I know that I’m a little late on this, but it’s taken me a couple of days to really get a handle on what actually happened during Game 4 of the NLCS. I still haven’t really sorted it all out in my mind yet. Charlie Manuel’s management of his bullpen was nothing short of baffling. I understand his motivation for removing Joe Blanton with two outs and a runner on first in the fifth inning. Anyone who’s watched Blanton pitch could tell you that he wasn’t quite as crisp this season as he was last season. Just looking at Fangraphs pitch run values, you notice that his change-up went from being a plus pitch in 2009 (+11.3 runs) to below average in 2010 (-6.5 runs). His slider, which was his second most effective pitch in 2009, also lost effectiveness (+6.1 runs to +0.2 runs). When you factor in that his fastball has been valued at -10 runs or worse in three out of the last five seasons (including 2010), you can start to see why Blanton is not exactly someone you feel comfortable putting a lot of trust in with the NLCS on the line.*
*Which begs the question, “Why was Joe Blanton starting Game 4 anyway?” Going back to my previous post where I discussed the idea of CC Sabathia starting Game 4 of the ALCS with the Yankees down 2-1, why didn’t the Phillies start Roy Halladay in Game 4 of the NLCS? Like Sabathia, Halladay is another iron horse throwback pitcher capable of pitching on short rest. Wouldn’t throwing Halladay on short rest have given the Phillies a better chance to even the series at 2-2? Anyway, I digress…
So Manuel smartly pulls Blanton, and brings Jose Contreras in from the bullpen to stop the bleeding. Contreras strikes out Buster Posey swinging on a 3-2 count to end the inning. So does Contreras come back out to pitch the sixth? No. Why? I don’t have a clue! While Contreras hasn’t started any games for the Phillies in 2010 (67 relief appearances spanning 56 2/3 innings), he served as a starting pitcher for most of his career, and made 23 starts between the White Sox and Rockies in 2009. Clearly, Contreras has shown (a) he has the stamina to pitch multiple innings, and (b) has the mentality most relief pitchers lack to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. Instead of allowing Contreras to pitch to more than one batter, Manuel brings in Chad Durbin to start the sixth inning. The result? Two runs on two hits and two walks in one inning. Now, I’m not going to pass any judgment on Durbin’s performance because it’s possible Contreras could’ve put up the same numbers or worse in the sixth. Plus, Chad Durbin is a reliable arm out of the bullpen. I have no ill will towards the man. Manuel bringing Durbin in to pitch is only a symptom of the larger problem—bullpen management.
For the seventh inning, Manuel smartly decided not to send Durbin back out. Durbin not only lacked his best stuff, but also labored for 38 pitches during his one inning of work. Instead, he sent out lefty Antonio Bastardo, who proceeds to give up a lazy fly ball to left-handed Aubrey Huff, and a double to the right handed Buster Posey. At this point, Manuel decides that apparently he’s seen enough (in ten pitches, no less), and gives the quick hook to the lefty. He brings in setup man Ryan Madsen to finish off the inning. In a rare moment of intelligence, Manual decides to send Madsen, his second best arm out of the bullpen, back out to work the eighth inning. (This is the playoffs after all, and you need your best players in your most important situations.) Madsen proceeds to pitch effectively, and preserves the tie game at 5-5.
Unfortunately for Phillies fans, Manuel’s moment of intelligence is short lived. Instead of bringing in his best reliever, Brad Lidge, for the ninth inning of a tie game, he chooses to bring in Roy Oswalt, his Game 2 and probable Game 6 starter. Just to recap, this is Game 4. Halladay was scheduled to pitch (and did) in Game 5. Oswalt is supposed to go in Game 6, just three days away. Just three days prior, he threw 111 masterful pitches over eight innings. Clearly, he’s not likely to be as fresh as he would normally be. Manuel plows right through the warning sides and forges ahead. The result? Oswalt gave up the game winning run in the ninth. Again, like with Durbin, I’m not criticizing the performance, just the strategy.
Letting Oswalt pitch the ninth was a terrible idea for two reasons. One, Brad Lidge, he of the 2.96 ERA and 10.4 K/9, was in the bullpen rotting away all because it wasn’t a save situation. Two, pitching Oswalt in Game 4 put him at jeopardy to pitch effectively in Game 6. While I don’t advocate managing a couple of non-guaranteed playoff games down the road, you still have to manage intelligently. Manuel didn’t. He managed with his gut. What happens if Oswalt had gotten through the ninth? Would he pitch in the tenth? Eleventh? If so, who would pitch Game 6? Oswalt surely wouldn’t be able to pitch. Cole Hamels? He makes the most sense talent wise, but he’s never pitched on three days rest before, and I’m not sure I’d start that now—especially considering the situation could’ve been avoided. I know this is hypothetical, but these are the things Manuel should’ve considered when making his decision. He should’ve been asking, “How does this decision affect my team over the course of the series?” He didn’t—or if he did, he came up with the wrong answer.
All of this could’ve been avoided if he’d just managed his bullpen more effectively. Had he left Contreras in the game to start out the sixth inning, rather than burning him after six pitches, Manuel might’ve had an extra arm to use (rather than Oswalt) when it came to the ninth inning. Conversely, had Contreras gotten in to trouble after a couple of batters in the sixth, Manuel could’ve brought in Durbin to stop the bleeding. I’m not saying the result would’ve been different. I’m just saying it would’ve been a smarter, more efficient manner of using available resources. The same goes true for his use of Bastardo. Had he shown more faith in Bastardo, and given him another chance to finish the inning, it’s possible Manual might not have needed Madsen to pitch until the eighth inning. At that point, he could’ve pitched the eighth AND ninth innings, thus avoiding the Oswalt situation. Manual pitched Oswalt out of necessity, not because it was the smartest move. As a result, the Phillies went down 3-1 in the series to the Giants. The Phillies went on to win Game 5 on the ailing back of Roy Halladay, but now they face another potential elimination game in Game 6. Roy Oswalt, likely to be a little less fresh than anticipated, is still scheduled to pitch.