The Cardinals beat the Red Sox, 4-2, on Thursday night, sending the World Series back to St. Louis in a 1-1 tie. They won largely because one pitcher didn’t do his job. It’s baseball, that happens. But with the game on the line, the Sox and manager John Farrell didn’t use their best pitcher. That’s less Farrell’s fault specifically as it is a fundamental misuse of resources by all 30 current major league managers, the 30 men they replaced, and the next 30 to follow.
It needs to stop. If not in the regular season, then at the very least in the postseason.
John Lackey started the seventh inning for Boston having allowed just one run on four hits, with five strikeouts and just one walk. He’d thrown only 80 pitches to that point, showing no major signs of fatigue. Lackey’s best pitch on the night had been his four-seam fastball. He was averaging 93 mph on the pitch, occasionally humping up to 94 and even 95. Lackey remained in control facing Allen Craig to start the inning. He heaved a 92 mph four-seamer up in the zone that Craig fouled off for strike one. He came back with a cutter lower in the zone that was fouled off for strike two. He then dialed up a 93 mph heater, just above the belt, right on the outside corner, for called strike three.
Then David Freese changed the course of the game, wiping away his ugly Game 1 performance and turning in an impressive plate appearance at just the right time. For seven pitches, Freese battled Lackey, laying off pitches out of the zone, fouling off 3-2 pitches near the outside corner to stay alive. On the eighth pitch, Lackey threw a darting cutter down and out of the zone. Freese checked his swing, then trotted down to first. The Cardinals had a baserunner. The showdown with Freese surely took something out of Lackey, especially in his seventh inning of work. It was enough for Farrell to make the call to the bullpen and have a reliever start warming up. That reliever was Craig Breslow.
In many ways, that choice made sense. For one thing, Breslow is a left-handed pitcher. The next three hitters due up for the Cards were all lefties, and St. Louis had no big, bad, right-handed thumpers lurking as potential pinch hitters. The fourth was Carlos Beltran, who hit right-handed pitchers this year much better than he did lefties, despite having career splits that were slightly better against lefties. Breslow had also pitched well for most of the playoffs. In seven innings against the Rays and Tigers, he’d allowed no runs and three hits — though he’d been wild at times, walking five batters, including four in 3⅓ innings in the ALCS. But the biggest reason for using Breslow was that he is Boston’s appointed left-handed setup man. In the seventh inning, if a reliever’s needed, Farrell’s job is to see which batters are coming up, then use either Breslow (especially if there are lefties due up) or his counterpart, righty setup man Junichi Tazawa. In a medium-leverage situation — say, starting the seventh with no one on, up a couple of runs — going with Breslow, Boston’s third-best reliever this year by advanced metrics, makes sense.
Up a single run entering the seventh, with a runner on after the Freese walk, this was more than your typical medium-leverage situation, with the tying run on base and the go-ahead run striding to the plate. Yet the situation wasn’t cut-and-dried by any means. The Cardinals had their nos. 8 and 9 hitters Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso coming up, the kind of matchups that Breslow can handle more often than not. Still, one more baserunner and the inning would become a full-on potential crisis. Warm up Breslow in that spot, by all means. But if things got worse, the Sox needed a bigger weapon they could fire, someone they could use with confidence to escape a major jam. This was the time to warm up Koji Uehara.
Whatever platoon advantage might’ve been gained by using Breslow in the seventh, Uehara blew it out of the water, given he has been the best reliever in baseball in 2013. This season, left-handed hitters batted .253/.304/.400 against Breslow; they’re .230/.288/.354 for his career. Meanwhile, Uehara annihilated hitters of all stripes with a beastly arsenal fronted by his off-the-charts splitter: Right-handers hit a microscopic .146/.173/.293 against him, lefties an even punier .115/.153/.185. If Lackey retires Jay, and Farrell wants to go to Breslow against the weak-hitting Descalso with a runner on and two outs, that’s a solid bet. But if Jay gets on, Uehara offers a get-out-of-jail-free card, by far Boston’s best bet to plow through Descalso and National League hits leader Matt Carpenter while preserving the Red Sox’s tenuous lead.
Jay laced a single to right-center, putting runners at first and second with one out. That was it for Lackey, who got the hook after 95 pitches, the final 12 coming on two tough at-bats that ended poorly for him. Farrell brought in Breslow. There was no sign of Uehara anywhere.
Jay and pinch runner Pete Kozma pulled off a double-steal, putting runners on second and third with one out. At this point the Sox could’ve deployed stall tactics to get Uehara ready, at the very least to face Carpenter. Never happened. Descalso showed remarkable patience, working Breslow for seven pitches and drawing a walk on a pitch just off the inside corner. Still no sign of Uehara, with Farrell and the Sox figuring that it would be wiser to preserve Uehara for a save situation later in the game than have the best relief pitcher of the year ready for a bases-loaded, one-out spot in the seventh, with the game hanging in the balance. Carpenter lifted a fly ball to left, prompting Kozma to tag up. Jonny Gomes’s throw from left came in wide of the target, allowing the tying run to score. When Jarrod Saltalamacchia tried to reach for the throw and make the tag rather than corral the throw, the ball rolled away from Boston’s catcher. Breslow grabbed the ball, then made a long, difficult throw to third to try to cut down Jay and airmailed Xander Bogaerts at third, allowing the go-ahead run to score. Having not yet seen enough, Farrell left Breslow in to face Beltran. A run-scoring single later, the Cards had taken a 4-2 lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish en route to tying up the series.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Uehara never even stirred as the Red Sox went down in flames. Heading into the World Series, Farrell had used his closer for more than an inning in three of his previous six appearances, showing that he was willing to use him in the eighth inning as well as the ninth. But no one, not Farrell or any other manager, would’ve been likely to use him in the seventh inning of this game.
