Well, well, well, the wake of Game Two of the American League Championship Series is a second-guesser’s dream. Or a nightmare, depending on how you deal with demons.
The incredible shrinking manager
Jim Leyland panicked.
There’s no need to get more complicated than that when describing what happened in the late stages of Detroit’s Game Two loss at Fenway Park.
With a 5-1 lead after 7 innings, Leyland pulled starter Max Scherzer, who had fanned 13 Boston batters and stifled the crowd in Boston. There was less life in the old ballpark than a zombie convention.
Leyland claims Max told him he was through, that he had nothing left. Scherzer confirms this. Ok, fine, I’ll believe them, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tiger Cy Young candidate wasn’t covering his skipper’s wrinkled behind. But let’s assume Mad Max was out of bullets. What did Leyland do in the 8th inning? He overmanaged, desperately waving in four pitchers to try to quell a rally that he created.
Let’s look at the sequence of the eighth inning, as it will live on in infamy for Motown fans forever.
1. Jose Veras enters the game and retires Stephen Drew on a harmless grounder to first base.
2. Will Middlebrooks lines a double down the left field line. The Veras pitch catches a little too much of the inside part of the plate.
3. Leyland pulls Veras and summons Drew Smyly, the lefthander. This was a puzzling decision, because the Tigs had a four-run lead with just one runner on base. Smyly is your best LH reliever and he’s the most effective in the bullpen against David Ortiz, the biggest threat in the Sox lineup. Instead of holding Smyly back for Ortiz, Leyland chose to bring him in to face Jacoby Ellsbury when his run doesn’t mean a thing.
4. Smyly walks Ellsbury after making some good pitches. But Ellsbury lays off pitches that are down and slightly out of the strike zone. Runners are now on first and second with one out.
5. Leyland is back on the mound, replacing Smyly with righthander Al Alburquerque. The Tigers are still ahead by four runs and need just two outs to get out of the inning and five outs to go up 2-0 in the series on the road.
6. Alburquerque strikes out Shane Victorino for the second out of the inning, making him look silly on a slider that was a foot outside.
7. Dustin Pedroia, the heart of the Boston team, lines an Alburquerque pitch the opposite way for a single, a few steps from the reach of second baseman Omar Infante. Middlebrooks is held at third as Torii Hunter retrieves the ball quickly in short right. The bases are loaded with two outs.
8. Here comes Jimmy, again. This time he pulls Alburquerque and goes to Joaquin Benoit, the fourth pitcher in five batters. Detroit is still leading 5-1, but now the tying tun is at the plate in the person of David Ortiz. The very batter for whom Smyly is best suited to face. Ortiz is a great fastball hitter, and if he has a weakness it’s slow pitches low in the zone. Alburquerque has one of the best sliders in baseball, and just one batter earlier he threw a few wicked ones that dipped out of the zone as he struck out Victorino. But Leyland panics and summons his closer, against whom Ortiz is 2-for-18 in his career. At this point, Smoky is managing this game like his best buddy, Tony La Russa, pushing buttons like it’s a video game, managing according to “The Big Book of Bullpens.”
Yet, not one of the three previous pitchers in this inning has been allowed to get into the game at all, they’ve been tugged off the mound for minor transgressions before they could force their impact on the Boston lineup. Not one of them had been hit hard.
Meanwhile, all the anxious pitching changes has helped send the Fenway Park crowd into a frenzy. Now, with their hero “Big Papi” at the plate, you just sense something bad will happen. Still, Detroit maintains a four-run lead and needs just one out to get out of the jam, four outs to win the contest.
9. Benoit throws a first pitch changeup that hangs too high in the strike zone. Big Papi sends it deep to right field, where Hunter valiantly tries to snare it before it goes into the bullpen. Instead, the ball and Hunter fall into the bullpen. The baseball is welcomed by Boston players, while Hunter, well…not so much. Grand slam, game tied, game blown.
10. Benoit strikes out Mike Napoli to end the inning.
Leyland saw danger where there wasn’t any. His moves only helped create a dangerous situation that sank his team.
Let me be clear: this isn’t about pulling Scherzer, this is about the Tiger manager using his pen in a frenetic manner.
Would Smyly have retired Ortiz? Would Veras have worked out of a man on second, one-out “jam”? Did Alburquerque have enough stuff to get Big Papi out or at least limit the damage? Why is Phil Coke on the roster if he’s not going to be used to face a left-handed batter, as we were told he would?
I think it’s highly likely that Veras could have gotten out of the inning only allowing the one runner at second to score, if that. He wasn’t struggling. Apparently his crime was not being a big enough name to pitch when a runner is on base late in a playoff game and a four-run lead.
I think we never got to know if young Drew Smyly had good stuff or not in Game Two, because he was pulled from the game after throwing a handful of pitches, none of which were that bad.
I believe that Alburquerque has had his great slider the last three times he’s pitched. I don’t think he gives up a grand slam to Ortiz, but the fact is he never should have been pitching anyway, because Leyland crapped his pants and fumbled his way through that inning, creating a firestorm.
