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What Are The Lessons As Melvin Dodges A Bullet?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Oakland Athletics
“But it was only a bloop!”
Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

If you read AN regularly (and if you don’t I suggest more fiber), you know that I maintain that overall, Bob Melvin has done an excellent job of managing the bullpen this year despite questionable roster construction, and you also know that I try to “call it as I see it” on a day-to-day basis.

There was much hand-wringing today over Melvin’s pitching decisions and I have to admit I was among those who felt that today, the manager took a good situation and made it bad until the Giants tied the game and left Chris Hatcher throwing in the bullpen for an 11th inning that thankfully never arrived.

I didn’t really have a problem with Sean Manaea being pulled in the 7th, because when he tires Manaea loses velocity and is pretty much “done” and he was approaching 100 pitches. Manaea got the A’s 20 outs and that was sufficient.

The problem began when he went to Emilio Pagan with a runner at 1B and 2 outs, and then panicked when Pagan gave up a bloop single that put runners at the corners and brought the tying run to the plate in a 4-1 game.

In came Lou Trivino, following his 24 pitch outing last night, and Trivino was not terribly sharp, opening with a flat cutter that Pablo Sandoval ripped into the RF corner for a 2-run double and then struggling to locate, or get his signature movement, on subsequent offerings. A bloop single tied the game and next thing you knew, Melvin was compelled to go to another weary reliever: Yusmeiro Petit, pitching for the third day in a row, serving up a go-ahead HR to Andrew McCutchen.

Fortunately, Khris Davis and Jeurys Familia saved the day, the former tying the game with an 8th inning HR and the latter debuting with 2 scoreless innings to get the win. Where exactly did Melvin err and what lessons need to be learned?

To me it comes down to one key moment. With Blake Treinen not available, with Ryan Buchter and Petit having pitched each of the last 2 days, with Trivino having worked hard the night before, Melvin was unwilling to stay with Pagan as the situation moved into high leverage.

I know that with the Familia acquisition, it is going to be only more tempting to hold the belief that the A’s can navigate every close game using only their elite relievers in key situations, but this is not true. Even with Familia joining Treinen, Trivino, and Buchter as “plus relievers,” for the A’s to compete in the marathon that is the season they are going to have to get positive contributions from Petit and Pagan in spots normally reserved for the “plus-plus guys”.

Sure you would rather have Trivino in the game in a key spot than Pagan, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from letting Pagan try to handle a key spot. Context is everything, and constantly going to Trivino on back-to-back days, forcing Petit to stretch himself to 3 in a row — the result isn’t even necessarily injury, it’s reduced effectiveness. And now both relievers are unavailable Monday.

Note that I’m not suggesting Melvin should freely throw J.B. Wendelken, who is green and unproven, into the fire, nor that he should naively trust Chris Hatcher when Hatcher is two notches below Pagan on the scale I just made up. But those “tweeners” who are neither “plus-plus” nor “bad” nor “totally inexperienced” — on this current team it’s Petit and Pagan, and Wendelken could get there — have to be trusted when their superiors aren’t fresh.

Even with Familia in the mix there is going to be a temptation, going forward, to go to the same great arms every time a winnable game feels at risk. Don’t do it. The “tweeners” have to step up sometimes and they are talented enough to do it.

Had Melvin just trusted Pagan to finish the 7th (and then probably pitch the 8th), everything would have fallen into place today, and also for Monday. Or Pagan would have imploded and lost the game, but you know what? It happens — and usually doesn’t. You can’t manage not to let Pagan blow it just because Trivino is better and is available.

The best model for the TnT boys, anyway, is the one Melvin has been using much of the season and that is leveraging them fully but not so often, getting 4-6 outs but not using them back-to-back all that much. Familia should help make this easier to do — but the A’s are still going to need to lean on fresher arms more than just on the safest ones.

The best news? The A’s learned this tough lesson in real time and still won the game. Live and learn. Just make sure to learn.