Buck Showalter failed to put his team in the best position to win last night. Saving Zach Britton for a lead that never would come in a win or go home situation is simply inexcusable. There’s no need to go any further than that here, as plenty of others have already highlighted Buck’s mistake. Rather, let’s take a tour down memory lane. It’s not a fond memory for the Yankees, but it’s the one that came to mind while watching last night’s Wild Card game unfold.
Flashback to game four of the 2003 World Series against the then called Florida Marlins. The Yankees were up in the series, two games to one, but Jack McKeon‘s upstart squad was three outs away from evening the series. Heading to the top of the 9th, the Marlins led 3-1, and brought in closer Ugueth Urbina to even the series. Urbina recorded two outs around a Bernie Williams single and Hideki Matsui walk, but couldn’t record the final out to seal the deal. Ruben Sierra, pinch hitting for Karim Garcia, tripled to tie it. Urbina retired Aaron Boone to escape any further trouble. Joe Torre was now in the same place that Showalter, his predecessor with the Yankees, was in last night.
Conventionally, managers wait for the lead on the road to use their closer. That’s how Showalter operated yesterday, and also how Torre operated over a decade ago. Torre went to Jose Contreras, the heralded 31 year-old Cuban rookie to face the bottom of the Marlins order: Derrek Lee, Alex Gonzalez, and the pitcher’s spot that turned out to be Todd Hollandsworth. Lee was a very good hitter that year, but perhaps this was a calculated risk – was Torre gambling to save Rivera to face the top of the lineup next inning? Apparently not.
Contreras had no problems with the bottom of Florida’s order, setting them down 1-2-3 in the 9th. The Yankees didn’t push a run across in the top of the 10th, and the Marlins would bring up the top of their order in the bottom half of the inning: Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Ivan Rodriguez. Rookie Miguel Cabrera loomed fourth. Surely, this was the time to use the greatest reliever baseball has ever seen. Instead, Torre tempted fate, pushing Contreras for a second inning of work. The hard throwing right-hander walked Pierre on four pitches and Castillo bunted him to second. If Twitter was around at this time, there’d be a meltdown with Rivera watching as Contreras stuck around to face Pudge and Miggy with a runner on second and one out. Nonetheless, Contreras fanned both batters to escape unscathed. That parallels what happened to the Orioles last night in the 9th inning – Brad Brach and Darren O’Day managed to get through Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Russell Martin without blowing it. Still, both outcomes didn’t justify the decisions.
After Contreras finished his second frame, it was clear that Rivera wasn’t coming in until a lead was gained. If he wasn’t going to pitch against the heart of the order in a tie game, it wasn’t going to happen in a deadlock, period. Next out of the bullpen: Jeff Weaver for the 11th. The first three batters Weaver faced were no slouches, but he set them down in order. Jeff Conine flew out, Mike Lowell popped up, and Lee grounded out.
The Yankees couldn’t push across a run yet again, meaning Weaver was back for the 12th. As the long man, it evidently was his game until the Yankees got the lead. But he was also Jeff Weaver, the pitcher with a 5.99 ERA in 159.1 innings that season. He had no business being in a World Series game unless it was a blowout or there was an empty bullpen. Finally, after dancing around three innings without Rivera, Torre’s decision to wait finally came back to bite him.
It’s kind of funny how much Weaver and Ubaldo Jimenez, last night’s loser, are similar. I know Jimenez finished 2016 strong, but he had a 5.44 ERA over the full season. Both Torre and Showalter lost pivotal games with arguably their worst pitchers, while their best pitchers twiddled their thumbs. The Wild Card game had a bit more magnitude because the Orioles literally could not afford to lose, while the Yankees still had three games to work with. That doesn’t excuse Torre in any way, but is worth noting. His decision was bad, but not quite as awful as Buck’s.
Thirteen years since Torre’s gaffe, it’s hard to fathom why Rivera didn’t pitch. Here’s what Torre had to say about using Weaver:
”If he’s not in the game there, he shouldn’t be on the roster”
Oof. Not the best explanation there. Not really an explanation at all. Maybe Torre could have mentioned that he only wanted to use Mariano for one inning because he pitched two innings the day before, thus emphasizing his use in an inning with a lead. Even so, that’s still difficult to accept. Especially when lead never came.
The Yankees went down meekly in games five and six, losing the World Series for the second time in Torre’s tenure. If it wasn’t for dynasty teams, this loss might have been enough for ownership to can him. Who knows what happens if Rivera pitches in game four – the Yankees could still have lost, of course. But with Rivera on the hill or already used, it sure would have been easier to tolerate the loss. Orioles fans probably would have felt the same if Britton was utilized last night.