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October 13, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Decisions, Decisions

by Joe Sheehan

One of the longest-lived cliches about sports coverage is the second-guess. The longer I do this, the more I dislike sitting in front of my computer and criticizing the moves of people who are very accomplished in their chosen field. Not because the criticism is undeserved, but because I feel like it doesn't add anything new to the coverage of the game.

Nevertheless, the 2000 postseason keeps throwing managerial decisions to the forefront. The NL Division Series gave us Dusty Baker's choice of Felix Rodriguez instead of Robb Nen in the tenth inning of Game 2, and the decision to let Mark Gardner bat for himself in Game 4. Neither worked out for Baker, and both have been picked apart, here and elsewhere.

The NLCS has kept the decisions coming fast and furious. In Thursday's Game 2, Tony LaRussa removed Rick Ankiel from the game after six batters. Had no one ever invented a backstop before last night, the need for one would have been readily apparent by about 7:20 local time. Ankiel was wild in the way movie characters are wild; all that was missing was a catcher with more wit than knees and Wilford Brimley to make the pitching change.

That's not the decision that inspires second-guessing. Ankiel was obviously lost on the mound and this was a huge game for the Cardinals. Going to Britt Reames was an aggressive move by LaRussa, and clearly a defensible one.

No, the problem came much later, in the eighth inning. In a tie game, with a runner at second base and two out, LaRussa played his Mark McGwire card, sending him up to bat for Dave Veres. With first base open. With Craig Paquette on deck.

With first base open. With Craig Paquette on deck.

There was no question--none--that McGwire was going to be intentionally walked. He could have offered to bat left-handed while standing on one foot and singing "Who Let the Dogs Out?", and he was going to trot down to first base. He did, Darryl Kile pinch-ran for him and Paquette struck out, ending the eighth.

The only other non-pitcher available to LaRussa was Rick Wilkins, on the roster as third-catcher insurance. Wilkins, though, is a semi-reasonable left-handed bat and certainly would have been an option to hit against the right-handed Turk Wendell. At the least, using him would have saved McGwire for a situation in which he had some chance of seeing pitches.

Let's look at LaRussa's options at that moment:

  • pinch-hit McGwire, yielding first and second for Paquette and losing McGwire;

  • pinch-hit Wilkins, taking a shot at taking the lead and leaving himself without a third catcher, but saving McGwire;

  • let Veres bat, and hope to get lucky. Veres was 6-for-19 in his middle-relief days, but has only batted twice in the past two years. This saves both Wilkins and McGwire, as well as Mike Timlin;

  • send up one of the starting pitchers and hope to get lucky, but with a better hitter. Ankiel was unavailable, but Andy Benes has some skill with the bat. This saves both Wilkins and McGwire.

From the decision to use McGwire, we can infer that LaRussa would rather have Paquette batting than one of the pitchers, even at a cost of McGwire. We can also infer that Rick Wilkins is only going to play if a meteor hits.

I'll say without any hesitation that I disagree with the decision. Craig Paquette is a decent bench player, but wasting Mark McGwire to get him to the plate is a terrible use of LaRussa's black chip. Yes, I understand the desire to save a catcher, especially given the significant physical problems Carlos Hernandez is playing through.

But if this game is big enough to take a starting pitcher out after six batters, it's damn sure big enough to gamble on Hernandez being able to finish the game. I would have used Wilkins, saving McGwire for a real shot in the ninth inning or later.

If saving the catcher was that critical, LaRussa could have left Wilkins in at first base and taken Will Clark out; he could have moved Clark to left field and put the pitcher in Shawon Dunston's lineup spot. Hell, if Wilkins does something good and Paquette makes the last out, you can bat the pitcher there and move Dunston to third base and put Wilkins in left field. These are riskier than simply taking Wilkins out of the game, but again, having Wilkins available appears to be a big issue for LaRussa.

As it turns out, Carlos Hernandez batted as the tying run in the ninth inning, striking out. Obviously, things could have happened any number of ways after the eighth, but I can't help but think that LaRussa was wondering what having McGwire around for that at-bat could have meant.

That the decision may have contributed to one loss is an issue. But the bigger point is that what we saw Thursday means LaRussa is using about a 22 1/2-man roster, and that's not enough. If Wilkins is only going to be a prop, McGwire squandered without any chance of swinging and Ankiel pulled in the first inning of a 2-0 game, then LaRussa has serious game-management problems. He'll leave this game behind, but those problems go to New York with him.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Rick Wilkins,  Tony Larussa,  Mark Mcgwire

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