Sometimes, MLB managing looks as simple as holding one's ground as the opposing team burps and derps itself into the ground. By this measure, Wednesday afternoon was an unqualified success for Robin Ventura and Co. They put their players in position to benefit if the opposition threw the ball to random locations, and Ron Gardenhire's Twins threw the ball to random locations.
But while there are few things that can be genuinely criticized on April 3, Robin Ventura's well-established patterns for bullpen tinkering are still in place and relatively fair game...for polite and restrained questioning, of course.
With one out and the tying run on third, Robin Ventura moves aggressively to keep his tiring starter Felipe Paulino from blowing the game. This is unquestionable decision-making. If anything, it could have been done sooner. Paulino was over 100 pitches, labored through stressful early innings and probably didn't have the gas to reach back to find his way out of another jam.
Maikel Cleto is brought in and ends the threat with all of six pitches. Well done, all.
Rather than take advantage of Cleto still having gas in the tank, Ventura decides to be matchup conscious and brings in Scott Downs to face Joe Mauer to lead off the inning. Again, this is not bad. The Sox are clinging to a one-run lead and there's no bigger threat in the Twins order than Joe Mauer. It's when Downs--historically solid against hitters on both sides of the plate--walks Mauer and Ventura responds with Nate Jones to face Josh Willingham that things officially relocate themselves off the rails.
This is now three pitchers for four at-bats, all of them taking place before the eighth. Joe Mauer is tough, but he was also batting with the bases empty. Walking the leadoff man is not ideal, but Downs is capable of more, and Willingham is not what he used to be. This is not a threat typically enough to necessitate three different relievers.
When Jones has nothing and coughs up the lead, Ventura not only has to replace him with his fourth pitcher in six batters, he suddenly feels the pinch to make up for his tinkering in one gasp.
As was frequently noticed during last season, Ventura can show a tendency for showing a 'winning game' bullpen crew of the closer and setup men and a "losing game" bullpen crew made up of the detritus. Long hours for either crew during streaks and the immediate punting of games they're trailing in are troubling, but the use patterns are notable too. Ventura goes from being extremely choosy to laissez-faire. After Daniel Webb ends the seventh and breezes through the eighth, his manager is still looking for more innings to eat.
Webb winds up pitching deep into the ninth, racking up over 50 pitches and coughing up an important insurance run that prolonged the affair into the 11th. Being down by one run shouldn't cajole out every low-leverage game practice, nor should a three-run lead be treated like a nail-biter every time. Yet handcuffs himself into this situation. He burned nearly half of his pen on the seventh inning or earlier, and he refuses to throw Lindstrom at the problem.
Ron Gardenhire sliding Jason Kubel into the lineup allowed Donnie Veal to work the 10th without incident, but he had to get equally lucky with Ronald Belisario dealing to avoid using the last guy in his bullpen. Erik Johnson warmed up at one point, for an 11-inning game in the first week of the season.
It's an informed perspective that drives Ventura to actively engage crucial situations in earlier innings. He knows that runs can be scarce and that games can be lost in the seventh just as easily as the ninth, but winds up overcompensating to the point of defeating the purpose. His relievers don't develop rhythm or work through problem situations, he's only protected from future high-leverage situations if the inning ends in disaster, and his only self-imposed protection against burning through his talent is hoarding his closer for save situations.
This approach would seem like it's just a minor adjustment away from flowing beautifully, but these are the same stumbling blocks from September 2012.
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