If the Angels end up beating the Astros to the finish line and taking the second Wild Card berth next weekend, the moments to remember will be the team's back-to-back one-run wins over Houston on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Angels led the whole way on Tuesday, but it was a white-knuckle grip that allowed them to hold onto the game in the final two innings. On Wednesday, they needed three runs in the top of the eighth to overcome the Astros' seventh-inning rally, and then had a similarly breath-shortening time of it during the last inning and a half.

What made those finishes particularly interesting, and perhaps particularly stressful, was Mike Scioscia doing what Mike Scioscia does. It started in the eighth inning Tuesday, when he brought on closer Huston Street with runners on the corners and two outs, and Luis Valbuena pinch-hitting for the Astros. (Okay, when Scioscia called upon Street, it was to face Jonathan Villar, and Astros manager A.J. Hinch responded by sending up Valbuena. It's hard to imagine that Scioscia either failed to foresee that, nor that he would have done anything differently anyway.) The score was 3-1 until Street's first pitch bounced past Chris Iannetta, making it 3-2 and sending The Other Matt Duffy to second base. With that change in situation, Scioscia felt that a Valbuena-Street matchup no longer made sense. He ordered an intentional walk. Jake Marisnick batted next, and Street struck him out on six pitches to get out of the frame.

Now working with a very thin margin, Street came back out for the bottom of the ninth, facing the top of the Houston order. It looked like he would breeze through it, though, when he got Jose Altuve and George Springer each to ground back to him to open the inning. Carlos Correa was Houston's last hope. Of course, Correa is pretty good, as last hopes go, and he showed as much by lashing the ball 420-plus feet for a double. Only in Houston is Correa's blast not a home run; that's how close Street was to watching the lead disappear in an instant.

Maybe it was a psychological thing. Maybe Scioscia didn't like the way that ball met the bat, and didn't want Street trying to sneak a pitch by the switch-hitting, high-contact bat of Jed Lowrie, with a single threatening to tie the game. Maybe he just didn't like the matchup, statistically. In either case, he ordered another free pass, and asked Street to get Evan Gattis with the winning run on first base. The result was the same as it was in the eighth inning: Street rose to meet the challenge, fanning Gattis to win the game.

On Wednesday, Scioscia's chance to participate in his team's run-prevention efforts came earlier, in the bottom of the seventh. The Angels led 3-2, with one out and a runner on first, when Scioscia brought in Trevor Gott. Pinch-runner Marisnick stole second base against Gott on a 1-2 pitch, but Gott whiffed Jon Singleton on the 2-2 offering. That brought up Altuve, but Scioscia so disliked that matchup that he ordered yet another intentional walk. George Springer was the batter waiting behind Altuve, and thanks to Scioscia, Altuve now represented the go-ahead run. Springer took two strikes, fouled off another, then took a ball. Then he tripled into the right-field corner, putting the Astros ahead.

Undeterred by the stinging bite from his pet tactical maneuver, Scioscia then intentionally walked Correa, this time to face Lowrie, the very player he'd felt compelled to work around the night before. Lowrie, fortunately for the Angels, made an out, and they escaped trailing by only one run.

Mike Trout changed the tone of Wednesday's game by doubling to lead off the Angels' half of the eighth, and David Freese came up with the big hit to give them a lead they would never relinquish. Those two, along with Street, ensured that the Angels were able to bring their superior talent to bear and win two crucial games. Still, it's notable that Scioscia handed out four free passes in big situations in two days, with his team's season on the line.

Or maybe it's not that notable. After all, Scioscia's Angels have given the highest number of intentional walks in the league this year (43, tied with the Mets), and their 28 free passes from the seventh inning on are two more than any other team has issued. Intentional walks have been a crutch for Scioscia all year. More notable are two bigger-picture things at play here:

  1. Scioscia's fascination with free passes is entirely new; and

  2. It comes at a time when the league's use of intentional walks is sagging to a record low.

Okay, so it's not fair to say that Scioscia had never before fallen in love with the intentional walk. In his first two years on the job (2000-01), he handed out 91 free passes. Since then, though, Scioscia had consistently ranked among the least likely managers in baseball to issue one.

Clearly, he's slowly rediscovered his love for the tactic, not been struck by a sudden inspiration, but what's interesting is that his increased use of the intentional walk is keeping alive a dying tactic.

Intentional walks are, by and large, lousy. Statistical analysis is slowly washing them out of the game, the same way that analysis has eroded the role of the sacrifice bunt. Scioscia is resisting the trend, and it's not totally clear why. Look at the four walks recounted above. The situations can be quickly summed up as follows:

  1. Put go-ahead run on base in order to gain platoon advantage, change of roughly 120 points of expected OPS.

  2. Put winning run on base in order to gain platoon advantage, small (if any) change in expected OPS, brought power hitter to plate.

  3. Put go-ahead run on base (with speed), did not gain platoon advantage, traded increased likelihood of walk or extra-base hit for diminished likelihood of game-tying single.

  4. Put second insurance run on base, gave away platoon advantage, change of perhaps 40 points of expected OPS.

Those are not only bad decisions, in profile, but bizarre ones, apparently unlinked by any common logical principle. It's almost as if Scioscia's hope is to keep the opponent off-balance, or to give his pitchers some kind of placebo-effect boost. He might as well slap a "Mike's Secret Stuff" label on the side of a water bottle. Unless he's leaning on hilariously small-sample individual matchup stats, there's no explaining or defending his penchant for creating traffic on the bases for opponents. It's just the thing he's trying this year.

Sometimes, it does seem that an intentional walk tightens a pitcher's (or even a team defense's) focus a bit in a tight spot, helping them understand the thin margin for error and the high stakes of the moment. That's anecdotal, subjective, and not at all encouraging (can't the player or players in question be influenced in some other, less self-defeating way?), but maybe it's Scioscia's rationale for a sudden spate of free passes. Here's the bottom line: He had better have a very good explanation ready. The odds are that if he keeps using this questionable tactic this freely, it's going to cost the Angels their season, and when it does, Scioscia is going to have hard questions to answer.

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"The odds are that if he keeps using this questionable tactic this freely, it's going to cost the Angels their season..."

Why would you say that? Each IBB probably cost on the order of 1/100 of a win. So while they are likely incorrect, you're not going to "see" the negative effect in 10 games (or even 100 games). They are nearly as likely to result in a good outcome as a bad one.