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Coaching Softball - All About the Short Game

By Ken Krause

Most Fastpitch players and coaches are very familiar with at least the basics of the short game. With pitchers standing 40 to 43 feet away blasting all kinds of nasty pitches at you at 60 plus mph, the ability to bunt is sometimes your best chance of making control and scoring. Especially since teams used to playing behind awesome pitchers who strike out 16 batters a game often tend to be a bit rusty on their fielding skills. Nothing does an offense’s heart better than to lay down three or four good bunts in a row and watch the defense proceed to throw the ball into the parking lot. That’s as good as a double, and a lot more deflating for the defense, who basically wants to let Sally or Solly Smoke do their thing while they try to see how far they can spit the sunflower seeds they snuck onto the field. Bunting is a very important skill to master for any softball player.

 

The Basic Bunt: The basic technique as it’s taught in most places is slidethe top hand up the bat, pinch the bat between the thumb and forefinger, and let the bat hit the ball. (This technique is also known as point the gun and pull the trigger, or at least it was before we had to worry about being politically correct.) Back in my playing days, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, we were told to go all the way up the barrel of the bat to hold it.  How stupid was that? No wonder most hitters hated bunting. But even now when the top hand only has to go until the bat starts to get wider, it’s still not that great a technique.

For one thing, in case you hadn’t noticed, your thumb and forefinger aren’t all that strong. A 60 mph pitch will tend to push the bat back further into the top hand, slamming it against the space between the thumb and forefinger, which probably has a name but as I said before I’m too lazy to look it up. That makes practicing the technique about as pleasant as getting a cavity filled. Ask any hitter who’s had to do 20 in a row. If that doesn’t convince your coaches, pushing the barrel of the bat back also angles the bat to make the ball go foul, thereby giving away your brilliant strategy of bunting with a runner on first and nobody out, as if everyone in the place including your player’s little sister didn’t know that was coming.

A few years back, our Mundelin Thunder organization switched from that old school technique to a much better one we picked up at a coach’s clinic. We’ve since modified and improved it, and our success rate on bunts has gone up considerably.


Here’s what you do.

As the pitch is delivered, the batter pivots both feet as if she plans to run out and tackle the pitcher. The front foot pivots on the heel, and the back foot pivots on the ball of the foot. While she’s pivoting, she opens her hands and lets the bat slide through until the top hand reaches the fat part of the bat, and finishes with both hands together. Her final position has her leaning forwards, weight on the balls of her feet, feet spread apart slightly, bat at the top of the strike zone with the barrel a little higher than the hands and her arms extended but not locked. This is an awesome position to see the ball, control the bat, and lay the bunt down as needed. You can also do the feet side - by - side pivot, but that’s not nearly as versatile a position as this one, so why bother?

The question we also get asked is: “Won’t an inside pitch hit her hands if they’re wrapped around the bat like that?” To answer it, if a pitch comes toward her in such a way that it will hit her hands, hitting her hands is the least of her worries. She’ll be bailing out to avoid catching it in the mouth or chest instead.

Since the plan is to hit the ball with the end of the bat, not the sweet spot, we can cover the inside half of the plate right from here. If the pitch is outside, it’s a simple matter to extend the bat out a little further to cover it. If the pitch is lower than the hands, keep the bat in the same position and bend the knees to go down after it. Never just lower the bat. That’s almost sure to result in an easy popup. If the pitch is higher than the hands, pull the bat back and lay off it. Sure, the rules say if you don’t offer it’s not a strike, but never count on the umpire to interpret it that way. Pulling back makes a clear statement about your intentions.

This is a great technique for laying down a soft, sure bunt. It’s easy to control direction too. That’s important, because a smart, accomplished bunter always sizes up the defense before stepping in, looking for the best location to bunt.

Where to place it. All you Dads who used to play baseball, take note: the third base line is usually a bad place to bunt, because every coach who knows the game plays the third baseman at least 1/3 of the way up the line, if not half way. But if third base is playing back to cover a steal from second, then the third baseline becomes a great place to go with it. If you have a first baseman who’s playing back to cover the bag, the first base line is a great place, especially if the pitcher isn’t very agile either.

If there’s no clear choice, the default location is straight ahead, 10 feet in front of the plate. The reason is you want the pitcher to field it. Her first job is to pitch, so she may not be ready to field. Also, while pitchers spend a lot of time practicing pitching, they often don’t spend enough practicing fielding. They figure that’s what those other people are for. Keep bunting at that pitcher and she’s likely to give you the throw into right field that you need to score a runner from second.

Why always sacrifice? In my personal opinion, the sacrifice bunt is one of the most over-used plays in  Fastpitch softball. If you really make a commitment to bunting, and practice it with the same intensity you use for hitting, why would you automatically want to give up and out? Why not go with the surprise bunt to move the runner instead? Make the defense hang back, then drop the bunt. After all, would you rather have a runner on second with one out or runners on first and second with no outs?

My son Eric used this to his advantage a couple of years ago in a baseball tournament. With a runner on third, he was called on to bunt. Since his Dad coaches softball, he was well versed in the technique above. Instead of sacrificing, he executed a perfect surprise bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base. Both the first baseman and the pitcher went for the ball and Eric, who’s pretty fast, scampered up the line for a hit. The run scored, and another run was now on first base. The reason he could do it is because he practiced it, and was confident in his ability to execute it. To execute a surprise bunt, you need to hold back until the pitch is about to be released. It’s not easy to get the timing that lets you get into a good bunt position in that short a period, but it can be done with practice. Find out the longest time you can hold out before moving, and practice making it shorter. It’s a great advantage to have. Of course, if a sacrifice is called for, show it early and make absolutely sure you can get the bunt down.

