There are people who like to compare a baseball season to running a marathon; I know because I’m one of those people. When you’re running a marathon (I’ve run 75 percent of one and limped the other 25 percent) you have to pace yourself.
Same thing applies in baseball.
Pacing yourself during the season means a manager can’t pull his starting pitcher too early, no matter how poorly he’s pitching; a manager has to get innings out of his starter so he doesn’t burn out his bullpen. It also means a manager doesn’t ask for too much from his set-up man and closer. Ask them for four outs or start pitching them three or four days in a row in July and they’re going to come up with sore arms before the season’s over.
So during the middle of the 162-game marathon, a manager tries to conserve his best relievers’ arms by only using them when he’s tied or has a lead; he doesn’t want to burn up quality relief innings in a game he’ll probably lose.
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But just like a marathon, there comes a time for a finishing kick.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
The Oakland Athletics are a last-place team, currently 21 games below .500. On Monday night they started Ross Detwiler; a pitcher who came into the game with a losing record and an ERA of 5.03. If the Royals have any hope of making it to the postseason, this was just the kind of game they have to win.
Royals starter Dillon Gee had command issues and gave up a three-run homer in the third inning. But the Royals came right back and tied the score in the bottom of the third; the Royals were right back in it and Gee was sent back out to pitch the fourth.
But Gee started the inning with two singles and then allowed a sac fly that put the A’s back on top 4-3.
Gee clearly didn’t have it and Ned Yost needed to make a pitching change while the game was still winnable. You manage differently down the stretch; this wasn’t a July game where you leave the starter and hope for innings that will protect your bullpen, this was a September game with the season on the line.
So Brooks Pounders — a guy with 8 1/3 big-league innings and an ERA of 9.72 — was given the ball.
Pounders gave up a double to Danny Valencia; now the A’s had two runners in scoring position. Pounders came out of the game and left-handed Scott Alexander came in to face left-handed Steven Vogt.
Once again the fate of the Royals was in the hands of a guy without much big-league experience; Alexander had thrown three innings since being recalled on Aug. 31. Alexander threw one pitch; a sinker that didn’t sink. Vogt singled, two runs scored and the Athletics were up 6-3.
Ned played mix-and-match and brought in a righty to face a righty and a lefty to face a lefty, but the two guys he used were late season call-ups.
After Vogt’s single, Chris Young replaced Alexander. Yost said he wanted innings from Young and was hoping to keep his big guns fresh. Young also had a rough night and by the time he was finished any chance of winning the game was gone.
So what were the options?
It’s easy to wait until the dust clears and say what should have been done instead of what was done, so keep that in mind as we go along.
The basic question facing Ned Yost and the Royals is this: at this point of the season do they try to keep the “big guns fresh” or do they pull the trigger while the big guns still might do some good? Have the Royals reached the point in the season where they don’t try to save quality innings for a later game?
Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis pitched both Saturday and Sunday, so they might not have been available on Monday, but the Royals have an 11-man bullpen right now. Were Pounders and Alexander the best options to get through the fourth-inning jam?
If you’re thinking you’ll need your better pitchers later in the game, think of it this way: if you don’t get through that fourth-inning jam with a chance to win, your better pitchers won’t throw at all. Take care of the problem you have right now; not the problem you might have in the future.
If this game took place in July, handling it the way Ned handled it is fine; you’re still pacing yourself. But now it’s September and the season’s hanging by a thread. Is it time to go to the best relievers while a game’s still winnable?
Is it time for the Royals to go into their finishing kick?