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When Is The 'Pen Mightier Than The Starter?

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If you’re wondering when games are most often decided, keep in mind that crucial time towards the end of the 6th inning and beginning of the 7th. That’s when starters often are either tiring or reaching a high pitch count but the most reliable relievers generally cannot yet be used. This is the toughest part of the game for managers to navigate when the game is close, because the choices come down to these:

  • extend the starter and risk leaving him in “one batter too long”
  • bring in your best relievers and risk “spending them” in a game that still has a ways to go
  • bring in your “B-squad” relievers and put a close game in their hands

Bob Geren has been confronted with this dilemma multiple times already in this young season, and so far he has usually opted to yank the starter (Blanton, both in Seattle and Anaheim, Gaudin in Anaheim and Oakland, Kennedy in Anaheim and Oakland) after the starter had gotten somewhere between 15-18 outs. In some of these cases, the decision was made easier by the fact that early in the season, pitch limits are lower and in some of these examples the pitcher was nearing 100 pitches.

However, as the season progresses it will be interesting to see what Geren does when starters begin to falter in the middle-innings. Will Geren ask more of his starters in order to preserve the bullpen—potentially leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder induced cries of FIRE MACHA NOW? Or will Geren, as he did in Anaheim, call on the Jay Witasicks because he can’t go to the Streets and Duchscherers every time—causing the Vlad Guerreros to start drooling? Or will Geren, as he did Tuesday night without the lead, call on the Streets and Duchscherers—only to find them (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) ineffective the next day?

It’s not going to be easy for Geren, simply because the A’s play a lot of close games. The trouble with pitching especially well and not hitting especially well is that a lot of games, as you get to the 6th and 7th innings, are going to be 3-2, 3-3, 2-1…You’re going to find yourself, time and time again, in the 6th inning of a tight game, watching your starter get into trouble as he nears 100 pitches, and having to decide what to do.

What to do?