On Grantland, Jonah Keri argues that John Farrell should have used Koji Uehara in the 7th inning of Game 2, rather than Craig Breslow, once the Cards had two men on with one out. I agree — but rather than take up that argument, I want to discuss the historical precedent for such a move.
There isn’t any.
Well, I should be more specific … Of course, there is precedent for using a relief ace in the 7th inning of a World Series game. But let’s look at Farrell’s decision within the context of the closer age, where no relief ace is accustomed to pitching more than 2 innings in a game. To call on Uehara in that spot would mean that either he’s not going to finish the game, or he’ll have to work longer than he’s used to. Uehara has never gotten 8 outs as a reliever; he hasn’t gone that long since his final start, back in June 2009. He’s faced 8 batters in relief just twice, none since June 2011. He faced 7 batters once this year. With 8 outs to get, it seems possible that he would run out of gas.
So, I wondered: Has any World Series manager in a 7th-inning jam called on a relief ace unused to pitching more than 2 innings, creating a scenario in which the relief ace might not be able to finish?
I looked at all high-leverage World Series appearances since 1970 that began in the 7th inning; there are 58 such games with an average Leverage Index of at least 1.70 (i.e., they faced at least the tying run). One by one, I eliminated those that weren’t by the relief ace, and those where the relief ace was accustomed to finishing games from the 7th. And here’s all that’s left:
- Jay Howell, 1988, Game 4 — 2.2 innings to save a 4-3 win
Howell was L.A.’s top closer that year, with 21 saves in 65 IP, and no stint longer than 2 innings. They did have Alejandro Pena, who saved 12 and finished 31 games, but he’d gone 3 innings the night before. They also had Jesse Orosco, before he became a pure lefty specialist; Orosco saved 9 and finished 21 games in 1988, but the matchup called for a righty. Howell relieved starter Tim Belcher with 2 outs and the tying run on 2nd, and AL MVP Jose Canseco coming up. He walked Canseco, and Dave Parker reached on an E6, but Mark McGwire popped out to end the threat. With the DH in effect, Howell went on to finish the game, facing a season-high 11 batters, retiring Parker with the tying run on 1st to end it.
The other high-leverage 7th-inning appearances by relief aces were made by those accustomed to pitching more than 2 innings — Tug McGraw (1973, 1980), Dan Quisenberry (1980, 1980), Bruce Sutter (1982), Dave Giusti (1971), even Terry Forster (1978) and Steve Howe (1981). That one game by Jay Howell is the only time I could find that a skipper essentially said in the 7th inning, I need the big guy to protect the lead right now, even if he can’t take me all the way home.
I’m a little surprised by that. Of all the great closers we’ve seen in the Series since 1970, just one was ever asked to hold a slim lead at a point in the game that cast serious doubt on his ability to finish.
Many of us question the closer concept, the insistence that the relief ace must be used for a save (which requires him to finish), rather than facing the game’s key moment. We point to past eras, when a relief ace came in to put out a fire, any time from the 6th inning on. But with few exceptions, those firemen were also finishing those games. A manager with Sutter or Goose Gossage or John Hiller in the bullpen could choose to bring him in for the 7th without worrying about who else will pitch the 9th.
None of this absolves John Farrell or any other manager from the duty to think outside the box. But it does show just how thick the walls of that box are.