FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Bobby Valentine was watching Game 6 of the World Series last fall, he took note of Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis failing to execute a bunt in the second inning.
With runners on first and second and no outs, the Cardinals shifted their defense and had third baseman David Freese stand just a few feet off the plate. When Lewis bunted, Freese was in position to start a double play.
The Rangers, who needed one victory to claim the Series title, lost that game in extra innings. When the Cardinals went on to win the Series, Valentine couldn’t help but think that the failed bunt cost the Rangers a championship.
If only Lewis had shown bunt, then swung away, perhaps he might have advanced the runners. Or, at worst, caused Freese to back up a few steps.
Which explains why, on a sunny February morning during their first official workout of the new season, Red Sox pitchers were working on slashing at pitches in bunt situations.
Unconventional? You bet. But that’s the kind of thinking Valentine brings to the Red Sox.
“I think these guys want to be the world champions,’’ he said. “I just thought if they can work on a fundamental, a technique, now, of bunting and slashing, they can already have a foundation of what they might be asked to do.’’
The Red Sox pitchers will pick up a bat only a few times this spring. The larger point Valentine wanted to make was the need to be sound in all aspects of the game.
“He cares about the little things that can help you win the game,’’ righthander Clay Buchholz said. “We were pretty busy out there.’’
Valentine broke up the pitchers into groups, which meant less standing around and more repetitions. The groups also moved quickly from field to field, not quite at a full sprint but at a brisk pace.
Valentine was on the move himself, jogging from field to field to monitor the drills and occasionally offer advice. He seemed to take notice of everything.
“Just getting to know people,’’ he said. “There’s something different going on at every field, it’s a different fundamental. So we’re jotting down strengths and weakness, figuring out how we have to continue the workouts. I like to see guys.’’
In previous seasons, the Red Sox limited the number of throws the pitchers made during defensive drills out of fear of injury. Instead of throwing the ball, the pitchers would pretend to. Pitchers who were throwing in the bullpen that day also did fewer drills than the others.
Those ideas have been scrapped. All of the pitchers were throwing the ball during the drills as coaches recorded them with small digital video cameras. The idea behind that, Valentine explained, is to get a better sense of timing.
“If we’re going to practice something, I’d like to have it as close to game-real as possible,’’ he said. “Otherwise, why bother? It’s just to see it again, see it in slow motion if we want to.’’
Even the clubhouse televisions have a purpose. There are six high-definition sets hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room, three facing each side.
When the pitchers and catchers arrived, one television on each side was showing highlights of pitchers making fundamentally sound plays on balls hit back to the mound during games.
The continuous loop, which was edited together by video coordinator Billy Broadbent, was Valentine’s way of providing some positive reinforcement about why the fielding drills were important.
“They were looking at it,’’ Valentine said. “It’s cool.’’
As the Red Sox work on relays, rundowns, and other basic plays in the days to come, the televisions will show those being properly executed. Broadbent has a library of highlights ready to go.
Red Sox pitchers have been notoriously poor fielders for several years. They committed 21 errors in 2010 and last season had the fewest assists in the American League. Balls up the middle regularly were given the matador treatment.
“We weren’t really good at a lot of stuff other than pitching the ball, I guess,’’ Valentine said. “Hopefully we can improve on that. It might win a game or two.’’
Last year, the pitchers stopped working on defense when the season started, again out of fear of injury. But this year, whether they need it or not, the drills will be broken out from time to time.
“It’s as much a part of the game - covering first and fielding your position and turning two on comebackers - as hitting the home run,’’ Valentine said. “It’s got to be. It counts.’’
Valentine, who was up at 4 a.m. to prepare for the day, was thrilled that the Red Sox were off the field four minutes earlier then the schedule dictated.
“Good day,’’ he said. “Can’t wait for tomorrow.’’Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.