Before Britton: Showalter's mistake recalls fatal decisions in postseasons past
- The Orioles' season ended with their best pitcher waiting for a call that never came, a scenario that helped end Buck Showalter's time as Yankees manager and may have prevented New York from winning the World Series in 2003.
All of baseball’s past is prologue. It is one of the game's best—and most marketable—qualities. Thus, no matter how thrilling the Blue Jays’ 5-2 win against the Orioles in the American League wild-card game on Tuesday was, it was not without precedent. There have been extra inning classics in Octobers past. There have been walk-off home runs in do-or-die games before. And there surely have been curious managerial decisions that overshadowed the outcome of the game itself.
Such was the case when Baltimore manager Buck Showalter elected not to use closer Zach Britton—possessor of both a filthy sinker and a major-league-record 0.54 ERA—in multiple instances in which his team’s season hung in the balance. Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion finally made Showalter pay when he ripped a three-run, walk-off home run into the leftfield seats at Rogers Centre in the bottom of the 11th.
That blast may have officially ended the game, but it certainly seemed over from the moment Ubaldo Jimenez (ERA: 5.44) was allowed to pitch to Encarnacion in the first place. Afterward, Showalter insisted he had faith in all of his relievers and that Jimenez’s recent success—which included a 2.82 ERA in the second half—gave him confidence he could escape the jam and still allow Britton to be used with a chance to preserve a potential lead.
Inexplicable though it may have been, Showalter’s decision to keep the best reliever in baseball in the bullpen while instead calling upon a faded righthanded starter in a crucial postseason game was not unique, not even for Showalter. Before Encarnacion even completed his joyous journey around the bases, it was easy to recall two similar decisions—and outcomes—both more than a decade earlier.
Showalter’s first gig as a major league manager came with the Yankees, and it ended in 1995, after New York lost a thrilling American League Division Series to the Mariners. With the decisive Game 5 deadlocked at 4-4 in the ninth inning, Showalter made a move that foreshadowed his choice 21 years later, opting to use a past-his-prime starter pitching in relief rather than going to his closer in a tie game on the road. That decision is more easily defended. While John Wetteland had saved 31 games for the Yankees that year, he’d also been lit up for a 14.54 ERA by the Mariners’ potent lineup in the ALDS. Jack McDowell, though a far cry from the pitcher he had been when he won the AL Cy Young Award for the White Sox two seasons prior, was a proven commodity and far better than the batch of middling middle relievers Showalter was left to choose from after a rookie named Mariano Rivera finished his third scoreless outing of the series. Even after the Yankees went ahead 5-4 in the top of the 11th, Showalter stuck with McDowell, who gave up three hits—including Edgar Martinez’s walk-off, two-run double—without recording an out in the bottom half as Seattle rallied for a 6-5 win.
After that season, New York owner George Steinbrenner replaced Showalter with Joe Torre. Torre guided the Yankees to four World Series titles and six pennants in his first eight seasons, thanks in large measure to Rivera, who quickly established himself as the best reliever in baseball history.
What may have been the ultimate example of Rivera’s domination and value came in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS at Yankee Stadium, when he entered a tie game in the ninth inning against a Red Sox team that had led the majors with 961 runs scored that year. Rivera pitched three shutout innings, his longest outing since his days as Wetteland’s set-up man in 1996, and the Yankees eventually won on Aaron Boone’s unforgettable walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th.
That blast earned New York a spot in the World Series against the Florida Marlins. After splitting the first two games in the Bronx, the Yankees won Game 3 in Miami, 6-1, with Rivera coming on in the bottom of the eight to protect a 2-1 lead and closing it out after New York added four insurance runs in the top of the ninth. He needed just 23 pitches to notch his 30th save in 32 career postseason appearances, and he lowered his ERA to a sparkling 0.77.
In his press conference before Game 4, Torre said of Rivera, “I don’t think you can trust anybody more than you trust Mariano,” before adding, “But today wouldn’t be a two-inning save. Hopefully we’re in position to [not need him] today.”
It didn’t look like they would when starter Roger Clemens—on the mound for what was at the time expected to be his last major league performance—gave up three first inning runs. But Clemens settled down to deliver six scoreless innings after that, and the Yankees eventually tied the game in the ninth on a two-out, two-run triple by Ruben Sierra off Florida closer Ugueth Urbina.
Jose Contreras came on to pitch the bottom of the ninth and retired the Marlins in order, picking up two strikeouts. He also pitched the 10th inning, working around a leadoff walk to Juan Pierre and ending the inning with two more Ks after Pierre had reached second.
In the 11th, the Yankees got runners to second and third with one out and the pitcher’s spot due up in the order. Torre pinch-hit for Contreras with outfielder Juan Rivera, who was intentionally walked. Boone then missed a chance to be the hero again when he struck out, and backup catcher John Flaherty followed by popping out to end the inning.
Torre now faced a critical decision: Who to send out to the mound for the bottom of the 11th? His team was two wins away from wrapping up the World Series, and stealing a victory in a game in which the Yankees had been down to their final out would give New York three chances to close out the series, two at home if need be. The pitcher’s spot wasn’t due up in his lineup for seven more batters, so Torre effectively had two innings before he would have to worry about that.
The Yankees had included 11 pitchers on their World Series roster. Starters Mike Mussina (who had pitched Game 3), Clemens (Game 4) and David Wells (scheduled for Game 5) were obviously unavailable. Andy Pettitte, who had pitched 8 2/3 innings in Game 2 three days earlier and was scheduled to go in Game 6 three days later, would have been a method of last resort.
