Baseball games are won or lost by players performing (or not performing) in showdown situations.
But the tactical side of the game stirs around-the-clock debate among fans playing along in the stands or at home. The eighth inning chess match between Nationals manager Davey Johnson and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny generated tons of discussion.
Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma botched Michael Morse’s ground ball, opening the door for the Nationals against reliever Mitchell Boggs.
SI.com scribe Ben Reiter described Johnson’s next move:
“Johnson's team produced just 50 sacrifice hits this season, the second-fewest in the National League. With men on first and third with no outs, though, Johnson transmitted a rarely used sign to batter Danny Espinosa. He commanded his second baseman to bunt. With the slow-footed Michael Morse on third, it was not a safety squeeze, either, though Johnson said that he'd considered putting the speedy pitcher Edwin Jackson on third as a pinch-runner to set up that possibility, but then decided better of it to protect his Game 3 starter's health. All Johnson wanted to do was advance the runner on first, Ian Desmond, into scoring position, even if it meant sacrificing an out. Espinosa did as he was told, and did it ably.
Still, it was a curious move, even for a manager without Johnson's particular well-honed philosophy. Espinosa had looked overmatched in striking out in his first three at-bats, but even so, he is a player who hit 17 home runs this season, and 37 doubles. But Johnson bet that Espinosa's chances of doing anything but striking out again or hitting into a double play exceeded those that he'd be able to capably lay one down, and then that the Nationals would be able to tie the game with one fewer out to play with. It was a gamble that offended traditionalists and the staterati alike.
The Nationals had runners on second and third with one out. FoxSports.com columnist Ken Rosenthal put himself into Matheny’s shoes:
Boggs then struck out Kurt Suzuki on a 97-mph fastball, setting up the game’s key strategic moment with the pitcher’s spot due. Johnson inserted his best pinch-hitter, the left-handed hitting Chad Tracy, leaving Matheny with three choices:
• Stick with Boggs.
• Summon Marc Rzepczynski, the Cardinals’ only left-handed reliever.
• Make a double-switch to get closer Jason Motte into the game.
Matheny ruled out the double-switch, saying he was not comfortable with the accompanying move — the removal of (Matt) Holliday, (Allen) Craig or (Yadier) Molina. Johnson expected his Cardinals’ counterpart to stay the course, saying, ‘You know, I track him, and he usually leaves it to Boggs.’ Instead, Matheny turned to Rzepczynski, reprising a strategy that had worked in the wild-card game.
Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell appreciated that decision.
Tracy has a name in the game, a 27-homer season. Surely, Johnson would not pinch-hit for his best pinch hitter? Would he? So, Cards first-year Manager Mike Matheny did the logical, unassailable and fatal thing as he called on his only left-handed reliever, Rzepczynski, who is deadly against left-handed hitters, but ill-suited to righties.
Johnson, the manager who always builds confidence, believes in all 25 of his men, and never flinches from the implications of the bench that he has built, called for Moore. In his mind, Tracy and Moore were roughly equal hitters, but Rzepczynski (4.24 ERA) was, against a righty, inferior to the Cards power-arm right-handers that might face Tracy.
ESPN.com David Schoenfeld described the payoff for Washington:
Johnson countered with right-handed Tyler Moore, who flared a 2-2 fastball down the right-field line for a two-run, go-ahead single. You can say it was bad luck for the Cardinals since the ball wasn't hit hard. But it was bad process. The main argument here is that Boggs is a better pitcher than Rzepczynski. The second argument is that it should have been obvious Johnson would hit for Tracy once Rzepczynski entered. The third argument is that Moore is a more dangerous hitter than Tracy. So there was really no reason for Matheny to bring in the reliever they call ‘Scrabble.’ Boggs versus Tracy or Rzepcynski versus Moore? Easy call. (And that's without even getting into the option of bringing in closer Jason Motte for a four-out save.)”
Johnson went away from his usual pattern by ordering the bunt. Matheny went against his late-season pattern by wedging Rzepcynski into his usual Edward Mujica-Boggs-Motte deployment for the last three innings.
The bunt move paid off and the "Scrabble" move did not. Such is the beauty of baseball.
MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE
Questions to ponder while wondering if Robert Griffin III has finally figured out that he is not in the Big 12 anymore:
What sort of playoff formats did Bud Selig reject before settling on the goofy play-in game?
QUIPS ‘R US
Here is what some of America’s leading sports pundits have been writing:
Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports: “It is everywhere with the Yankees, woven into their pinstripes if not embedded in their DNA. Even if they're not officially the kings – even if they've won but a single championship in the past decade – they strut around acting like it, and there's something very powerful in that. Whether it scares the Orioles like it has other teams – Seattle and Minnesota spooked easy over the Yankees' great run since 1996 – remains to be seen as the rest of this series develops. Still, what happened at an amped-up, ready-to-celebrate Camden Yards on Sunday did not exactly portend something good. Gone is the pseudo-home field advantage Baltimore held with the series' first two games at home. The Orioles now must win at least two games at Yankee Stadium, where New York sports the best home record in baseball. And they need to start that resurrection less than 24 hours after watching their impermeable closer turn the pitcher's mound into a fallout shelter over the course of 17 pitches.”
Tommy Tomlinson, Sports on Earth: “Now the college football world has to recalculate. Many of us thought the first two months would be an extended opening act for Nov. 3, when Alabama plays LSU and USC plays Oregon. But now LSU and USC have both lost, and a group of replacements are pacing outside the gate. Florida has put together the best résumé of any of those teams. The Gators have won at Texas A&M and Tennessee, and they’re the first team to beat LSU in the regular season in almost two years. But this is the SEC, and so Florida gets South Carolina in two weeks, and Georgia the week after that, and there are many more chances to melt. Fifteen rounds, every week.”
Greg Cote, Miami Herald: “I’m grappling with which is sadder: That financially strapped Curt Schilling might have to sell his famous bloody sock. Or that somebody out there will want to buy a bloody sock.”
DJ Gallo, ESPN.com: “On August 17th, the Pirates began mailing out playoff ticket ordering instructions to season-ticket holders. Team president Frank Coonelly said he was overjoyed to have to read MLB’s manual on postseason protocol for the first time: 'Every year, I took it and tossed it into the corner. Last year, I took it and started dusting it off. This year, we've been very pleased to actually have to go through it in detail.' The Pirates went 13-30 from the day that playoff ticket information started showing up in mailboxes.”
Norman Chad, Washington Post: “When it comes to gambling, the NFL always has been — how shall we say? — a little bit pregnant. Let me put it this way: If gambling were the preacher’s daughter, the NFL would knock her up, raise its hands plaintively as if it had never touched her — and then go to church to pray for her unborn child. If the NFL were around in the 4th century BC, Hypocrisy would’ve been its commissioner. (Hypocrisy was a spiritual descendant of the Greek god Hypocrates, who never practiced what he preached and purportedly was the first Raiders fan.)”
“He's kind of the heartbeat of this team. To have him back for the last series and starting the playoffs, especially in San Francisco, where he obviously has a ton of history and is a storied manager here, it's good. It gives us a vibe that's pretty easy to play for.”
Reds outfielder Jay Bruce, on getting manager Dusty Baker back for the playoffs.