The dénouement of Sunday’s NLCS Game 2 was disgusting enough to make one hang up the remote control on the entire postseason, not because one roots for the Chicago Cubs, but because when one of the most celebrated managers in the game opts to use one of his worst pitchers in a tie game because he wants to save one of his best to protect a lead his team may never get, it feels like no one ever learns anything and life is futile.
This is one reason why the stories we’ll be seeing in the coming weeks about the managerial searches of the Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are, with the exception of the last, pointless. The Tigers are old and have few prospects. No manager can change that. If Mets players, particularly their pitchers, experience a miraculous combination of recovery and rejuvenation over the winter, they’ll rebound. Otherwise, they’re a good candidate to lose over 90 games again, and there’s a strong argument to be made that they should spend the winter shopping Yoenis Cespedes and Jacob deGrom. Few managers would make so self-sacrificing an argument, even if it’s the most pragmatic option available to the team.
The Red Sox have a hole where David Ortiz used to be. Unless the new skipper is a player-manager a la Frank Robinson 1975, a change of leadership won’t address that. There is a good argument that some of their younger players will give them more next year; Rafael Devers, just by virtue of being in the majors all season. Andrew Benintendi, very troubled by same-side pitching in 2017, should be more than a platoon player. Xander Bogaerts, who hit a punchless .235 in the second half, is obviously a better hitter than that. Mookie Betts required a torrid September just to post a 750 OPS in the second half. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s new normal isn’t likely the .204/.277/.302 he hit in the second half or the .172 he hit in September.
Maybe a new manager will foster an environment which will somehow stabilize their performances, but it will be President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski who will either succeed or fail to supply the power production that was absent this year.
Only the coming Phillies manager has the potential to provide more than tertiary impact. With young players Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, J.P. Crawford and Aaron Nola on the major-league roster, the incoming manager will have the responsibility of taking this inchoate but talented squad and form it into something that achieves major=league standards of comportment and consistency.
Any of those managers-to-be-named-later wanting to undermine their authority can feel free to subscribe to the now Maddon-owned save-your-closer rule. The only goal is to keep the game going, not to think ahead to a science-fiction future when you have a lead that needs protecting. If you don’t stop the opposition in the bottom of the inning, you may not get another turn at bat with which to get the lead. At the Battle of Antietam, General McClellan refused to commit his reserves in order to win the battle because he had to save them to … Well, something. Lincoln fired him, and he went down in history as a gigantic boob and the governor of New Jersey, but I repeat myself.
Managers, you do not want to be remembered as a governor of New Jersey. Governors of New Jersey receive neither championship rings nor Hall of Fame plaques, and they sure as hell don’t found no dynasties.
Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, lately ushered out of the postseason without achieving completion for the ninth time, is without a contract for next season. Joe Girardi of the Yankees, too, is a lame duck. In 2002, Baker’s Giants and the Anaheim Angels took the World Series to Game 7. The Giants were held to one run over five innings by Lackey. Baker must have wept bitter tears on Sunday night — he got the wrong Lackey at the wrong time. So did Maddon, but he already has his validation in the form of a championship and hagiographic biographies, whereas right now Nationals ownership may be wondering what Baker did to make the entire roster hit .186 in five games.
The answer is nothing, not a damned thing. There was no pregame meeting in which he shouted, “Strike out in a quarter of your at-bats, me hearties! Shame us all with your ineptitude!” Nor, for that matter, did he perform some kind of sorcery which transferred all of Washington’s potency into Michael Taylor, leaving none for anyone else. These are just things that happen.
Girardi’s Yankees may well lose the ALCS against the Houston Astros, having lost consecutive 2-1 games. Losing a 2-1 game is a lot like losing a coin flip. A frog on a log in a bog in Botswana belches into the wind and half a world away a ball drops. To the extent that Girardi was able to influence these outcomes, he did the right things. This was particularly the case in Game 2, when for the second time this October he had to cope with the early departure of Luis Severino. With the game tied at 1-1 going to the bottom of the ninth on the road, he didn’t try to improvise, didn’t Buck Showalter or Maddon his way through to a lead with a low-percentage improvisation, but tossed Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph fastball out there. That it didn’t work is down to luck or Chapman’s rigidities, but it was still the right choice.
He may not be rehired anyway, despite being smart enough not to put Jaime Garcia (the New York version of Lackey) on the mound against one of the best offenses of recent memory. Sure, he’s not personable and he blew a replay call a series ago, but so did your mother, and you still send a card on her birthday. Nobody’s perfect.
For the teams out of the playoffs, the search for managers who are better than this rolls on. Remember, though, that mistakes like Maddon’s or Girardi’s only come along every so often. For the vast majority of the time, for most of 162 games a year, the real test is, “Do you have the players or not?” If the answer is, “Well, we have Miguel Cabrera, and sure, he’s a debilitated 35-year-old with off-the-field issues, but, y’know, he used to be the MVP and he might be again someday!” then none of it has the slightest meaning at all.
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