Perhaps it’s just my PTSD, but watching the Milwaukee Brewers lose their “one game showdown” in game 7 last night seemed to have many parallels to the A’s wild card loss 17 days prior.
Certainly there were differences, but in only going 2 IP Jhoulys Chacin served as the Brewers’ “opener” and sure enough served up an early 2-run HR that put his team in a hole. Josh Hader came on to serve as the game’s Lou Trivino, firing 3 scoreless innings to keep his team in the hunt. Then came the 6th inning, in which a reliever (Jeremy Jeffress to your Fernando Rodney) who has had success closing, but who had been throwing the ball poorly of late, showed up shaky again to turn a close low-scoring game into a sure post-season exit. All of which served to distract from the fact that the team just didn’t hit enough to win anyway.
Meanwhile, in each game the opposing starting pitcher threw into the 5th inning and while neither Luis Severino nor Walker Buehler got terribly deep into the game their ability to give their team around 5 IP, instead of 1 or 2 IP, proved to be key.
It’s not Bob Melvin’s fault nor Craig Counsell’s fault that they got so little out of their starting pitching and asked so much out of their relievers. These moves were borne less out of pedagogy than out of necessity. You don’t resort to “bullpenning” or yanking your SP early because you want to so much as because you don’t have starting pitchers you can lean on for 6-7 IP.
Still, the impact is easy to see. Last night, Hader gave a yeoman’s effort but because Chacin lasted just 2 IP Hader’s 3 IP only got the Brewers to the 6th inning. That meant that no matter how shaky he had been, Jeffress was definitely going to have to play a prominent role in the last 4 innings, as would a weary Corey Knebel (25 pitches the day before, working at Brandon Morrow levels throughout the post-season).
In contrast, Dave Roberts was sitting pretty needing 13 outs — which is a lot until you contrast it to 21 — from a group led by Ryan Madson and Kenley Jansen. Clayton Kershaw was a sweet cherry to have on top, but really he was not essential once Madson and Jansen combined for 3 dominant innings and the Dodgers took a commanding lead into the 9th.
Now you can fault Counsell, if you want, for pulling Chacin so early as that was a choice (just as you could fault the A’s for not starting Edwin Jackson and hoping to coax a solid 4-5 IP from their first pitcher). But watching Chacin it was evident that in contrast to game 3 he was really not sharp, so for Counsell it was most likely a “damned if you do (forced to run tired or iffy relievers out there eventually), damned if you don’t (Chacin puts you in a bigger hole)” scenario.
The bottom line? For all the new-age chatter around “bullpenning,” “openers,” and “only twice through the order,” the best blueprint continues to be starting pitchers who can get you deeper into games. During the regular season, “deep into games” may mean 6-7 IP while in the post-season it may sometimes look more like 4.2 IP, but if Hader can start the 6th instead of the 3rd, Trivino the 6th instead of the 2nd, we might be looking at a different World Series.
Of course you have to have the horses with whom to do it. The Dodgers were able to ride Kershaw and Walker while the Brewers limped along with Wade Miley and called Chacin their “ace,” and the A’s options were so uninspiring that by the wild card game that they left their most reliable starter (Mike Fiers) off the roster entirely.
Perhaps the days of starting pitchers going 9 IP are behind us, but even if 6 IP becomes a “long start” and 5.1 IP more typical, there is still an awful lot to be said for getting your SP through more than half the game — it just gives managers an opportunity to make moves likely to succeed rather than being in Melvin’s and Counsell’s shoes furiously trying to draw fresh blood too many times from too many stones.