The basic bunt is, well, a basic need for every team. But that’s not all there is to the short game.

Telling Fastpitch softball players about the short game is sort of like telling people who live in Chicago about wearing parkas in the winter. You don’t really need to, because it won’t take long until they figure it out themselves.

Yet for many in the game, their short game follows a pretty set formula. Get a runner on first with no outs any way you can, even if it means Wanda Weak Bat has to “take one for the team.” Then sacrifice bunt the runner to second, follow it with yet another sacrifice, and hope the pitcher fields it and launches a rocket into right field so you can get the runner home.

Pretty predictable. In fact, it’s almost as predictable as anyone who finds out Clark’s secret on Smallville winding up dead or insane by the end of the episode. Just once I’d like to see the person knocked out and stuck on a plane to Fiji, if for no other reason than variety’s sake. Or better yet, how about Clark does a better job of hiding it, like he does in the comic books? But I digress.

There are ways to use this general lack of imagination among Fastpitch coaches to gain an advantage, though. As Sun Tsu said, “An enemy’s predictability is your greatest weapon against him.” Actually, I just made that up, but it sounds good and admit it, it made me sound smarter, if only for a second.

You have to start from the basic bunt, which we covered in Part One. If you haven’t read that article, I suggest you go back and read it. Being able to execute the basic bunt is essential to making your short game work. Following are a couple of variations that will transform your short game from predictable to awesome.

Push Bunt: Go back again to the start of the scenario in the second paragraph above. You have a runner on first with nobody out. The situation calls for a sacrifice bunt, and your batter follows the script by getting into bunt position as the pitcher starts her motion. What does the defense do? Odds are, everybody starts moving into bunt defense position. First and third base start moving in for the bunt. Second base starts moving to cover first, and shortstop starts moving to cover second (if the team is aggressive on defense) or third (if they’re not).

This leaves giant holes where second base and shortstop used to be.  So instead of laying down the bunt, the batter pulls the bat back to the chest, takes a quick step forward with the back leg, and when the back foot lands, push the bat forward hard, directing the ball toward the hole at second. The motion of the bat is similar to punching both fists at an imaginary opponent directly in front of the batter. Having the two hands together makes for a stronger punch than the tradition split hands bunt.

Assuming the batter makes contact, this creates utter chaos in the infield, as second base must now abandon first and try to track down the ball as everyone starts shouting. The runner on first should be planning to go not to second, but to third, and looking at the possibility of going home. More aggressive and confident teams can even send the runner at first on a straight steal to gain an even better jump on third (or home).

One of the cool things about this is it also negates another Fastpitch 101 defensive strategy - throw a high pitch in a bunt situation. A high pitch on a push bunt often results in more of a line drive. If it’s too high, the ball will probably fly back quickly into the backstop rather than being popped up due to the sharp forward motion of the bat.

Of course, this begs the question “what if you’re not successful in executing the push bunt?” You’ve probably still helped your cause, because you’ll freeze the defense in their normal positions. The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” becomes their theme song. Now, if you want to lay down that bunt, you have a better chance of making it work. If you added the straight steal, the forward motion of the batter and the punch forward of the hands helped cover the steal by distracting the catcher. Lots of good here, whether you execute it right or not.

Fake Bunt and Slap: Techniques like this one are why you need a third baseman who has a bit of a Marine mentality - we’ll take Hill 405 at any cost. Sir! Same base running situation, and once again the batter should bunt early to get the defense moving. But this time, she uses her wrists and forearms to pull the bat back to her inside ( or back ) shoulder, then takes a quick, short swing at the ball as it comes in. Don’t go all the way back to a hitting position - it takes too long and makes it harder to execute.

Seeing the swing will likely freeze the third  baseman and first baseman, and cause their respective parents to quickly check their insurance cards to see if dental is covered. The batter wants to swing down on the ball to get a ground ball that again scoots through the infield quickly, through the holes left when second base and shortstop started moving to cover the bunt they were expecting.

If it is executed properly, the ball shoots through the hole at second or short, and the runner on first goes to third while the batter takes first. If the outfield is playing in tight for the bunt, try to get the ball toward the hole at short, since the left fielder will have a longer throw and probably isn’t used to throwing to first. You might get lucky and have the ball go into the parking lot. If you’re really lucky, it will hit the car of a first year parent, because any experienced parent knows better than to park anywhere near first base, even if it looks like a primo space.

If the batter doesn’t make contact, she’s still given first and third base something new to think about besides throwing her out at first. Namely, a smile a hockey player would be proud to own. You might just get them to stay back far enough to make a bunt work. Or what the heck - it’s a short swing, try it again. This technique can help you stay in the game when the pitcher is throwing smoke, because it’s easier to make contact with a short swing than a full blown one. And oh yes, once again you’ve provided good cover on a steal at second.

Suicide Squeeze: This is one of the most exciting plays in softball. Runner on third, less than two outs. As the pitch is delivered, the runner on third base takes off on a straight steal of home. The batter pivots and lays down a bunt. Chaos ensues, and if you put enough surprise in it the runner scores easily.

The hard part is the batter has to know her job is to make contact with the ball no matter what. If it’s a high pitch, or in the dirt, foul it off. You either need a bunt or a foul ball, because if the catcher gets the ball and sees the runner coming in, the runner is going to be unbelievably out. And every fan on both sides of the game will be wondering what in the world the coach was smoking when he called THAT play.

These techniques and plays should help give you some new firepower for your offense. Try them early in the season and you may find they become favorites.


 
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