The bunt is a big part of Victor Robles’ game. He has seven bunt singles already this season, three more than any other player in the major leagues.
The hit-by-pitch, unfortunately, also is a big part of Robles’ game. He has been plunked eight times already this season, third-most in the majors.
And sometimes these two truths are connected, with potentially frightening results. As was the case during the bottom of the fourth Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park.
With runners on first and second and one out, Robles squared around to bunt, looking to push the ball to the right side and past the pitcher’s mound, all but guaranteeing himself a hit if he executed it well. The problem: Sandy Alcantara’s 96 mph fastball tailed high-and-inside, just as Robles was leaning over the plate to bunt.
He dropped to the ground in a heap and the crowd of 33,163 fell into hushed silence as plate umpire Tim Timmons signaled to the Nationals dugout for a trainer.
“I heard it,” manager Davey Martinez said of the ball striking Robles, seemingly in the face. “I just hoped that he wasn’t severely hurt. Tim, the home plate umpire, did a good job just telling him to stay down until the trainer comes. We didn’t know what happened.”
Within seconds, though, Robles was back on his feet and trotting down the first base line. The ball did get him in the face, but miraculously it only grazed his chin.
“Very, very, very close,” the rookie center fielder said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I definitely did get scared. I thought to myself: I’m going to be missing some teeth. But luckily it was just a scare and nothing else.”
Robles dodged a bullet - literally - this time, but the Nationals are rightfully concerned he won’t be so lucky next time.
“He works on bunting every day. He’s just got to be careful,” Davey Martinez said. “Those balls that are in, that are running in, he’s right on top of home plate. So he’s got to be really careful. We know a guy that can throw the ball 95-plus and run the ball in there. It might not be a smart idea for him to bunt.”
One potential safeguard would be for Robles to add a protective flap to his helmet, one that covers the left side of his face like several big leaguers have begun using in recent years.
Robles isn’t real keen on using the flap, though, in part because it restricts his view of a pitch and in part because it wouldn’t have made a difference on Saturday’s play, when the ball actually came closest to the right side of his face because he had squared around and was facing the pitch head-on.
“In that situation, what happened today, I don’t think it would’ve been useful anyways,” he said. “Because it would’ve hit me on the opposite side.”
The issue, then, might be of technique. Instead of squaring himself to the pitcher, perhaps Robles would be safer staying with a closed stance, using his front shoulder as protection for his face. Again, though, he doesn’t seem inclined to start altering such things on the fly, not when he’s been successful getting bunts down the way he’s always done it.
If that means there’s the occasional scare ... well, Robles is willing to take that risk.
“I’ve always said that a pitch that hits me is not going to change my aggressiveness in how I play the game and how I go about it,” the 22-year-old said. “I leave everything in God’s hands, and whatever happens, happens. But I’m not going to change the way I play.”