Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

When Unwritten Rules Collide: Proper Shift Etiquette During a No-No

You don’t break up a no-hitter with a bunt. It’s a cornerstone of baseball’s unwritten rules. I’m giving you my best as a pitcher, and I expect your best as a hitter, the theory goes, and with this much on the line, ticky-tack small-ball tricks hardly count as anyone’s best.

Except for one caveat: If it’s a close game, everything’s in bounds. If your team needs a baserunner, then by golly you go out and become that baserunner the most effective way you know how.

On Monday, the Padres added another caveat to the list. With Andrew Cashner working a no-no one out into the fifth, Dominic Brown pushed a bunt down the left field line. Nobody came close to making a play, and Brown was on with a single. It was only a 1-0 game, and as the possible tying run Brown had every right to do what he did.

Especially when the Padres put on the freaking shift.

Which brings us to No-Hitter Etiquette Exception No. 2: If You Don’t Want a Guy to Get a Hit, Try to Avoid Making the Process Unduly Easy for Him.  That this is the Padres—at this point known primarily as the only franchise never to throw a no-no—makes it all the worse. Since the Padres came on the scene in 1969, they’ve been at the wrong end of nine of them. The Dodgers have thrown two this season.  The St. Louis Terriers, who played in the Federal League in 1914-15, have a no-hitter to their name. But not the Padres.

And still, manager Bud Black put on the shift. When Brown bunted the ball down the third base line, it was fait accompli.  Alexi Amarista was the closest guy to it as it rolled down the line, and he was playing shortstop. At the very least, Black was defying the baseball gods by ignoring another no-hitter rule: Don’t change anything up—not a spot on the bench between innings, not a guy warming up in the pen, and especially not an overt defensive assignment.

Which brings us to the third rule the Padres broke. That would be, Don’t Complain When Somebody Exploits your Shift During a No-Hitter. Especially When it’s 1-0. Cashner was visibly displeased on the mound, but settled down to end the inning. (He eventually gave up a second hit, to Marlon Byrd.) There was some dugout grumbling and the fans booed wildly. (Which is not to say that everybody in the home clubhouse was crying. “This is baseball,” said catcher Rene Rivera in an report. “If you’re going to give a guy that side of the infield, why not take your hit?”)

It brings to mind that only two seasons ago, Jarrod Saltalamacchia also bunted against a shift to break up a no-hitter, which, like this one, was a fine thing to do. It also brings to mind that earlier this season, Colby Lewis got upset when somebody bunted to break up his no-hitter in the fifth inning, despite it being a perfectly acceptable thing to do. What it really brings to mind, though, is the most famous no-hitter-destroying bunt in history, which also involved the Padres, though in 2001 it was one of their own doing the bunting. And Ben Davis didn’t even bunt into a shift when he did it.

As for Brown, he said afterward that he wouldn’t have bunted had it been the ninth inning, but in the fifth all bets are on the table. It showed good awareness of the rules, though it probably won’t buy him any goodwill from the Padres fans who were ignorant enough to boo him in the first place.


Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Oakland A's, The First Hit of a Game Must be Clean

1972: A’s Unhappy Over Bunt that Broke up Vida’s No-No

Vida TimeResearch for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest is from Oakland Tribune beat writer Ron Bergman, on Aug. 1, 1972. Of note is that A’s players did not appear to be upset over a bunt as the game’s first hit so much as the official scorer’s unwillingness to call it an error:

Vida Blue retired the first 17 men he faced before opposing pitcher Rich Hand [of the Texas Rangers] laid down a bunt with two out in the sixth inning. The score was 1-0 at the time. Third baseman Sal Bando swooped in to pick up the ball, stumbled off balance when it landed in his glove and then couldn’t extract it. By the time he plucked it out for an errant throw to first base, it was too late.

Official scorer Joe Sargis of UPI called it a hit, which took some courage. A line drive single by pinch-hitter Toby Harrah on the first pitch of the ninth didn’t mitigate the anger in the A’s clubhouse.

