World Series: Gotta get to Mo

mo riveraPHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.

Coloring outside of the lines

Will McEnaneyWASHINGTON – Most folks who follow the posts on this page have already grasped the concept that I am a fan of baseball from the 1970s. I think there are about 50 3,000-word essays about the subject all over this jawn.

Some are about Reggie Jackson’s swing, Mickey Rivers’ love of handicapping horses, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, the fact that Steve Carlton did everyone a favor by not talking to the press, and of course the dervish that is Larry Bowa.

But lately, the waxing on here has been about the relief pitcher of the 1970s, particularly end-of-the game types like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and (of course) Rollie Fingers. All three of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame and all three blew saves like crazy.

But aside from the romanticism applied to the era of my childhood, I also have a bit of a crush on the way the game was played back then. For one thing the thinking wasn’t as compartmentalized as it is now. People didn’t treat baseball strategy as if it were some sort of scientific dissertation with statistics, or worse, like baseball was played as if it were football with the division of labor, constant meetings and basic boringness.

For instance, a pitcher named Will McEnaney was on the mound to close out the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1975 World Series – that series was regarded by some to be one of the greatest World Series ever played. But have you ever heard of Will McEnaney? The chances are that you never heard that name in your life (unless you are a baseball geek of the highest order) simply because McEnaney saved exactly 32 games in his six-year career, including that one in seventh game of the ’75 World Series.

The thing about that was McEnaney didn’t even lead the ’75 Reds in saves. Rawly Eastwick led the team and the league with 22 saves that year, but manager Sparky Anderson needed his “closer” in five other games in the series and for two others in the three-game NLCS.

In other words, ol’ Sparky Anderson went with the best guy he had at the time. That simply was the norm back then. If a team needed a big out in the seventh inning, it wasn’t uncommon for “the closer” to come into the game. It also wasn’t uncommon for the so-called closer to finish up from the seventh inning on. But if that guy got into trouble there were always a few pitchers like Will McEnaney ready to mop up in the ninth.

This evening I was discussing the very subject with Gary Matthews and mentioned how many four-inning saves Gossage used to get – especially in the final months of the season. Matthews said he remembered facing The Goose in those days and used to complain that “it’s not time for him yet.”

Hell, back then the hitters didn’t want to have to face the closer any more than they had to, but these days they only get an inning.

So what does this have to do with Charlie Manuel and Brad Lidge?

Ryan MadsonWell… everything and here’s why…

Unlike football, Manuel does not have to label his “closer” before the game as if he were the quarterback or backup or whatever. Labeling a guy a set-up man or a closer and having such hard and fast defined roles is part of that compartmentalized thinking that is so maddening. Maybe the labels and defined roles help folks understand the game better? Maybe the game has been so crunched down and beaten up by statistical analysis that there has to be a signaling of roles for everyone involved. If someone isn’t a closer or a set-up man, what is he?

“We called them relief pitchers,” Sarge told me.

Manuel is a victim of this thinking, too. Clearly it drives him nuts because Charlie came from the 1970s. He played under managers like Bill Rigney, Billy Martin and Walter Alston. Those were the days when it was OK to color outside of the lines, so to speak. That was the era when the closer changed from game-to-game just like the starting pitcher.

But really, if you really want to know who Manuel’s “closer” will be from here on out, follow one of his old idioms: “Watch the game.”

If you watch the game and see Brad Lidge or Ryan Madson or Brett Myers get the last out of the game, that just might be your closer. Oh sure, he might say Lidge is guy with the label of “closer” just to make easier for everyone to understand, but actions speak louder than words.

Here’s what Charlie says:

“When I tell you he’s my closer, I don’t tell lies. I don’t like to go back on nothing. But the team and the game is bigger than my heart and it’s bigger than anything else, if you want to know the truth. Winning a game is what it’s all about. It’s baseball and why I manage and it’s what comes first.”

That means, “watch the game.” Just because a guy is called the “closer,” doesn’t mean he has to be the last pitcher of the game. It also stands to reason that the Phillies’ closer hasn’t stepped forward yet. Think back to a few World Series winners this decade and you will find championship teams whose closer did not emerge until the last month of the season. There was Francisco Rodriguez setting up in 2002 for the Angels, Bobby Jenks closing games for the White Sox in 2005 and Adam Wainwright stepping up to do the same for the Cardinals in 2006.

Maybe the Phillies are just like those teams?

This ain’t football, folks.