WASHINGTON — When it comes to the postseason, managers aren’t always saving their best for last.
Closers have taken the mound for five-out saves, in non-save situations and even as early as the fifth inning so far in the 2016 playoffs. In one perplexing case, the best closer in baseball this season didn’t take the mound at all.
No longer is it easy for a manager to merely hand the ball to his closer for three outs in the ninth. Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon considers managing the bullpen his biggest concern on a daily basis, and it’s all magnified in October when one decision backfiring can mean the end of the line.
That’s what happened when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter used six other relievers in an 11-inning loss at the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL wild-card game, leaving Zach Britton in the bullpen despite the All-Star closer’s 47 for 47 save success rate and 0.54 ERA in the regular season. Showalter was immediately second-guessed by everyone except his fellow managers who know their next call to the bullpen could be scrutinized just as much.
“I never question what anyone else does because you’ve got to make tough decisions,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who got a five-out save and a six-out win from closer Roberto Osuna in the AL Division Series against Texas. “You know what, most people don’t ever agree with your decisions regardless.”
Showalter said playing on the road and the course of the game affected the decision-making process, not his philosophy. Across the majors, traditional closer practices are being challenged.
In Game 1 of the Indians’ ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland’s Terry Francona brought Andrew Miller into the game in the fifth inning because “he’s really good.” Miller threw two scoreless innings and got the victory, brushing off the idea that what he did was unprecedented.
“The playoffs are a different animal,” Miller said. “There’s 30 closers, and most teams have a setup man. There’s seven (relievers) for most teams. The other five guys have to pitch from the first inning to the ninth every day. … Whenever Tito asks anybody to pitch, we’re all going to be ready to go.”
Maddon tends to be “less tolerant” in the playoffs than usual and everyone has a shorter leash. Rookie Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has learned quickly that this time of year, “you act a little more aggressively.”
Francona going to Miller in the fifth was about as aggressive as it comes, though players wonder if it’s more the start of a trend than an anomaly.
“Bullpens are being used a lot differently than they have in the past, as far as when you’re going to use guys and when you’re going to get your closer in the game for five outs,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “The whole closer-pitches-the-ninth-inning thing, (it) doesn’t mean those are always the biggest three outs of the game. Sometimes those three outs come in the eighth or the seventh.”
After preparing him with inning-plus saves during the season, Roberts wasn’t afraid to use closer Kenley Jansen for two outs in the eighth and then three in the ninth in the Dodgers’ win over the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the NLDS. That same night, the Nationals’ Dusty Baker put closer Mark Melancon in while trailing in the ninth to get important outs and give his team a better chance.
Days off during the playoffs make it different than the regular season as far as bullpen usage, Baker said. Then there’s also the immediacy of the situation that takes over.
“There’s in essence no tomorrow,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “So you may have the ability and the luxury to be a little bit quicker with some of your decisions, not balancing recovery or rest.”
Roberts bases decisions off his staff, his pitching coach and his “gut.” Sometimes a manager’s gut backfires, like when the New York Mets’ Terry Collins put closer Jeurys Familia into a tied NL wild-card game and watched as he allowed a three-run homer to the San Francisco Giants’ Conor Gillaspie.
“He’s got 51 saves and over 90 saves in two years? I’ll take that,” said Collins, while acknowledging Familia’s three blown saves against the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series. “He was the guy I wanted out there in the ninth inning, and we’ll try to do a better job to make sure he’s a little more rested going into the postseason.”
With no perfect recipe for relief, managers often resort to using top-tier starters out of the bullpen. The Blue Jays did it with David Price and the Mets with Noah Syndergaard last year, and over time that strategy has had mixed success.
Managers generally want to put their players in the best positions to succeed. What pitchers want is the ball when it matters, no matter the situation.
“To me it doesn’t matter — sometimes it is in the seventh or the eighth, those might be the toughest times,” Jansen said. “You’ve just got to put in your best pitcher.”