Monday, May 24, 2004

Stumbling into Strategy?

I don't know what prompted Melvin to start using his relievers wisely, but yesterday's game was an excellent example of how to use a bullpen. Up 3-1 in the eighth, J.J. Putz relieves Freddy Garcia and gives up a walk and an infield single. The go-ahead run is coming to the plate, in the form of left-handed hitting Bobby Higginson, who's having a decent year, hitting .280 with a .791 OPS.

Prior to this game, we'd expect Melvin to go by The Book: bring in your lefty one out guy ("LOOGY"), who for us is Mike Myers. After all, lefty Carlos Pena is up after Higginson. And it's not the ninth inning, so it's not time for your closer.

Except this is a situation where you need your best reliever pitching, particularly one that can get you a lot of strikeouts. A hit makes it a one-run game with the tying run at third, waiting for a sac fly. The ninth inning will come with a clean slate, but right now, you need outs in rapid succession, and you can't afford any more base-runners. Happily, Melvin finally realizes this, and brings in his best guy, Eddie Guardado, who by the way, is the best on the team at getting strikeouts. (It would almost be defensible to leave Putz in, since he's been pretty good so far. But again, there's no room for error now, and the infield single was a hard shot off Putz that may have injured him.)

Now it's time for Detroit manager Alan Trammel to play bunt-foolish baseball, as he attempts to have Higginson, a power hitter, bunt. A waste of his talent, and Higgy can't bunt anyway, and pops it up to Olerud. One down, but the fire's still burning. Guardado proceeds to strike out two of the next three batters, giving up a walk on a 3-2 count to Rondell White.

Now that the Tigers' eighth-inning potential rally has been quelled, we can breathe easier. The ninth is not a problem for Eddie, who retires the side in order, with two more strikeouts. In total, Guardado threw 31 pitches, which is something he certainly can handle (he threw 37 against New York on May 15th). At his current workload pace, Eddie will throw 919 pitches this year, which would be the lowest total for him since 1999, when he missed part of the season. In fact, this will be his 11th full season in the majors and he has exceeded 1000 pitches in all but two of those seasons.

This win can be credited in large part to an intelligent use of the bullpen by Bob Melvin, and we should laud him for making good moves. We'll have to see if a similar situation comes up when the M's are tied, because that will be the true test of whether Melvin has learned.

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