How Not to Capture First Place

It’s the bottom of the 7th inning in San Francisco, and there are miracles in the air. Despite being two games under .500, the Dodgers are just a half game out of first place – and the Diamondbacks are on their way to defeat against San Diego. You can say that “first place” isn’t much of an accomplishment considering how lousy the NL West is, and there’s certainly merit to that, but it’ll still get you into the playoffs. After another outstanding effort by Chan Ho Park (just 1 run and 3 hits in 6 innings), the Dodgers lead the woeful Giants 2-1. Just hold on for nine more outs, and this team is improbably, amazingly, astoundingly in first place.

Joe Beimel enters the game sporting an excellent 1.05 ERA. He gives up a leadoff double to Jose Castillo, and then gets the first out on Omar Vizquel’s sacrifice bunt, which gets Castillo to third base. With the tying run 90 feet away, Bruce Bochy brings in Rich Aurilia to hit for Barry Zito. If you’re Joe Torre, you’ve got some options here.

You can leave in Beimel, who’s been one of the best relievers in all of baseball this year, and who hasn’t given up a run since May. Sure, it’s a righty/lefty matchup, but Beimel has been nearly equally tough on hitters from both sides of the plate, and either way, has gotten Aurilia out 7 of the 8 times they’d previously matched up.

You can bring in Jonathan Broxton, if you’re so set on exploiting the righty/righty matchup. Broxton may nominally be the 8th inning guy, but asking him to get five outs shouldn’t be that unrealistic of an expectation. Even so, if the idea that Broxton’s the second best guy in the pen behind Saito, then he should be used in the most high-pressure non-9th-inning situations, and if this isn’t that, tell me what is. Broxton has also had success against Aurilia, giving up just 1 hit in 6 at-bats and garnering 3 strikeouts.

Really, the thought process shouldn’t be going further than those two options, but if it must, you can bring in Cory Wade. He’s been a big surprise out of the pen this year, and although he’s never faced Aurilia, he’s been absolute murder on right-handed hitters, holding them to a .227/.275/.387 line thus far. He’s also fresh, having not pitched in either of the previous two games.

Here you have three acceptable options. Personally, I probably leave in Beimel – he’s been fantastic this year and Aurilia’s had no success against him. Even if Torre had decided to bring in Broxton and he gave up the run, or Wade and he couldn’t hold it, that’s fine. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you push all the right buttons, it’s just not going to work out. That’s life, and that’s baseball. These things happen.

But hey, you know what’s never going to be the right idea, ever? Bringing in the guy who’s somewhere around 16th on the organizational pitching depth chart into a high-pressure situation despite having so many better options around. Brian Falkenborg? Really? The guy who’s been a failure at every MLB stop in his career, with a 5.74 ERA in parts of 5 seasons for 4 teams entering this year? The guy who gave up a 3 run homer in his 5 pitches his last time out? The guy who I said never should have been called up in the first place?

To put it as simply as possible, Joe Torre thought Brian Falkenborg was a better option to prevent the tying run from scoring than Joe Beimel. Falkenborg’s ERA of 3.60 in triple A was three and a half times higher than Beimel’s been able to do in the big leagues – yet somehow, he’s the superior choice here. To the surprise of absolutely no one except for Joe Torre (hell, I bet even Mrs. Falkenborg was covering her eyes when Joe walked out to the mound and raised his right arm), Falkenborg self-immolated on the mound. Sure, he got Aurilia to strike out, but then he gave up a game-tying single to Fred Lewis, walked Ray Durham, and then – because just letting them tie wasn’t good enough – allowed Randy Winn to drive in the go-ahead run.

You can blame Falkenborg here for not getting the job done. But really, there’s no way he ought to have been placed in that situation anyway. He’s the last man on the staff. He ought to be pulling mop-up duty, at best. How he gets put into a high-pressure situation that ultimately decided the game is completely beyond me.

And now, for another night, first place continues to elude the Dodgers. It’d be nice if we could just point to the failures of the players on the field (and don’t get too comfortable, Andruw Jones, or think we haven’t noticed your fantastic comeback) without having to point at near-sabotage by our own staff too.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

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