As most people can confirm, one of life’s most unfortunate realities is the inverse relationship between the passage of time and the desirability of an event. When you’re looking so desperately forward to something, time seems to slow to a crawl as that something approaches. It’s why Christmas Eve was the most interminable recurring period of my childhood and why, come November, Spring Training never seems to get any closer. Then there’s the cruel corollary: when you fear and fret over an occasion, it’s upon you in no time at all. It’s why my senior year of college was over before I knew what happened, and why a night’s sleep before an important job interview transpires in the blink of an eye. I’ve come to accept this phenomenon, but I still wish it were different.
Miraculously, yesterday proved to be a merciful exception to this sadistic law. The first thing on my mind in the morning was that evening’s one-game playoff between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins, followed closely by the Yankees’ impending matchup against the victor. My morning passed quickly as I lesson-planned and napped. The afternoon followed suit, aided largely by the incredibly cooperative behavior of my students. It was soon 4:30 and time to go home. I rushed home on the 2 train (to whatever extent being at the total mercy of the conductor during rush hour pedestrian traffic can be considered “rushing”), quickly changed clothes, and plopped down on the couch just as the third inning expired. The thing I was looking forward to the most occurred in no time at all. I was spared.
Or so I thought. As you know by now, the Twins defeated the Tigers in a remarkable extra-inning affair. Even though one got the distinct (and totally accurate) impression that these were two mediocre teams playing mediocre baseball, the game was awfully entertaining. Young Rick Porcello pitched very well on the national stage, striking out eight in five and two-thirds innings before being prematurely yanked. Scott Baker rebounded from a rocky start and did his usual command-and-control thing for six strong innings. Then, as many playoff games do, the contest turned into a battle of the bullpens. This is when I learned that you can only evade the cruel fates for so long.
The Twins led 4-3 going into the eighth inning on the strength of a rousing Orlando Cabrera two-run homer. They were six outs away from winning the game and securing a spot in the American League Division Series against the Yankees. It was the 163rd game of a 162-game season. The loser was going to be sent home with a winter’s worth of wondering “what if?”, while the winner would be granted entry into a tournament so small in sample, so brief in its existence that even the most hapless team could reach its finale. The stakes were, simply put, about as high as they can get.
Theoretically, Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire knew this. It’s his job to know this and, more importantly, it’s his job to care deeply about his team coming out on the favorable side of things. In the top of the seventh inning, down 3-2, Gardenhire mixed and matched his relievers based on some combination of statistical information and “feel.” Matt Guerrier ended up recording the final out of the inning, keeping the Twins in the game with the top of the order coming up in the bottom of the inning. His work went rewarded, as Cabrera hit his aforementioned home run to give the Twins the lead going into the eighth inning. To reiterate: the Twins were six outs away from making the playoffs.
During the commercial break, I turned to my father and said “would you bring in Nathan here? I would.” “Nathan” is, of course, Joe Nathan. He is the Twins’ best reliever, nominal closer, and one of the very best bullpen arms in all of baseball. In fact, by at least one measure, he was the fourth-best reliever in the game this year. Before my father could answer, I wondered aloud if the heart of Detroit’s order was due up in the eighth. Sure enough, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Carlos Guillen awaited whichever Twins reliever showed up on the mound. With a one-run lead against the meat of the order, the outcome of the game hinged greatly on what happened in the top of the eighth inning. Such a situation warrants a team’s best reliever, and that reliever was Joe Nathan.
We returned to the Metrodome to find Matt Guerrier still on the mound. Guerrier is indeed a fine pitcher. By the same measurement that ranked Joe Nathan the fourth-best reliever in baseball, Guerrier is the Twins’ second-best reliever. If Gardenhire were to shy away from using Nathan, Guerrier was the next-best choice. The problem is that the game’s importance called for nothing short of the Twins’ best, and Guerrier is not that. Sure enough, on the first pitch of the inning, Magglio Ordonez crushed the ball out of the ballpark. Tie ballgame. Guerrier went on to induce a groundout from Miguel Cabrera, and then walked Carlos Guillen and Ryan Raburn before being lifted for – you guessed it – Joe Nathan.
That sort of managerial incompetence is inexcusable. Joe Nathan had not pitched in two days, making him more than capable of going two innings for the save. That move, of course, panders mightily to the notion that closers may only pitch when they can earn a save, that they must finish the games they enter. The alternative would have been to pitch Nathan for only (gasp!) the eighth inning against the heart of the Tigers’ order and deploy Guerrier against the dregs of the Tigers’ lineup in the ninth. Either way, Gardenhire handled the decision in the worst way possible. He used a lesser reliever in the game’s most important situation, all because he subscribes to the illogical and competitively crippling idea that closers can only pitch in the ninth inning and only in a save situation. Then, as if to infuriate me and all that is reasonable personally, he put Nathan into the game once the lead had been relinquished. You know, to preserve the tie and not the lead. Nathan went on to record five outs without allowing a run, something he absolutely could have done if he had entered at the start of the inning with a lead instead of in the middle without it.
There is a very clear reason that managers use their bullpen in such a way. It is, at the end of the day, to deflect blame from themselves. If Gardenhire used Nathan in the way I suggested, and Nathan blows it, Gardenhire would have been run out of town. The mythos of the closer is so deeply ingrained in both baseball and its fans that to deviate from it invites professional suicide. If, on the other hand, Gardenhire sticks to the rules (as he did) and Nathan blows it, he can offer up countless platitudes about how “we just didn’t get the job done” or “that’s baseball sometimes.” He can effectively shift the blame onto bad luck or, more nefariously, onto his closer. It’s incredibly unfair and roundly disappointing. If managers were half the competitors they profess to be, they would manage their bullpens very differently. Because at this point, it’s clear that adherence to the rules of conventional bullpen management often lowers a team’s win expectancy.
Let there be no doubt that the Twins were extraordinarily lucky to win last night’s game. Certainly, they made some big plays in extra innings and – based on their season’s body of work – deserved to qualify over the Tigers. But the circumstances, the forum in which those big plays occurred, those extra innings – those don’t happen if Gardenhire manages his bullpen intelligently. The system is broken, and last night’s hidden fiasco is just more evidence of its disrepair.