The point many people are missing about the 8th inning is that Leyland’s moves were desperate, arbitrary, and premature. Sure, those are big league pitchers and they should get the job done, but only one of them was called in to do his job and given a real chance to do it. That was Benoit, who was brought in to face a terrible situation and he did what many of us (by that time) thought he might do: he served up a home run to one of the best sluggers of this era.
In the eighth inning of Game Two, Veras, Smyly, and Alburquerque were never given a chance to show if they had good stuff, because as soon as something “terrible” happened (in the mind of Jim Leyland), they were removed from the game. The Tiger manager slowly escalated the problem until he was left standing on a ledge he crawled onto.
Call it overmanaging, call it choking, call it what you like, but Jim Leyland’s moves in Game Two of the 2013 ALCS were those of a man who was playing not to lose, rather than to win. He panicked.
One hundred is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
We’ve reached the point, don’t you think, where pitch counts are being used as an alibi by big league managers. Once the starter reaches the (somehow) magical 100-pitch mark, it’s only a matter of time before the skipper is bouncing out to the mound to replace him with a fresh arm. With this tactic universally accepted as “the way it should be done” by MLB insiders, a contrarian view isn’t even tolerated. Woe be to the reporter or fan who asks why a perfectly dominant starting pitcher has been taken out of a game. You’re likely to get your head snapped off or at the very least receive a death stare.
Nowadays, it’s a given that big league managers are going to turn over some of the most important innings to the guys at the middle and back end of their bullpens. In a regular season game, when you have 162 games to play and each game doesn’t necessarily bring with it the prospect of being pushed to the ledge of elimination, it can make sense to use the pen that way. But in the postseason, one round from the World Series, when every game is so important, it’s time to leave the fortunes of the team in the hands of your best players. Instead, the 7th, 8th, or even 9th best pitcher on the team is often brought in to record one out in a tough spot. When they fail we blame them. If they were better pitchers, they would be in the starting rotation, but they are not – most of them have one or maybe two effective pitches they can throw. Most of them struggle with command. Nevertheless, managers thrust them into games like toy soldiers because “that’s just the way we do it,” and (as Mr. Leyland consistently reminds us) “it gives us the best chance to win.”
Who decided this? The dangerous “common wisdom” did, that’s who. It really started to manifest itself with the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1990s. The manager of those teams was La Russa, a former lawyer. That should be all I have to say about La Russa to make you distrust his instincts. Who is one of La Russa’s best buddies? Jim Leyland.
Middle of the order is hot
Once again in Game Two, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Alex Avila got their swing on. Each had some very good at-bats and each hit the ball real hard in the 6-5 loss to the Sox. That’s a great sign for the Tiger offense, which is starting to show indications of revival. Miguel Cabrera is hitting the ball better too, which is helpful since Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter are both slumping at the wrong time.
Ortiz’s slam may have impacted the future of two managers
When Big Papi’s bases-clearing homer sailed over the fence at Fenway Park, one man above all others should have been elated. That one man is John Farrell, first-year manager of the Red Sox. Inexplicably, Farrell stood like an alabaster statue in the home dugout during the Tigers four-run sixth inning Sunday night as starting pitcher Clay Buchholz twisted in the wind. A pitcher hasn’t been left in too long in such a pivotal game for the Sox since Grady Little stubbornly allowed Pedro Martinez to pitch to the Yankees on fumes in the ALCS ten years ago. Everyone seemed to know Buchholz was spent in Game One except Farrell, and had his team lost Game Two (as they should have), Red Sox Nation would have been justified in screaming for his hide. But, when Ortiz delivered his grand slam he brushed over that strange strategy and gave Farrell new life. If Boston leaves their hometown down 0-2, they almost certainly lose this series in smackdown fashion, and it’s no guarantee that Farrell keeps his job in a city where the baseball club is more important than clean water.
Conversely, Jim Leyland is open to second-guessers from now until eternity for the way he handled the eighth inning. The grizzled Marlboro Man Manager may not have swallowed his tongue when Ortiz went “yaaahhd”, but he probably should have gulped hard. If the Tigers lose this series, The Smoky Show may not survive to see another season. Dave Dombrowski should bring in a manager with a new perspective and progressive game strategy. Leyland is an old dog who not only doesn’t want to learn any new tricks, but he bites at anyone who comes near his feeding bowl.
Fans are not part of the action
I’m constantly surprised when fans reach onto the playing field to snag a baseball. I have never gone to a game with the intention of getting a foul ball or a home run ball. I just don’t care. There’s nothing magical to me about a baseball that was touched by a major league player. But, for many people it’s the ultimate “I was there” artifact. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Prince Fielder drifted to his left to make an attempt on a pop fly off the bat of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. As he camped under the ball, Fielder encountered the limbs of Boston fans seated in the front row along the first base line. The ball bounced off his glove and into the stands and Saltalamacchia subsequently delivered the game-winning hit. Now, the rule says that as long as the fans are not reaching onto the field of play it’s not fan interference. But, the angles I have seen indicate that the fans were reaching just over the barrier. They certainly interfered with Prince’s efforts. Yet, the interference call was not made. It’s about time this stopped. I don’t want to invest my time and money in rooting for a team, only to have it affected by spectators. The games should be decided by the action on the field, not because of some clueless people who are more interested in getting their mugs on TV than actually watching a baseball game.