Blue seem to be the least disturbed.

“A hit is a hit, “Vida said. “No hits or 55 hits, you’ve still got to get 27 outs.”

“It should have been an error,” Bando declared. “I couldn’t get the ball out of my glove. I threw it over there to give them a chance to call it an error. I’ve seen games in which something like that is called an error, and if there’s another hit they go back and change the first call. The first hit is supposed to be a clean hit. I think that if that was called an error, Vida would have pitched a no-hitter.”

“We all were sure it would be called an error,” A’s manager Dick Williams told Sargis.

Hand said he saw Bando back up after the first pitch, “so I decided to give the bunt a whirl. It was a hit all the way, as clear as it’s going to be. I don’t see what they’re yelling about over there. They won, didn’t they?”

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Perfecto Broken Up by Bunt … and for Once That’s Okay

Boston, a day after getting gut-punched 20-2 by the Oakland A’s, had mustered not so much as a baserunner with two outs in the fifth inning Saturday against right-hander A.J. Griffin.

Frustration was inevitable, but was it sufficient to explain why Jarrod Saltalamacchia would bunt in the middle of a perfect game? The Red Sox catcher did, and reached base safely, which seems like a no-brainer: The guy was in clear violation of the Code. Heck, he even had a parallel with the most famous perfect game breaker-upper in history, Ben Davis—another catcher, who pulled the trick against Curt Schilling in 2001.

There was, however, a notable difference: For some unexplainable reason, A’s manager Bob Melvin had put on a defensive shift. With third baseman Adam Rosales positioned where the shortstop usually stands, Saltalamacchia was given the same kind of wide-open invitation all left-handed batters receive in that situation: an easy base hit with a well-placed bunt. Saltalamacchia, who has all of three sacrifice bunts in his career—all in 2007—took him up on the offer. (Watch it here, starting at the 1:03 mark.)

If the theory behind the governing rule is that a team’s first hit should be above board, with no gimmickry involved, then it should only follow that the defensive positioning of the pitcher’s team should follow suit. When Melvin opted not to play things straight up—despite holding a 5-0 lead—his opposition can hardly be faulted for acting similarly.

Melvin acknowledged as much after the game. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

To Griffin’s credit, the pitcher appeared to not hold any grudges. “It’s a good way to try to get momentum for your team,” he said. “There’s not anything I can do about it except try to get the next guy. Whatever.” (Bobby Valentine, who has far bigger controversies to consider than this one, added the sentiment, “Who cares?”)

There’s lots of blame to go around for Boston’s misery this season, but not on this play. If Griffin has a beef with anybody, it should be Bob Melvin.

Ben Davis, Curt Schilling, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Tenth Anniversary of an Unwritten Rule Violation People Still Delight in Referencing

Today marks a decade since Ben Davis bunted on Curt Schilling. If that reference fails to ring a bell, you clearly have some catching up to do. Might I suggest your nearest copy of The Baseball Codes, from which the following passage is excerpted:

Davis came up in the eighth inning as the twenty-third hitter to face Curt Schilling, entirely cognizant that his team was 0-for-22 to that point. Because swinging the bat against the big right-hander had not yet paid dividends, Davis switched gears and, noting the deep positioning of third baseman Craig Counsell, laid down a bunt. Although the execution was lacking—Davis popped the ball up, just over Schilling’s head—the hit nonetheless fell between the mound and second baseman Jay Bell, who was also stationed deep. Davis safely reached base with his team’s first hit.

