Gene Mauch had simple math that showed a team scoring first in a big-league game won nearly 60 percent of the time. For that reason, Mauch was more than willing to bunt in the first inning ... a strategy that proved to be quite an adjustment for Twins owner Calvin Griffith and his brothers.
Mauch came to Minnesota as the manager for the 1976 season. I was the beat reporter for the St. Paul newspapers and also had a fondness for Tanqueray gin at that time. Fortunately, they poured that elixir in what was called the Twins Room.
This was an area off the Met Stadium's basement corridor where hospitality took place for team officials (home and visitors), scouts and reporters..
I was a regular for the fine dining pregame, and the fine drinking postgame, and often got to hear Calvin's kid brothers, the twins Jimmy and Billy Robertson, complain of a Mauch "giving away an out'' early in a game with a sacrifice bunt. They believed in the baseball bromide that a team played for a big inning early, and for one run later on, if it was a close game.
Free agency was at its infancy in 1976 and Mauch walked into a situation where it was clear the Twins were going to trade pitching ace Bert Blyleven. Mauch helped point the deal to Texas, where the Twins acquired a group of players that included Roy Smalley. He was playing second base in Texas, but it was Mauch's intention to move Smalley -- who happened to be his nephew -- to shortstop.
Mauch installed Smalley as the No. 2 hitter, between Lyman Bostock and Rod Carew, and the first-inning bunts started to come with regularity. Smalley had an astounding 22 successful sacrifices in 113 games. In official baseball parlance, a successful sacrifice is called a '"acrifice hit,'' even though it generally results in an out.
Mauch also was managing in 1979 when second baseman Rob Wilfong -- hitting lower in the order -- set a club record that stands with 25 sacrifice hits. These weren't all on orders from Mauch. The Fong was a wonderful bunter, and he would drag a bunt with no outs, resulting in either a base hit or in advancing the runner.
I liked Mauch greatly and appreciated the baseball knowledge that he passed along during his five seasons in Minnesota. That said, the DH was already in existence and I was not a fan of the sacrifice. I was a believer in the Earl Weaver theory of not giving away outs and playing for big innings.
Of course, Earl would bunt with his light-hitting, wonderful-fielding shortstop Mark Belanger, because the other option generally was a weak grounder or a pop-up.
Which brings us to Opening Day at Target Field, and the lineup that manager Ron Gardenhire will use on a wickedly cold Monday against Detroit's Justin Verlander.
The big change, and the decision the manager seems to have arrived at late in this Florida stay, is moving Joe Mauer to second in the order. This is a delightful happening for those MoneyBallers who believe scoring runs is all about on-base percentage.
I'm not a MoneyBaller, per se, but I do like Mauer hitting there --mas long it doesn't mean Aaron Hicks, the swift rookie, is restricted in his ability to run because the Twins want to avoid disturbing Mauer's routine as a hitter.
I'm in favor of sending runners with Joe at the plate, in order to turn seven or eight of those 4-6-3s into first-and-thirds over the course of a season.
If Mauer batting second is permanent (we all now how quick Gardy is to change back to what's been comfortable for him), it means that second baseman Brian Dozier will be hitting eighth and shortstop Pedro Florimon will be hitting ninth.
That's where the "sacrifice hit'' could have a Mauch-like reincarnation for the Twins. If you see Dozier getting on base to lead off the third inning, I'd guess the odds are strong there's going to be a bunt from Florimon. He's a glove man, not a hitter, with a track record for bunting -- 13 successful sacrifices in the minors a number of years back, and 13 more in the minors and with the Twins in 2012.
Of course, this would require the Twins' starters to have kept the dreaded crooked numbers off the board in the early innings, to make getting one run a feasible option. But if it's a tight game and Dozier is on base with no outs, Florimon will be a bunting option that even we believers in the Earl of Baltimore's rules for run scoring will buy into.
I also know that, if the sacrifice comes too early in the game, somewhere in the great beyond Jimmy and Billy will be grumbling about the manager.
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