Among the seven relievers, Contreras and Jeff Nelson had already been used. That left Torre with the following five options:
Chris Hammond: A 37-year-old journeyman lefty, Hammond had appeared in 62 games that season, second only to Rivera among New York’s relievers, and posted a 2.86 ERA. However, he had not pitched at all during the postseason. In fact, he had been left off the roster for the ALCS against Boston but was added back for the World Series even though he hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26. Said Torre before the Fall Classic, “Matchup-wise Hammond could be more useful. Plus, you are playing in Florida, and you are going to pinch-hit and you may need to change pitchers more to get an out and the you have to deal with double switches and pinch-hitting.”
Felix Heredia: Another journeyman lefty, Heredia, 28, had been claimed off waivers from the Reds that August but had actually become useful to the Yankees in October, making six appearances and giving up one run in 4 2/3 innings. None of those outings, however, had come in the World Series.
Gabe White: Like Heredia, White, 31, was a journeyman lefty who had been acquired during the season from the Reds. He had pitched 3 1/3 innings in the postseason to date, allowing five hits and one run over three games, but he hadn’t yet appeared in the World Series.
Jeff Weaver: Before the season, Weaver was among the five Yankees starting pitchers who joined owner George Steinbrenner on Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue under the headline: “You Can’t Have Too Much Pitching (Just Ask George)”. A sixth, Wells, missed the photo shoot that day, but by year’s end, it was Weaver who was nowhere to be found. He had made 24 starts that season in his 32 appearances, but he posted a dreadful 5.99 ERA and a whopping 1.619 WHIP and had been relegated to a long-relief role late in the season. Weaver was still just 26 and a former first-round draft pick, but, like Hammond, he had not pitched in the entire postseason. He was New York’s long man in the bullpen, expected to be used only if a game had either gotten out of hand early or had lasted deep into extra innings.
Mariano Rivera: Torre’s pregame calculation that Rivera was only available for one inning was based on his hope that he would then be able to use Rivera to close out the Series in Game 5. Only once that year had Rivera followed up a two-inning outing by pitching again the next day. He actually pitched on each of June 28, 29 and 30 but then wouldn't pitch again until July 6. Using Rivera in Game 4 in an uncertain situation might have compromised Torre's ability to use him in Game 5 or 6.
Three righthanded hitters were due up for Florida in the bottom of the 11th: Jeff Conine, Mike Lowell and Derrek Lee. If anyone reached, another righty awaited: shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who was 5-for-53 to that point in the postseason but who had hit a career-high 18 home runs that season. After Gonzalez was the pitcher’s spot.
Following conventional baseball wisdom, Torre was reluctant to go to his closer in a tie game on the road, and even more reluctant to use any of his lefties against that set of righties, the last there of whom had combined for 81 home runs in 2003. There was a chance Torre would need a new pitcher for the 13th inning too: If New York survived the 12th inning, their scheduled hitters in the 13th would be Hideki Matsui, David Dellucci and the pitcher’s spot. Dellucci, acquired from Arizona in late July, had started just 18 games for New York that year and had entered Game 4 as a pinch-runner, scoring the tying run from first on Sierra’s ninth-inning triple. He’d had six postseason plate appearances, picking up one hit. Torre would then have to decide what to do with the pitcher’s spot: let the pitcher hit for himself or use utilityman Enrique Wilson, the last position player available on the bench.
That decision could wait. For the 11th, Torre settled on Weaver. The lanky righthander retired Florida in order on only eight pitches, emboldening Torre to let him pitch the 12th. But on a 3-2 pitch to Gonzalez, Weaver threw a fastball that had no life and the shortstop ripped it down the leftfield line and just over the wall for a game-winning home run.
Afterward, Torre didn’t have much of an explanation for why he went with Weaver. “If he’s not in the game there he shouldn’t be on our roster,” said the future Hall of Famer.
Weaver walked off the mound while the Marlins celebrated behind him. The World Series was suddenly tied, and the Yankees had missed their best and, as it turned out, last chance to win the title. In Game 5 New York lost, 6-4, as Contreras and Hammond got roughed up in relief of Wells, who had to leave after a scoreless first inning because of back spasms. In Game 6 back in the Bronx, the Yankees were shutout, 2-0, by Josh Beckett. Rivera pitched the final two innings of New York's season in a losing effort.
As it turned out, Weaver wasn't on the Yankees roster much longer. He was traded to the Dodgers in the off-season in a deal that brought back Kevin Brown, who would be pounded by the Red Sox in the ALCS Game 7 rematch at Yankee Stadium the next October. The Yankees' dynasty was over, and after the 2007 season, so too was Torre's tenure as manager. New York didn't play in or win the World Series again until 2009.
In retrospect it is easy to understand all the reasons Torre had for not using Rivera: his concern over Rivera’s usage for the rest of the series, the fact that it was a tied game on the road, the Marlins’ heavily righthanded lineup and the chance that he might have needed a new pitcher anyway in the 13th inning. They weren't all that different from the reasons Showalter gave Tuesday night in Toronto. But all the reasonable explanations in the world won't ignore the fact that both Torre and Showalter lost while historically great relievers went unused. The lesson, then, for all future managers looking to avoid a similar fate is this: If you wait to win with your best option, don’t be surprised if you lose.