Last night's gut-wrenching surprise finish evoked varied reactions from fans. Such as my slightly numb, slightly bemused response, upon seeing Rajai Davis blast a walkoff grand slam off of Sean Doolittle to erase a 3-run deficit: "Well, I did not see that coming."
Like it or not, last night's final pitch is what is truly great about baseball. You cannot possibly expect Rajai Davis to hit a dramatic game-winning grand slam off of Sean Doolittle, yet stuff like that absolutely does happen. Any given weird thing is extremely unlikely to occur, and yet it is exceedingly likely that some weird thing will occur. That's why you can't help but tune in later today, because you have to find out ... Will Brad Mills get lit up because he's Brad Mills? Or will he strangely subdue the Tigers' offense because he's Brad Mills?
If it helps to keep things in perspective, consider that my mom -- who is passionate about the A's and has always been passionate in her love of Rajai Davis -- listened to the end of the game last night driving to the hospital to see a friend she learned was in the ICU, hooked up to more tubes to sink a battleship. In comparison, your life is pretty good this morning, grand slam and all.
This is what it means to be a baseball fan. My mom went to the hospital last night because she knew that if she waited until this morning it might be too late. However, apparently she parked in the hospital parking lot just as Doolittle was navigating the bottom of the 9th ... and sat in the car listening until the Davis grand slam.
That's right: she raced over to the hospital to see a dying friend before it was too late, knowing that minutes counted, then waited 5 minutes in the parking lot to hear how the bottom of the 9th played out. Only if you're a baseball fan is your response, "Well of course." You can't leave a tense game in the bottom of the 9th. Duh.
What I really want to talk about is an excerpt from a phone interview I did with Craig Breslow in 2010, because it was truly enlightening to me and relates to Doolittle. I believe Doolittle is a bit fatigued right now following a flurry of tight games that have caused him to be used for stretches like "4 days out of 5" -- yet last night he was throwing his fastball 95-97 MPH.
If a pitcher can maintain his best velocity then fatigue isn't the issue, right? Wrong. In our interview (Part I here, Part II here, Part III here), Breslow offered perspective on how fatigue can impact performance:
There are some of things that are probably pretty obvious -- I would say velocity typically takes a dip the 3rd or 4th day in a row that you're throwing. But I think one thing that's kind of perhaps overlooked would be command. And not necessarily just "strikes vs. balls" -- for the most part, guys are still able to keep the ball within the strike zone -- but it's the pitch that was at the knees two days ago was kind of at the lower thigh yesterday, and is now closer to the belt. Or a pitch that you were able to get the outer 1/3 of the plate is now maybe just at the outer 1/2 as the result of being tired, and maybe your arm and your body not working as synchronized as they had been...
...There's even a chance that my top fastball's 93 MPH the first day after four days off, and the last day it might be 93 MPH after pitching three or four days in a row, but I just feel like I need to work that much harder to get it to 93 MPH. And I think that as a result at times my command suffers, or movement suffers, things like that.
To me that was a ground-breaking realization: That from a weary pitcher I might see the same velocity as always, but that the pitcher might need to be working that much harder to maintain the velocity and that this could impact other key areas such as location and movement. I suspect that the recent heavy workload has caught up to Doolittle in this way: not that he's injured, not that he's unable to throw as hard as ever, just that he has finally been robbed of a little life, and a little command, and it really caught up to him last night.
Note that I don't think Doolittle has been overworked in any negligent manner. I think sometimes pitchers just have to work more or less, and it can catch up to them. I would be fine with the A's sitting Doolittle tonight and tomorrow just to reset his arm a bit, going with Ryan Cook as the potential closer tonight with Fernando Abad setting up, Jim Johnson and Jeff Francis for longer relief duty, aiming to stay away from Luke Gregerson and/or Dan Otero if possible and then slotting Gregerson and Otero into the 8th/9th inning roles Wednesday.
Then Thursday, the A's get a big shot in the arm with Eric O'Flaherty currently projected to be activated when the A's return home. Until Thursday, though, Oakland's bullpen is running on fumes and Bob Melvin may need to be a bit creative in shuffling roles around for another 48 hours. And whatever Mills does, let's just hope he does it for 6 IP.