It’s a familiar sight for Eau Claire Express fans. Anybody who’s been to a game or two this summer has likely seen it.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound outfielder steps into the left-handed batter’s box. Within a matter of seconds, he’s hovering the bat out in front of the plate.
His bunt rolls softly down the third base line, too short for the third baseman to reach but too far for the pitcher to get to in time. Without hitting the ball out of the infield, Zach Gilles is safely aboard at first base.
And the speedster will threaten to do it again the next time he’s in the box.
Bunting is a huge part of the Chippewa Falls native’s game. It always has been, even going back to his early years in the sport. And the difficult-to-master skill has turned him into one of college baseball’s best hit-for-average players.
“It’s part of my game,” Gilles said. “I’ve always used the bunt tool, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it since starting college. I just play to my game, play to my strengths.”
Gilles hit .351 this spring for Central Michigan University, which placed him among the top 110 hitters in Division I baseball by batting average, according to D1baseball.com.
He’s doing even better with the Express this summer. Entering Sunday, he carried a .398 average. His arrival midway through the season has been a huge part of Eau Claire’s second-half surge to the postseason.
And much of his success has come from either bunting or baiting opposing defenses into thinking he’s bunting before knocking a hit past them.
Bunting, particularly for a hit, isn’t easy. But once Gilles developed a knack for it, it has become a satisfying — and dangerous — tool to use.
“It’s a lot of technique, I learned that this year,” Gilles said. “I used to be an average bunter, but then my coach took me through the right footwork and getting the right pitch to bunt, and that helped lead to better bunts.”
Being as quick out of the box as Gilles is doesn’t hurt either.
“He’s got plus-plus speed. That’s really what it comes down to,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “He’s always been able to really run, and that’s never changed.”
And even though defenses have begun to expect him to square around every time he steps into the box, Gilles still finds ways to make them pay. He also has a knack for finding the barrel of the bat when he decides it’s time to take some hacks.
But the bunt is always an option.
“That just adds points to your average when you’re able to bunt like that with that speed,” Express catcher David LaManna said. “(Gilles) has probably been able to put 40 or 50 points on his average just because he’s able to get the bunt down and run.”
It doesn’t only help the batting average. The more often Gilles is on base, the more often Eau Claire’s mighty offense can drive him in.
“It helps the team a lot. It gets him on base, then he steals second, and then we hit him in,” LaManna said.
With the Express’ second-half subdivisional title in hand, Gilles has earned the chance to work on his craft at least a few more times this summer.
And he knows exactly the feeling he’ll be chasing every time he squares around in the box: a feeling he’s already experienced countless times over the last few months.
“I kind of know when I drop down a really good bunt that I know I’m going to be safe on,” he said. “It’s extremely satisfying.”