Bochy's tactics, talent too much for Washington in Midsummer Classic
PHOENIX -- The Giants' Bruce Bochy earned the right to manage the National League All-Stars by deftly deploying a stalwart starting rotation and an outstanding bullpen to claim last year's World Series title.
To this Midsummer Classic, Bochy brought four of his pitchers and had the luxury of only needing one of them for the game's final two outs in a 5-1 win over the American League, the NL's second straight All-Star victory. Such scant use of the Giants' premium arms was made possible by a difference-making three-run homer from the Brewers' Prince Fielder and because, for a night, he also had at his disposal the best arms from two potentially historic pitching staffs.
"Pitching stops hitting, and those guys over there pitch very well," AL manager Ron Washington said. "The arms [Bochy] brought in and the stuff that they threw up there at that plate, you know, I think we had two innings where we had an opportunity to maybe get some runs. But they constantly shut it down."
The past two seasons are shaping up as the nascent stages of what could be the Pitching Age, a recurring phenomenon as cyclical as prehistoric ice ages. At the forefront is an emerging triumvirate of power in which the Braves, Phillies and Giants not only accounted for three of the NL's four playoff spots in 2010 (including the aforementioned World Series championship), but also hold the NL's three best records in 2011 and are poised to continue this run into 2012 and beyond.
Those three clubs rank Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the majors in staff ERA, and particularly the Phillies (3.02) and Braves (3.11) are within striking distance of becoming the first clubs with a staff ERA below 3.00 since 1989.
On a staff of 14 pitchers, 10 hailed from the Giants (four), Braves and Phillies (three each), and though two were ineligible to pitch because they started on Sunday, half of the remaining dozen secured 15 of the game's 27 outs as the NL cruised the first six innings on a minuscule 68 pitches and held the AL to only one run on six hits and one walk.
"We face it on a daily basis," said Braves catcher Brian McCann. "It doesn't stop. Not only is it the NL but the AL too, it seems that the arms are just ridiculous. Every single night you're battling a top-of-the-rotation starter."
The modern rules and conventions of the All-Star Game, along with a bit of bad luck, tripped up the AL. The AL's staff was hamstrung by the loss of Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and James Shields all having pitched Sunday and further depleted when Josh Beckett, the scheduled second-inning pitcher, was so bothered by a sore knee that he was unable to pitch.
While the loss of Beckett admittedly left Washington in a lurch -- he scrambled to replace Boston's ace with Yankees set-up man David Robertson, who was able to warm quickly -- some of the damage was self-inflicted. Washington only asked his starter, the Angels' Jered Weaver, to throw one inning. This isn't the All-Star Game of yore when starters went three or more frames, but most traditionally go at least two.
Furthermore, despite Major League Baseball's ubiquitous promise that "This Time It Counts" -- a nod to the All-Star Game determining which league receives home-field advantage in the World Series -- the AL's substitution pattern suggested otherwise
A team trailing 4-1 in the seventh inning, such as the AL on Tuesday, needs base runners more than anything else. Due up for the AL were Jose Bautista, Josh Hamilton and Kevin Youkilis, who happen to rank second, fourth and third in the league in on-base percentage since the start of 2010. The lineup had aligned perfectly for a rally.
But the game was deepening, and opportunities for at bats were dwindling, so Washington replaced Bautista and Hamilton -- both of whom were voted in by the fans to start the All-Star Game -- in the field in the bottom of the sixth with Carlos Quentin and Matt Joyce, a pair of players who are neither better fielders nor better hitters than the men they replaced and who rank 37th and 26th on the aforementioned AL OBP ranking.
"At that point I only had intentions of playing [Bautista and Hamilton] four innings, five at the most," Washington said. "If they would have hit in that [sixth] inning, I would have let them go, but my intention was to get the other guys in there. They were All-Stars also."
Quentin popped out in foul territory, and Joyce grounded out. Youkilis did his part and singled. Paul Konerko then drew a walk, but both were stranded, and the rally was squashed. Quentin and Joyce both batted again in the ninth, meaning they had an equal number of plate appearances as Bautista and Hamilton.
The pressure to play everyone is immense, and Washington was in an unenviable position. His decision to replace Bautista and Hamilton was even understandable given the way the All-Star Game is annually played and given that there was no guarantee that the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the lineup would cycle through again in the ninth. But it's also undeniable that the decision did not put the AL in the best position to win.
Bochy didn't face the same test with his position players as the NL took the lead on the fourth-inning home run by Fielder, for which he earned MVP honors, so he didn't have to so delicately juggle using his starters deep in the game against making sure as many names as possible appeared in the box score.
But Bochy was bold with his pitchers, using the Phillies' Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and the Braves' Jair Jurrjens for at least five outs apiece. Though Lee allowed the solo homer to Boston's Adrian Gonzalez for the AL's lone run, the trio otherwise were as good as advertised.
"If you look at their records, or how they have done the first half, I think they were very deserving to be out there," Bochy said. "Well, more so than my guys, I think, to be honest."
Statistically speaking, he's right. That's no slight to the very good body of work put forth by the Giants pitchers to date, but it has thus far been exceeded by the NL East powers in Philadelphia and Atlanta. (And, for the record, by mixing and matching his relievers late, Bochy used 10 pitchers compared to nine employed by Washington.)
Bochy proved to be a skilled in-game tactician in last October's World Series run, and given the All-Star arsenal in his clubhouse on Tuesday -- featuring the best arms of the NL's new-age nouveau riche -- it was a combination that was too tough to beat.