When you look back on a season, there’s always a few games that really stand out in your mind. The game that really got the season on a roll; the game that really got the momentum going. A game that kicks off a road trip where you come back from a 4-0 deficit to tie with 4 runs in the 9th definitely falls into that category, and even moreso if you consider that one of the runs came on a pinch-hit homer from the corpse of Andruw Jones. If you can pull out a game like that, the momentum boost you’ve already received from adding Manny Ramirez is accentuated that much more, and in immediate short term gains, you keep pace with Arizona, who’d already won earlier in the night.
This is one of those games. And this is going to be one that might haunt the Dodgers for the rest of the season for not being able to take advantage of it.
In the vacuum of tonight’s game, there’s a few fingers to be pointed. You’ve got James Loney grounding into 2 double plays and leaving 5 men on base; you’ve got Russell Martin striking out (and looking bad doing it) with men on the corners in the top of the 10th. But that’s baseball, and these things happen. As much as you want to and as hard as you try, you’re simply not going to get that hit every single time out. Often, these things are out of your control. Which is why it’s so goddamn frustrating when the things that are in your control are executed poorly and come back to bite you in the ass. You should know by now what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, well, you must be Joe Torre. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than:
If you’ve got good pitchers available, don’t use the crummy ones.
Makes sense, right? So please, someone, anyone, explain to me how both Brian Falkenborg and Jason Johnson got into a one-run and tied extra inning game, respectively, while neither Jonathan Broxton or Hong-Chih Kuo made an appearance. It’s not as though either Broxton or Kuo were unavailable; Kuo hadn’t pitched either of the previous two nights, and Broxton has had three nights off. (In fact, Broxton’s only thrown nine pitches since July 29th – I know he’s warmed up in the bullpen a lot of those days too, but what’s up with that?)
It couldn’t be simpler. When your entire bullpen is rested, as it should be after an off-day, you use your five effective relievers (Beimel, Park, Kuo, Broxton, and Wade) – if you even need that many, which most days you won’t – and if the game goes into extra innings and you just need some arms, only then do you get the hammer and smash the “break only in case of emergency” glass to retrieve Falkenborg, Johnson, and Troncoso. Yeah, I know – the season’s a long grind, and you’ve got to use your entire pen, not just the best guys, so you don’t overwork them. But again, there was a day off prior, and two of your best (Kuo and Broxton) hadn’t even pitched in the game (or two) before that. They’re rested. You don’t let them sit while lesser men blow the game.
Let’s start with the first one, Brian Falkenborg coming in down 1-0 to start the 6th after Chad Billingsley is pulled from the game after just 74 pitches due to a second rain delay. You’ve got plenty of options with a fully rested pen. Since you’re being forced to dip into your bullpen so early, you probably want a guy who can go more than one inning. Someone like, say, Hong-Chih Kuo, who’s been simply dominating all year (1.85 ERA, 76K in 64 IP), or Chan Ho Park, leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year with his 2.65 ERA, or even Cory Wade, who’s gone multiple innings several times and has been impressive with a 2.54 ERA.
What you don’t do is bring in veteran retread Brian Falkenborg ahead of all of these guys. Can we finally give up on the ”Falkenborg is a good pitcher” train that some people seem to be on? We’ve been pretty unhappy with him since day one (see here and here) and we’ve actually gotten some grief over it, and I just can’t understand why. Is it his 4.91 ERA coming into the game (that’s now 5.56 after it, by the way)? Is it his history of being unable to stick at the major league level? Even if you can justify him being on the team ahead of some guys we have in the minors (that’s a tough sell for me), I don’t see how anyone can say he’s any better than the last man out of the pen. Look, if we get to the 14th inning and it’s him or letting Russell Martin take the mound, that’s fine – if he gets hammered, what else could you have done? But there’s just no reason you let him pitch before every single other one of your rested and effective pitchers.
To no one’s surprise but Joe Torre’s, Falkenborg let the team down by allowing three of the four men he faced to reach base. Yeah, Joe Beimel hit Rick Ankiel to force the run in, and that was a pretty terrible job by Beimel (although he did rebound to get the next two outs with no further damage). But it’s a situation that never should have happened in the first place.
Now we’re onto the eleventh inning. After Cory Wade came through yet again with two scoreless innings (plus drawing a walk!), Torre’s got three men left in the pen: Jonathan Broxton, his closer. Hong-Chih Kuo, who as discussed above, has been lights-out all year. And Jason Johnson, who after three surprisingly good outings to begin his Dodgers career, was pretty mediocre his last time out, giving up 3 runs and 5 hits in 4 1/3 innings vs. Arizona. How is there even a discussion here? You’ve got two excellent well-rested pitchers, and a mediocre veteran journeyman with less rest than either of them.
I can’t stress that last point enough. Two good rested pitchers, one demonstrably lousy pitcher on shorter rest. Even if you make the case that since it’s a road game, you want to save Broxton to close in case you get a lead, you still bring in Kuo over Johnson. And of course, what happens? Single, pop-out, walkoff dinger. While Broxton and Kuo look on helplessly, since Torre never saw fit to bring them in.
And now the Blue are 2.5 games back of Arizona and deflated from the loss, where they could have been 1.5 games back and on a roll. Is it possible that Kuo or Broxton give up that homer too? Sure, it’s absolutely possible. But as a manager, your #1 priority is putting your team in the best position to win, and I don’t think you can say Joe Torre did that tonight. You live and die by your best players, whenever they’re available. I hate to think that the Dodgers lose out on the playoffs by one game due to the failures of two players who ostensibly are somewhere around 15th and 16th on the organizational pitching chart.
- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness