A few weeks ago, Russell Carleton wrote about the real-world challenges of being a big-league manager over at Baseball Prospectus. Amongst other interesting points, he presented this bullpen scenario:
It’s the ninth inning, and you’re up by one. Your top two relievers are Smith and Jones, and both are fresh and available, which is great, because you’re in the thick of a tight pennant race and need this game. Smith is generally better than Jones and usually gets the call here. But there’s a complication today. Smith has a daughter who has a chronic medical issue. He’s a private man and doesn’t discuss this with the press, because he wants to keep his family out of the limelight. (Can you blame him?) He got some bad news about his daughter earlier and has been walking around with his head down all day. You’ve seen him like this before. He’ll say he’s okay, but he can’t concentrate, and his performance suffers to the point where Jones would actually be the better pitcher tonight to nail down that lead.
It’s easy to say that you’d go with Jones in this situation. But if you do, there will be 12 reporters in your office after the game. All of them will ask why it is that you didn’t go with Smith. Is there a closer controversy? Is Smith injured? When you mumble some made-up BS about “better matchups,” they’ll go to Smith to ask him how he feels about losing his job as closer to Jones. And Smith definitely does not want to answer those questions tonight. If you tell the truth, but kindly ask the reporters to leave that out of the game story, some idiot will put it on Twitter anyway, because he… gets… to… break… a story! Because America has a right to know!
This is what I was thinking about in the eighth inning, when Ronald Belisario was allowed to face Jason Heyward with the tying run on third and two out. I’m sure there must have been a good reason why the struggling Belisario remained in the game rather than allow the deadly-on-lefties Randy Choate (who had thrown just four pitches in six days) to face Heyward, who has a massive platoon split (.973 vs .651) this season.
There must have been a reason Choate didn’t enter there, some unexplained situation that we’d never know about, some personal issue or hidden injury that was preventing his usage, because that’s the only way it’d make sense – or at least this is what I was trying to talk myself into believing when Belisario allowed Heyward to shoot a laser up the middle to tie the game. But then Choate later came on to start the tenth inning, so it seemed he’d been available all along… and so I have no idea what exactly Don Mattingly’s thought process was there. (Choate, of course, struck out a righty and allowed a hit to a lefty when he finally did get in. I hate baseball sometimes.)
Honestly, I defend Mattingly a lot, and generally I like his work, but tonight was a series of bizarre decisions by the Dodger manager. Once the game made it into extras, the Dodgers threatened in the tenth when Elian Herrera reached on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, but the opportunity was quickly lost when Shane Victorino gave up an out to bunt Herrera to second. Mark Ellis was unable to move Herrera over, and when the Braves predictably walked Matt Kemp – love it when your best hitter doesn’t get a chance to swing – Andre Ethier grounded out against lefty Eric O’Flaherty.
After Choate retired one of two Braves in the tenth, it wasn’t Kenley Jansen, who hadn’t pitched since Monday, who entered to extinguish the threat, but Brandon League, who’s been an absolute disaster as a Dodger. Michael Bourn, who had singled against Choate, stole second and advanced to third on a poor throw from Matt Treanor, followed by League striking out Martin Prado (thanks in large part to Prado, who swung at ball four and possibly ball five). Chipper Jones drove the ball solidly to center, but fortunately right at Kemp; a few feet in any direction, and the Dodgers would have lost with their worst reliever as their best one sat unused in the bullpen. And don’t we all love when that happens?
In the eleventh, League allowed runners on the corners with two outs thanks to hits from David Ross & Paul Janish. Mattingly strode to the mound to make a double-switch, bringing in A.J. Ellis for Treanor (just the second time all year both catchers have played in the same game) and his ace reliever to put out the fire with the winning run 90 feet away… Jamey Wright. Wright immediately allowed Juan Francisco to knock a single into left field for an Atlanta win; meanwhile, Jansen – who’s thrown six pitches in a week (!) as the Dodgers have generally been winning by large margins – never got a chance. Because CLOSERS GONNA CLOSE, don’t you know. And Jansen will stay up waiting all night for that save opportunity which will never come.
All of this overshadowed the positives of the game for the Dodgers, and there were several. Chris Capuano was excellent once again, striking out eight while pitching into the eighth inning, and even then the two hits he allowed in that frame were hardly well-struck. Ethier, for the first time since July 17 and only the second time in more than two months, went deep – and it was absolutely crushed. Hanley Ramirez had two more hits, continuing his productivity since joining the Dodgers. And Luis Cruz, that inexplicable, wonderful, fantastic Luis Cruz, reached base in each of the five times he was up on three hits and two walks.
Still, this was a game the Dodgers could have and perhaps should have won; with San Francisco crushing the Padres 9-0 after just three innings, it’s probably going to cost them first place, at least for a night.