The Arizona bench exploded at the audacity, calling the player gutless and intoning that he was afraid to take his hacks like a man. To judge the play by the unwritten rules, the Diamondbacks had a point. “The first hit of a no-hitter is not a bunt,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Jack­son fifteen years earlier, in 1986, after Angels rookie Devon White attempted to break up his own no-hitter with a failed eighth-inning bunt attempt. “I don’t know how long he’s been around,” Jackson said about the outfielder, “but he’s got to go down.” Arizona manager Bob Brenly felt the same way about Ben Davis, calling the play “chickenshit” and saying that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

“It wasn’t the heat of the pennant race in September, or something like that,” said Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. “They say every game counts, but when a guy’s doing something masterful like that, if you get a hit you want to earn it in the right way.” Third baseman Matt Williams said he wouldn’t have done it. First baseman Mark Grace said that, although he didn’t fault Davis, if it was him he wouldn’t have had the balls. Schilling was “a little stunned” at the move; his experience taught him that players should earn their way on base in that type of situation.

There was, however, a mitigating factor. The score of the game was 2–0, and when Davis reached base it brought the tying run to the plate. The Padres clearly hadn’t been getting it done against Schilling in any other regard, so from a strategic standpoint Davis’s approach worked. “I don’t know if you saw my swings against him . . . ,” the catcher said. “I’m just trying to get on base any way I can right there, and I did.”

“What if it’s the seventh game of the World Series? Would they or any­body be upset?” asked Padres manager Bruce Bochy. “No, because that’s a huge game and you’re trying to win.” Arizona, he said, wanted the Padres to “drop our weapons and raise our hands.”

Even Schilling grasped both sides of the argument. Though stopping short of taking Davis’s side, he expressed understanding for those who did. “Whether I agree with it being the right thing to do or not is not really relevant,” he said. “It was a 2–0 game. . . . If it’s 9–0, yeah, I think it’s a horseshit thing to do. But it was a 2–0 game and the bottom line is, unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games. That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

One interesting aspect of the play was that even among the ranks of baseball’s old guard—guys who lived for and played by the Code—there was hardly unanimity of opinion. Cases were made both for and against Davis, with precedents cited from every generation—like the bunt by Milwaukee catcher Bill Schroeder that broke up a 1987 no-hitter by Roy­als left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the sixth inning. Nineteen years after that, when Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist bunted for his team’s first hit in the sixth inning of a game against Seattle’s Jerrod Washburn, the pitcher himself agreed that nothing improper had transpired. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” Washburn said, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

The Schilling-Davis affair, however, was full of gray area. Some base­ball people will accept a no-hitter-spoiling bunt if bunting is an estab­lished part of the hitter’s offensive repertoire—but Ben Davis was hardly a bunter. In fact, said Brenly, “That was the only time Ben Davis ever tried to bunt for a base hit to my recollection. . . . For a backup catcher who had never bunted for a base hit before in his life to do it, I thought that was unnecessary to begin with, and disrespectful, to top it off.”

The notion of disrespect stems from the fact that Davis clearly took advantage of Counsell’s extra-deep positioning, as the infielder attempted to protect against hard-hit balls that might otherwise have shot by him. Counsell felt safe at that range because he thought there was little chance that a runner as slow as Davis would so blatantly violate the unwritten rules.

Part of the problem was that Davis’s bunt wasn’t even good enough to benefit from Counsell’s positioning. “I was mad that it was such a bad bunt and was still a hit,” said Schilling. “He bunted as bad a ball as you can bunt, to the most perfect spot in the infield to bunt it. . . . I never said it was a horseshit play. I thought it was a horseshit bunt.”

Once the dust settled a bit, the last man standing at the center of the controversy wasn’t Schilling or even Davis—it was Brenly, who, as the most outspoken critic of the play, was left in its aftermath to defend his initial anger. He has since softened his stance, even going so far as to admit that much of his posturing was simply a matter of standing up for his pitcher, to make sure that “Curt Schilling knew that I was looking out for his interests.”

Still, years after the fact, he had a question for which he says he never received an adequate answer: “If it’s such a good fuckin’ play, why didn’t he do it every time?”

– Jason

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Felix Hernandez, Julio Borbon

Bunt on King Felix? Preposterous!

It’s perpetually incredible that major league players can be unclear on the sport’s primary unwritten rules. Some claim complete ignorance, some apathy. Some are simply too green to have heard of them.

Occasionally, however, a player will think he knows the rules when in fact he’s a bit hazier on the topic than he’d care to admit.

Take Felix Hernandez, who, in the middle of a would be no-hitter against Texas on Friday, got up on his high horse about a Code violation that wasn’t really a violation at all.

Julio Borbon bunted.

We hear it frequently: Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter. Give a pitcher your best effort, because enduring mound performances deserve no less. The concept rose to prominence in 2001, when Padres catcher Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game with a bunt, and all hell broke loose from the Arizona clubhouse.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Hernandez said in the Everett Herald, about Borbon’s effort. “Sixth inning and a guy is throwing a no-hitter, it’s disrespect.”

It’s a decent rule, especially if it’s late in the game (as was the case with Davis) and the guy bunting doesn’t make ordinary practice of the tactic (as was also the case with Davis).

Borbon, however, has some speed. And the game was still in the middle innings.

More importantly, the Rangers trailed only 2-0 at the time. Borbon’s effort, had it been successful, would have brought the tying run to the plate, something the rest of his teammates had been unable to do to that point in the game.

In this case (and in that of Davis, who also bunted facing a 2-0 deficit), winning trumps all. Do what you must to win the game.

We’ve seen the tactic unsuccessfully attempted at least twice this year, by Gordon Beckham (against Chicago’s Ted Lilly, whose no-no was broken up later in the game) and Evan Longoria (in the middle of Dallas Braden’s perfect game).

The guy who had it absolutely correct: Borbon.

“What was I supposed to do, let him have it his way?” he said in an report. “I realize he was throwing a no-hitter, but I wasn’t getting out of my game. If the game was one-sided it might be different, but in a close game like that, it could be a difference-maker.

“I was trying to get it down and get something going. I wasn’t worried about the no-hitter. If we were down six, seven eight runs, I’m going to swing the bat. But down 2-0 in the sixth inning, I don’t think I was being disrespectful to him or the game or to anybody. I was trying to do something for the team.”

Just like he was supposed to.

– Jason

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Gordon Beckham, Ozzie Guillen, Ted Lilly

Bunt it Like Beckham; ChiSox Infielder Tries to Break up No-No with a Bunt

There was a chance for unprecedented greatness Sunday night at Wrigley Field, as White Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd no-hit the Cubs into the seventh inning, while Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly took a no-hitter of his own into the ninth.

The unwritten rules, however, were exploited in the eighth inning, when White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham tried to get his team’s first hit . . . with a bunt.

The precedent for this is well established—one does not bunt for his team’s first hit, unless the game’s close enough to merit a baserunner by any means possible.

This game was a pitchers’ duel with a pitchers’-duel score—the Cubs led, 1-0—affording Beckham the leeway to do whatever he could to reach base.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy the Wrigley Field crowd, which booed the play with vigor. The fact that Beckham didn’t even get the bunt down (it went foul), and eventually popped out, didn’t make a lick of difference.

The most interesting take on the situation came from Ozzie Guillen (no surprise), who chose to avoid walking the appropriate line (don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter except in close contests), the hard line (don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter ever) and the apathetic line (bunt whenever you want, under any circumstances).

Instead, he spouted an unwritten rule that he could well have made up on the spot.

“If you bunt in the ninth that’s not professional, but in the eighth . . . but Wrigley Field people, that’s the only thing they can do is boo,” Guillen said in the Peoria Journal Star. “They boo for every freaking thing here. That’s part of the game, but the ninth, that’s kind of a different thing.”

Guillen did have something of a point in that a recent example of such a play—Ben Zobrist breaking up the 2006 no-hit attempt of Seattle pitcher Jarrod Washburn with a sixth-inning bunt—drew condemnation from neither Washburn or his manager, Mike Hargrove, owing to the fact that it came in the game’s middle innings, with a 2-0 score.

There was a guy on the White Sox bench, however, who appeared to be cognizant of the actual Code. Juan Pierre broke up Lilly’s gem with a clean single in the ninth (watch it here), and admitted that he had ruled out bunting as an option.

