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October 9, 2004
One Down, Six to Go
What will be remembered isn't the September run that got them into this position, or the seventh-inning comeback that pushed the game to extra innings, or the grand slam by the remarkable Vladimir Guerrero.
No, what's going to be remembered is The Decision.
With two outs and a runner on first base in the bottom of the tenth inning of a 6-6 game, Angels manager Mike Scioscia removed Francisco Rodriguez from the game. Unlike in nearly any other situation in his five seasons with the Angels, though, Scioscia didn't go to another of his cadre of power arms, but instead brought out left-handed starter Jarrod Washburn to face Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Ortiz hit Washburn's first pitch over the Green Monster to end the series.
It's not even that I want to second-guess it. I just have no idea where it came from. In five season with the Angels, Scioscia has established himself as a manager who doesn't concern himself with matchups. He didn't carry a left-handed reliever this season; the only southpaw to make a relief appearance for the Angels this year was Dusty Bergman, a non-prospect who threw two mop-up innings on June 9. So when, in the most critical moment of the biggest game of the year, he decided to chase a platoon advantage with an inferior pitcher, it was completely out of character.
This year isn't an anomaly. Since taking over in 2000, Scioscia has brought in a left-handed reliever just 291 times, or about once every. Except for 2000, when he used five, he hasn't used more than three southpaws in relief in any year. After jettisoning Mike Holtz after '01, Scioscia seemed to make the decision that handedness mattered less than effectiveness, You can see the pattern:
Year Pitcher Relief Appeareances 2000 Mike Holtz 61 2000 Kent Mercker 14 2000 Juan Alvarez 8 2000 Bryan Ward 5 2000 Scott Karl 2 2001 Mike Holtz 63 2001 Mark Lukasiewicz 24 2002 Scott Schoeneweis 39 2002 Dennis Cook 37 2002 Mark Lukasiewicz 17 2003 Scott Schoeneweis 27 2003 Rich Rodriguez 3 2004 Dusty Bergman 1With each passing year, Scioscia has invested less and less in left-handed relief, ending up at an extreme in 2004. Put it this way: you might see Tony La Russa put more left-handed relievers into a game in one inning today than you saw Scioscia put in all season long.
Meanwhile, Scioscia has built some of the game's best bullpens out of minor-league veterans and independent-league refugees and failed starters. That most of his relievers--all, in some years--were right-handed didn't deter him, and in fact, kept him from falling into some of the traps that afflict more matchup-minded men.
To go away from a philosophy that got him a championship in 2002 and a second divisional title at such a critical time was bizarre. Perhaps, as Scioscia said after the game, there was concern for the workload placed on Rodriguez's right arm. Why not, then, go to Troy Percival. I've been as critical of the Angels' closer as anyone, but skipping over him to bring in a pitcher who, while effective against left-handers, is also homer-prone and in the midst of slump, borders on the inexplicable.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'd rather have Rodriguez or Percival facing Ortiz than Washburn, and for the last three years, Scioscia had made that same decision.
The decision overshadows what had developed into quite the game. The Angels, who looked dead for most of the game-if the A's had looked so bad defensively, would it have been blamed on an overriding philosophy?-came back with five runs in the seventh inning, a rally capped by Guerrero's slam. Up to that point, they'd looked as if they were annoyed to have to come all the way east to finish the series. In that frame, though, both David Eckstein and Darin Erstad reached base after falling behind 0-2, the latter showing some rare discipline in drawing a walk.
The patience was even more remarkable given the interesting strike zone in play. At one point, I actually got two e-mails withing about 90 seconds of each other questioning the competence and the integrity of the home-plate umpire Brian Runge. Without addressing the latter issue, I can agree that there were a number of head-shaking calls in this game (and for that matter, in Game Two), and that they always seemed to involve Angels hitters.
The series that didn't end yesterday moved a bit closer to doing so. The Yankees got their third straight quality start and pounded Carlos Silva for ten hits and six runs in five innings, winning 8-4. As big a question mark as the Yankees' rotation has been all year, it's been a strength this week: five runs allowed in 19 2/3 innings. They still don't match up with the Red Sox rotation--or for that matter, the Twins'--but they don't need to do so to win. They just need the kind of workmanlike outings that give their offense a chance to win the game.
It's worth mentioning again that the Twins aren't a very good test. Even with finding playing time this year for Justin Morneau, Lew Ford and Michael Cuddyer, they have serious OBP issues. I don't know how many teams make the playoffs, much less success in them, batting players with .315 and .330 OBPs in the #2 and #3 spots. Add in the execrable catchers who play in the absence of Joe Mauer--Henry Blanco seems to always bat with two on and two out, doesn't he?--and it's a pretty bad lineup.
None of that should matter today. Johan Santana doesn't lose, and he's facing an unreognizable version of Javier Vazquez so a Game Five in New York on Sunday is likely. That would be a great matchup, two righties who throw strikes and who have been pitching well down the stretch.
Over in the NL, the big news is that Roger Clemens is apparently going to start Sunday on short rest. It's not a terrible idea--it certainly adds pressure on the Braves to win today against Brandon Backe, which might be the reason for the announcement--but it makes you wonder, then, why Clemens wasn't taken out a bit sooner in the Astros' Game One blowout of the Braves.
Still, having to win two out of the three with Clemens and Roy Oswalt making two starts is a lot different than trying to do so with Clemens and Bob Knepper or Vern Ruhle or whoever was going to start Game Four. Today's game takes on a different meaning with the Braves facing two excellent starters, albeit ones on short rest, in Games Four and Five.
With all the decisions about relief usage--closer usage--we've seen this week, it's worth mentioning that the driving force behind the decision is the gap in quality between the ace and the next-best guys. It makes sense for the Astros to ride Brad Lidge and the Braves to get max innings from John Smoltz because the drop-off between each pitcher and his teammates is pretty significant. The Angels, just to use one example, have enough quality relievers that they don't have to lean so hard on one guy.
I mention this because the Dodgers have their backs against the wall an a comparable situation with Eric Gagne. We may very well see Jim Tracy have to make the same kind of decision that Ron Gardenhire, Phil Garner and Bobby Cox were faced with this week.