working.

To prove his point, Garrido points out a series of statistics that would make James take notice. Despite having 22 fewer at-bats than their opponents this season, the Longhorns have 125 more hits and a mind-boggling 154 more runs.

"That's keeping people in scoring position so when you get a hit, you get a run," Garrido said. "This game is controlled by runs. We call it total offense. And when you do that you're going to be able to score."

The Longhorns turned around their first game of the TCU series with a run of three consecutive sacrifices. Two advanced runners, and on another play, the hitter reached base on a fielding error.

"I think productive outs are an important part of offense," Garrido said.

The Longhorns emphasize the bunting in 20-minute sessions at every practice in the preseason and at least twice each week during the season.

While some have mocked Garrido's "small ball" approach, it seems to be picking up across the Big 12. Tournament teams such as Texas A&M and Baylor have also included bunting in their team's pregame drills.

And while Garrido was pleased with his team's record-breaking performance against TCU, it didn't rate with his proudest moment in utilizing the bunt. That came in a 1984 College World Series game against Miami when five of his Cal State-Fullerton batters bunted in a row, rattling the opposing pitcher and the defense -- a springboard to a Titans national championship that season.

"We scored five runs and I bet none of the balls traveled over 60 feet," Garrido said. "The guy were playing had averaged about 15 strikeouts. They were yelling and screaming at us, but we just kept bunting. Power pitchers get mad when we do something like that. We're just doing it because we feel like it's a better way for us to control the game."

The strategy has always been a central part of Garrido's offensive philosophy. It has helped him win a Division I-record 1,714 games, including five national championships in four different decades.

"When you come to the University of Texas, you understand that," Torres said. "Coach Garrido has won a lot of games and been successful for a reason. If you are coming here, you are buying into what he is selling. And bunting just happens to be one of those things."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.