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Opening Night's Middle Innings And Geren's "Sophie's Choice"

"True, you could have had a V-8, but how's your ankle?"
"True, you could have had a V-8, but how's your ankle?"

What I love most about baseball are the strategic subtleties that crop up in each unique game, and yesterday offered a real dilemma as to how to handle a game the A's led 2-1 in the 5th inning with Trevor Cahill on his way out at 105 pitches.

Geren came out apparently to tell Cahill he had one more hitter to try to get through the 5th and when Cahill yielded a hit I think Geren made the correct decision to go to the bullpen at that point. You'd love to get more than 14 outs from your starter just as you'd love to let your starter qualify for the win, but I think it was right move. Now what?

With Andrew Bailey out, Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz available but about 1-2 weeks behind schedule and looking every bit behind in their Cactus League tuneups, Geren had relatively little to work with despite every single reliever being rested and available.

The manager has two fundamental choices in a situation like this. One is to go with multiple short relievers and the other is to go with one long reliever, until you can get the guys in there you really want pitching your high leverage innings -- which in this case were Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour.

One thing I want to emphasize is that on the game thread I wound up taking a position contrary to the one I normally take, and that I generally agree with the position I argued against. DMOAS very correctly argued that it is very risky to count on several relievers to pitch well on the same day, compared to rolling the dice with one guy -- even if he isn't a great pitcher -- to be "on" that day.

Unless it's the All-Star game and you happen to have 4-5 terrific relievers at your disposal, you are usually better off counting on fewer pitchers even if it means putting all your eggs in a pretty rickety basket. And when Breslow was uber-shaky, and Ziegler's throws to Kurt Suzuki and Daric Barton kept landing only vaguely near them, we saw why.

That being said, fast forward out of theory and into practice of last night's unique game, and I have to tell you: If I'm the manager of the A's and King Feliz is dealing and I have a window of opportunity to beat him anyway with a 2-1 lead after 5 innings, I'm not going to Bobby Cramer for the next two innings in my quest to try to squeeze two shutout innings out of the middle relievers in an effort to get to Fuentes and Balfour.

I might ask Fuentes and Balfour to combine to get me 7-8 outs, hoping to need only 4-5 from the rest of the pen. I might roll the dice that Breslow or Wuertz is ready just in time for Opening Night (though I really wanted to see them out of high leverage situations for the first week if possible) -- and as it turned out, in hindsight, Wuertz was up to the challenge while Breslow wasn't. But turn it over to my worst reliever for multiple innings, with no margin for error? I wouldn't do it, and I don't blame Geren for feeling the same way.

Kouzmanoff's defense begat Cahill's pitch count (as did Cahill's pitching), and Cahill's pitch count begat a bullpen needing to get more outs than this bullpen is ready to take on at this moment. And then the A's infield kicked the ball around something fierce anyway, to where Mariano Rivera would have had difficulty making progress. Oh well.