There’s at least a little bit of logic behind setting up a bullpen with defined roles, with a closer designated for the ninth inning, and setup men for the seventh and eighth. You can’t always predict when a high-leverage situation is going to crop up, so it’s not always easy to have your relief ace ready at a moment’s notice. In the regular season especially, you need to pick your battles. Warming up your best reliever at every tiny hint of trouble, much less using him that way, runs the risk of burning him out. But the playoffs require greater vigilance, more disdain for the traditional closer role, plus the greater use of a manager’s problem-solving ability, rather than falling back on the same old adherence to the save rule. With more days off in October, and the stakes way, way higher, getting more aggressive in using (and warming up) your top reliever makes a lot of sense.
Given how long it might take for even one manager to change his mind, this will probably remain something of a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. But the first manager willing to show some balls and some smarts to turn traditional closer usage on its ear could give his team a big lift. Especially in the World Series, when everything’s on the line.
Looking ahead, here are a few quick thoughts for Game 3:
•The Jonny Gomes Undefeated Streak of Destiny died Thursday night, as the Red Sox lost their first 2013 playoff game with Gomes in the lineup. Farrell has continued to play Gomes over Daniel Nava against right-handed starters, even though Nava posted a .322/.411/.485 line against righties this year that was one of the best in baseball, while Gomes didn’t. Squint your eyes and you could see at least some logic in starting Gomes for Game 2, given Cardinals starter Michael Wacha has been a reverse-split pitcher in his short time in the big leagues, thanks largely to a devastating changeup that eats left-handed batters alive. But with the Cardinals starting Joe Kelly in Game 3 (career .254/.318/.336 vs. righties, .278/.344/.449 vs. lefties), Farrell’s out of excuses. Unless Nava’s suffering from an acute case of leprosy, he has to start the next game of this series.
• The fact that Beltran is playing, and that he was healthy enough to bang out a pair of hits in Game 2, is pretty nuts. Cardinals doctors gave him Toradol to numb the pain of his rib injury; read up a bit on Toradol and you’ll see this is a pretty serious measure to take for the Cards to try to keep Beltran in the lineup. Starting Freese plus either Kozma or Descalso against a right-handed starter puts the Cards at a significant disadvantage against Boston’s offense. If Beltran can’t answer the bell or becomes limited the way Hanley Ramirez was for the Dodgers last series, that’d be a problem.
• Though much of the Game 3 lineup talk has focused on the Red Sox being forced to bench Mike Napoli to get David Ortiz in the lineup, the Cardinals will be losing out, too, with either Craig or Matt Adams headed to the bench. Napoli would seem to be the bigger loss given his postseason heroics. But assuming you respect sample sizes, it’s not at all clear that the Red Sox are suffering the bigger offensive hit.
Matt Adams vs. RHP, 2013: .295/.356/.520
Allen Craig vs. RHP, 2013: .327/.392/.453
Mike Napoli vs. RHP, 2013: .248/.353/.464
• Jake Peavy will start Game 3 in lieu of Clay Buchholz for the Red Sox. The reports on Buchholz had him looking uncomfortable while throwing on Thursday, raising questions on whether he can even start in Game 4. Felix Doubront, a left-hander who looked good for much of the year before falling apart in September with a 9.77 ERA over four starts (plus only 2⅓ innings pitched in the playoffs), would be Buchholz’s most likely replacement.
• Mike Matheny shouldn’t get too comfortable seeing Kelly on the mound Saturday night. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz detailed how the already tough Red Sox lineup becomes downright deadly as the game moves along, when they’ve taken enough pitches and the opposing pitcher starts to wear down.
What follows is Boston’s on-base plus slugging percentage for each lineup turn against a starting pitcher in a game:
First time vs. starter: OPS .782, ranks first in MLB
Second time vs. starter: OPS .836, ranks first in MLB
Third time vs. starter: OPS .795, ranks eighth in MLB
One additional point: Most, if not all, lineups do better in their second and third turns versus a starting pitcher. But the Red Sox exceed the overall MLB performance in this area.
First time through (in OPS): MLB .693, Boston .782
Second time through: MLB .730, Boston .849
Third time through: MLB .762, Boston .786
The Cardinals have an excellent and very deep bullpen. They shouldn’t be shy about using it, even if it means pulling Kelly, say, down 2-0 with a couple of runners on three or four innings in, especially if his stuff isn’t working right. That loaded pen includes Carlos Martinez, who was absolutely filthy in Game 2, firing two scoreless innings that broke Boston’s back. I would describe the sliders he threw to strike out Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia in the eighth, but we’ve been trying to cool it with the pornography lately at Grantland.
St. Louis is going to have a great problem on its hands next year. If the Cards do the right thing and make Martinez a starter, they’ll have to choose from among Adam Wainwright, Wacha, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Kelly, Martinez, and maybe even Trevor Rosenthal, if their current closer goes back to his roots as a starter. All eight of those pitchers are under team control through 2017. Best of luck, rest of the National League.