When the Pirates lost one of their most important games of the year Saturday in 10-6 in 10 innings to the Reds, they used six relief pitchers. Not one of them was Mark Melancon, their best reliever and one of the top firemen in the league.
Why would a manager lose a close game with his best reliever on the bench?
It wasn’t as though Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle lacked occasion: The game was tied as early as the fifth inning, and other than a brief Pirate lead, was knotted up from the seventh inning on. But Hurdle, like many other old-school skippers, was loathe to his his closer in a tie game. The “strategy” is suboptimal, as the Pirates found out.
It’s not as though the Cardinals, whom the Pirates are chasing for a meaningful NL Central title, are any smarter. If not for providential mercy Friday night, they would’ve wrought the same fate as the Pirates. With the game in Arizona on the line, Cardinal manager Mike Matheny went with his second-best in Pat Neshek and later, with the game tied and the Diamondbacks batting, well down the pitching depth chart with rookie Marco Gonzalez, who pitched to five batters but escaped without allowing a run. Only after his team took the lead in the top of the 10th did Matheny summon his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, to close out the game in a relatively low-pressure half of the inning with a one-run lead, no one on base and the likes of Didi Gregorius (.301 career wOBA), Tuffy Gosewisch (.230) and Ender Inciarte (.306) due up.
To be sure, Rosenthal hasn’t been his shutdown self in 2014, his walk rate double what it was the previous two seasons. Still, he sports the bullpen’s best strikeout rate (28.3%) and best career K%-BB% at 21.3%. Interestingly, that’s the same number that Neshek boasts this season, which may explain Matheny’s confidence in the resurgent righty. But with Matheny giving Rosenthal most of the save opportunities, it’s safe to assume that the manager believes Rosenthal is his best reliever (and we agree). However, Matheny has used him suboptimally. The Cardinals have lost 34 games by two runs or fewer, yet Rosenthal has pitched in only 10 of them. Surely the Cardinals could’ve used their fireman in more of those high-leverage moments. Conversely, Rosenthal has appeared in 17 of 23 games that the Cardinals have won by three or four runs — not exactly high-value situations requiring that level of firepower.
The good news for the Cardinals and Matheny is that they won the NL Central despite of their suboptimal bullpen management. And they still have time to rectify the situation: They’ll have at least three playoff games to get it right. With the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke lining up for the NLDS, chances are better than usual that the Cardinals will find themselves in late innings without a lead. Will Matheny give them an improved chance of winning by using his best reliever — or will he, like Clint Hurdle, lose games with his best man watching, waiting for a save opportunity that will never come?