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In Cat & Mouse Game, Melvin Meows While Francona Squeaks

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Detroit Tigers
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The chess match of a baseball game, in the context of a longer marathon that is the season, is among the beauties of the sport. Did Santiago Casilla blow a Sunday game on Saturday by forcing Lou Trivino to come in and pitch? Crazy game.

In Saturday’s crazy game, won by the A’s 6-3 in a comeback 11 inning affair, Bob Melvin’s moves came up gold while those of A’s former bench coach Terry Francona fell flat. To parse strategy you have to look at process, not just outcome. Here are the key decisions that were made as Oakland came back in the 8th with 3, then won it with 3 more in the 11th.

With the luxury of a day off Thursday and a blowout loss Friday, Melvin had his two best relievers, Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen, well rested. So when the A’s rallied to tie it in the top of the 8th, Melvin shrewdly ticketed each reliever for a full 2 innings, buying the A’s more time to score. Normally you don’t stretch your set-up man for 2 IP, nor do you put your closer in, on the road, with the game tied, but here was a chance for a big win with Brett Anderson going Sunday and no assurance of avoiding a sweep against a good team if you didn’t seal the deal on Saturday.

Melvin also knew that if Cody Allen pitched the 9th, Francona would run out of good relievers — which in the case of the Indians’ 2018 bullpen is more like good reliever — while Trivino and Treinen were still in the game. Allen wound up pitching the 10th, but couldn’t go into the 11th and the A’s predictably teed off on Josh Tomlin, allowing Treinen to “save” his own win.

Meanwhile, Francona — a good manager, don’t get me wrong — made a series of questionable moves all of which backfired on him. The only move he got away with was letting Zack McAllister start the 9th instead of Allen, waiting until there were 2 outs and a runner at 2B to go to his closer. Francona was lucky that McAllister retired Jonathan Lucroy with the go ahead run in scoring position, and also lucky that Dustin Fowler’s slashing liner off of Allen was speared by Francisco Lindor. One of the problems with waiting so long to put your closer in is that if he gives up so much as one single it can be too much, and this nearly happened.

But Francona got away with the top of the 9th. What he didn’t get away with was pinch running for Yonder Alonso and having to bat Rajai Davis (in Alonso’s spot) in the 10th. That same move forced Francona to give up the DH to put Edwin Encarnacion at 1B, which necessitated a double-switch to avoid the pitcher having to hit in the 11th, resulting in Brandon Guyer (instead of Tyler Naquin) batting against a RHP. By extra innings, the bottom of the Indians’ order was a hot mess.

Perhaps the game would not even have gone extra innings had Francona leveraged his one excellent reliever to face the heart of the A’s order in the top of the 8th. That would have left Neil Ramirez or another reliever, e.g., McAllister, to face the bottom half of the order in the 9th.

Had Francona gone this route, pitching Allen first and then Ramirez and McAllister, even had the A’s still tied it he would have had McAllister (a former starting pitcher able to go multiple innings) in the game to continue pitching in the 11th instead of Tomlin.

What Melvin knew all along was that if he could just get the game to the 10th or 11th, with the Indians stuck on 3 runs, the A’s were going to have a shot at a bad reliever and still have Treinen in the game to close it out. And like clockwork, that’s exactly how it unfolded.

Did the A’s win today at the expense of having their two plus relievers available on Sunday? Hard to know, but worth it either way when you have a bird in the hand. Trivino threw 30 pitches on Saturday and might not be available. Treinen threw 24 pitches and given that he likes to work a lot will probably be available for an inning. Hopefully the A’s will need him.

What Melvin has done so well with his plus relievers is that he has pitched them longer instead of more often, leveraging the games in which they do appear in order to win games they would otherwise quite likely lose. For all the times Treinen has been asked to get 4-6 outs, he has still pitched just about 45 innings (44.2 IP) for the season, on pace for around 85 total innings. He has not been overused, just well utilized. Starting with his debut on April 17th, Trivino has pitched 38.1 IP, appearing in 32 of 72 games, also not unreasonable at all.

The A’s sit, at the end of the day, 9 games over .500 and 6.5 back of the wild card, with 49 wins — the same number of wins that Francona’s Indians have. Score one for the cat.