Conventional wisdom, baseball style, wouldn’t bring in your best, tired starting pitcher mid-game in a playoffs Game 7 instead of going to your traditional middle-relievers. San Francisco ignored that “unwritten rule” last October of course, bringing in weary Madison Bumgarner against KC in the final game of the World Series and the results are written in history and the third set of rings this decade for the Giants. One more reason it’s time to throw the book at managers who decide to “play by the book.”
Take the Jays 3-2 loss to Tampa last Saturday. RA Dickey was sailing along with one of his best games of the season, holding the Rays to one measly run when John Gibbons decided it was time to summon the notoriously shaky bullpen. After all, Dickey had just passed the 100-pitch mark and ‘the book” says you don’t keep a starting pitcher out there more than a hundred pitches. It was a decision that caused a remarkable amount of internet second guessing and sarcasm, and ultimately it could be argued, cost the team the game. Granted, there’s no guarantee RA might not have coughed up a run or two himself if he’d stayed out there, and granted, Jays don’t win many games if they only score two runs but still, it left many shaking their heads.
Even if you buy the questionable rationale that most starting pitchers tire out and could put themselves at risk of arm injury if going much beyond 100 pitches (something most veteran pitchers of yore, from Steve Busby to Steve Carlton to Nolan Ryan disagree with) , Dickey is of course a knuckle-baller, exactly the type of pitcher least prone to wear and tear. Dickey with his unusual anatomy (through some freak of nature, Dickey was born without the ulnar collateral ligament that so many pitchers tear up) and soft-tossing is uniquely capable of pitching almost endlessly without pain or risk. A simple look at the stats showed why this was a dumb decision. Mid-game, between pitches 16 and 60, Dickey struggles this year, giving up an opponents average of .289, with 9 home runs to 222 batters (one per 24 AB.) By the time he’s settled in and is over 90 pitches, he’s cut the opponents to a skimpy .179 average and has allowed only two homers (one per 39 AB). Add in the fact that his ERA at home, like Saturday’s game, is over a run and a half better than it is on the road and you can see why critics critiqued!
Not that John Gibbons is unusual in making iffy calls based on conventioal wisdom. Living where I am, I get to view a lot more Texas Rangers games than Jays ones. Texas skipper Jeff Banister at times looks genius and then somehow reverts to “the book” , typically with less than genius results. Take last Monday’s game at Colorado. After spotting the Rockies a 7-run lead early, the Rangers had scratched back by the 9th. With runners at first and second, two out, trailing by one run, Adrian Beltre smashed a line drive double deep into the corner in left. The lead runner scored easily to tie the game, but Prince Fielder was held up at third. The next batter, Josh Hamilton, popped up and that was that.
Now granted, big Prince is not a fast runner. Faster than he looks perhaps, but that’s not saying too much. So that might have factored into the thinking to hold him up, as well as the stupid adage about “play for a tie on the road, win at home.” Well, playing for a tie might be smart enough in soccer, or in 1960s hockey (when there were ties), but is meaningless in baseball. Fielder, while not the quickest man on the field, has momentum. The Rockies had been playing a shabby game defensively; the smart move would have been to let him try to score. Put the pressure on Clint Barnes. If he pulls off a perfect throw, Fielder is out at the plate and Texas still are set to lead off the 10th with Hamilton. But anything less than a perfect throw from CF and the Rangers would have had the lead and Beltre could have moved up to third. The meakness eventually cost them the game.
It might not have cost them the game had Banister not gone to another “unwritten rule” – only use your closer if he can record a save. So, with the score tied going to the bottom of the 9th, rather than go with the best man available in the ‘pen – closer Shawn Tolleson – Banister trotted out redoubtable Tanner Scheppers, because there was no save for Tolleson to collect. Scheppers was at one time the reliable 8th inning guy for Texas. But that was then, before last year when he had an ERA of 9, and before this season when he’s allowed 19 walks in 32 innings and sports an ERA of 5.63. A few pitches later, the Rockies walked off with a rare win. Ironically, the following day, Tolleson was put out on the mound with a nine run lead just to get work because the coaching staff was worried about him getting rusty doing nothing for so long. Ninth inning, tie game, what more important spot could there be for your bullpen ace to shine?
I’m a writer, and one who’s sometimes considered a little too, well, verbiose. But my book on baseball isn’t long : Play to Win.
Jays nest congratulations to two of my favorite Jays this week. Mark Buehrle, having a great season as we know, is having a greater season than we might have realized. He became the first Jay ever to toss 9-straight games of six-plus innings without allowing more than two runs in any. When you can set any record for starting pitching on a club that’s boasted Roy Halladay, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris and Dave Stieb, you’re doing something right!
And to Jose Bautista, one of my “Franchise Four”, who just tied Vernon Wells for second on the Jays all-time home run board with 223. And he did so in about 500 fewer games than Vernon. Still a ways to go to catch up to the all-time #1, Carlos Delgado though. CD swatted 336.