”I wasn’t going to bunt there, and there was some pressure there because that was the first time I was involved in something that late in a game where a guy has a no-hitter against a team I’m playing for,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

While it’s possible that Pierre was referencing something strategic, there’s a good chance he was simply being cognizant of the Code. (Inquiries have been lodged. Updates as new information becomes available.)

Heck, Pierre might have a better grasp of this than his manager.

– Jason

Dallas Braden, Dallas Braden, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Evan Longoria, No-Hitter Etiquette

Details Emerge from Braden’s Perfect Game; He Dropped the Ball

The A’s left town for a week an hour after Dallas Braden’s perfect game on Mother’s Day, leaving many questions about no-hitter etiquette to wait for their return.

I tracked Braden down this afternoon before the A’s hosted Seattle, to pick up some of the particulars. The most controversial play of the game was Evan Longoria’s fifth-inning bunt attempt that ultimately rolled foul. It would have been easy to condemn the strategy had it come later in the game or with a more lopsided score, but even Braden conceded that Longoria was well within his rights.

“It was early in the game, and he was trying to get some things going for his offense,” he said. “Later in the game, maybe with multiple outs, it might be a different story. But I respect what he did. That’s him understanding something has to happen right now, and it has to be sooner rather than later, and he didn’t want to wait around for someone else to get it going. It actually speaks to what kind of a leader he’s trying to become. He’s very savvy, a good player, and he wants to get something going. From a competitor’s standpoint, you have to respect that.”

Longoria’s bunt might have been the most prominent Code-related play, but it had already received considerable attention through the ensuing week. Much less discussed was the no-hitter etiquette observed in the A’s dugout.

Because Braden’s not chatty on days he pitches, especially during the game, it was hardly surprising to find out that his teammates didn’t come anywhere near him as the innings whiled by. (“I did notice that nobody was even looking at me,” he said. “I didn’t make eye contact with one person.”)

He did, however, drop the ball.

Before each inning, plate umpire Jim Wolf tossed a ball to Braden, who, as is his habit, caught it in front of the mound, removed his glove and rubbed it up as he ascended to the rubber.

Until the ninth inning, when he accidentally let it fall.

“(Reliever) Brad Ziegler told me in the shower that out in the bullpen, everybody went ‘Whooooooooa,’ ” Braden said. “He said, ‘I just want to let you know, I watched you drop the ball, and we all lost it out there.’ ”

“It was one of those weird things, because everything else he did that day was, well, perfect,” said reliever Michael Wuertz. “But obviously, thankfully, it didn’t have any effect.”

Even though members of the bullpen were physically separated from Braden, they maintained strict silence when it came to discussing what was happening on the field . . . until Ziegler nearly ruined it in the sixth inning, after Gabe Kapler’s epic 12-pitch at-bat.

Said Ziegler: “I looked down at (fellow reliever) Jerry Blevins and said, ‘Hey . . .’ And Blevins just started shaking his head, like he didn’t want to talk to me. Still, I said, ‘Was Kapler the guy who hit the ball that Dewayne Wise caught in the Buehrle perfect game (in 2009)?” (Kapler’s drive was indeed snared by Wise on the far side of the outfield fence, and returned to the field of play for a perfect-game-saving catch.)

Blevins didn’t respond. Luckily, he didn’t have to.

While nobody referenced the perfect game Braden was throwing, Ziegler received affirmation from the bullpen’s Killer B’s—Bailey, Blevins and Breslow—that it had indeed been Kapler who nearly ruined another perfect game.

The unwritten rule about referencing a no-hitter in progress is vague when it comes to referencing a no-hitter other than the one being thrown. Should someone want to point toward such a thing as a potential jinx, that’s their superstitious right.

In the Code vs. Brad Ziegler, however, the ruling is clearly in Ziegler’s favor.  No jinxing was done, so no fingers need be pointed.

– Jason