Sitting in the post-game presser before stumped reporters, Buck Showalter was engulfed by the one confounding question that baffled millions of baseball fans in Orioles’ 5-2 loss in the American League Wild Card game on Tuesday night.
Why didn’t he pick up the phone and call Zach Britton’s number?
Why was baseball’s most dominant reliever – the closer who converted all 47 saves in a 0.54 ERA campaign, the best ERA in a single season ever – abandoned in the bullpen, left to twiddle his thumbs and watch the season he piloted erupt in flames?
“Our guys did a good job of getting us to that point,” Showalter told reporters. “I like the job Daren [O’Day] could do, I like the job Brad [Brach] could do, I like the job Mychal [Givens] could do and I like the job [Brian] Duensing could do. It looked like it was going to be one of those that was going to be more than one [extra] inning.”
Showalter is an old-school genii, the one who got the Orioles in Tuesday night’s position in the first place. But the problem is, he’s too old-school – clinging to the outdated mindset of a “closer” role.
Don’t believe me? The fact that six relievers were used instead of Britton in the Orioles most pivotal game of the 2016 season is a direct reflection of the traditional mentality that needs to be trashed.
Sure, the argument could be made about players like Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Matt Wieters failing to pull their weight, as the five combined to go 2-for-20 with six strikeouts.
The painfully undisciplined offense that squealed across the finish line — going hitless in the final 16 at-bats that spanned over the final five innings — is a valid argument as well.
And, if the Orioles would have produced just the slightest amount of offense — a solo-homer from Davis, or an RBI-double from Machado — Britton probably would’ve sealed the deal, and that would be that. No pointing fingers or second guessing.
Instead of me writing this column, Showalter could have easily been praised for managing his bullpen. Like how he relieved starter Chris Tillman for Givens in the fifth inning, who then got out of a jam with a one-pitch double-play. Or about how Brach and O’Day combined for a scoreless eighth, ninth and 10th. Or even plugging in the minor league journeyman, Duensing, to record the 11th’s first out.
Inserting Ubaldo Jimenez, who had a 2.45 ERA in his last seven starts with a 6 2/3rd’s scoreless outing against the Blue Jays on Sept. 29, with one out in the bottom of the 11th appeared reasonable based on analytics.
But as soon as Jimenez entered, that’s when Showalter’s intelligence crossed a line. Two singles by Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson plated a dramatic 3-run, walk-off homer for Edwin Encarnacion. And, just like that, it was all over.
Outside of the fact that Jimenez was pitching effectively since rejoining the rotation, you can’t hide or alter his disastrous 5.44 ERA in 2016. Since arriving in Baltimore in 2014, Jimenez has turbulently compiled a 4.72 ERA.
When Jimenez is on the hill, it’s a white-knuckle trek. And if the fans know that, then Showalter should, too.
Buck made somewhat of a valid point, saying that “nobody has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo.” I guess he just disregarded past experiences of Jimenez dumping gasoline on the mound and then dropping a match on it. And if I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure the man who’s only allowed one earned run the past 58 appearances is your hot hand, not Jimenez.
Since baseball analysis, and sports analysis in general, is so heavily weighed on the outcome, it’s easy to get caught up in the result. But Showalter deserves his share of criticism for not understanding the fine line between being clever and utter silliness.
Back in July, Showalter seemed to break out of his traditional shell when he pitched Britton in the ninth and 10th innings. Both went scoreless, and the Orioles went on to win 6-2 in 12 innings.
“We felt comfortable with [Britton pitching] two innings today,” Showalter told MASN’s Gary Thorne on July 31. “Regardless of the score and what conventionality tells you, I’m putting my best pitcher out there on the field. I’m not going to save him around for a close that may not happen.”
That side of Showalter, the man who flipped a projected 69-win ball club to an 89 win, postseason ball club, was nowhere to be found.
If Givens pitched 2 1/3rd innings, and if Brach and O’Day pitched more than one inning, then Britton, in my books, had every right to have his closer role stripped from him for one night.
If I was the manager, and this is easy to say such a thing now, I would have brought Britton out in the 11th. Using two all-star relievers, Brach and O’Day, from the eighth to 10th isn’t a risk by any means. It was more than the right thing to do.
Summoning Duensing, a washed-up 33-year old who pitched more innings in the minors than majors in 2016 (32 1/3rd’s to 13 1/3rd’s), was the decision that was taken too far.
Britton should have entered at the beginning of the 11th and pitched however long he needed to.
Even when Jimenez had runners at the corners with one out in the bottom of the 11th, the urgency should tell someone that Britton, with his sparkling 79.4 percent groundball rate, needs to enter the game right then and there.
The man is a professional athlete. Take off the imaginary cap and let him perform in his element. A “closer” is not a three-out token.
I’m not making a bid to run Showalter out of town. The man is absolutely brilliant. I don’t understand why baseball’s best closer since Mariano Rivera didn’t throw a single pitch on the Orioles’ biggest stage of 2016.
Instead he wadded his star “closer” in bubble-wrap, waiting for the moment that never came.
“It’s obviously frustrating watching the guys battle ahead of you; you want to go in there and do the same,” Britton told reporters on not pitching in the AL Wild Card game. “You want to give your team a chance to win knowing if we don’t win, there’s no tomorrow. It’s tough sitting there and having to watch it and not getting in.”
On Tuesday night in Toronto, Showalter demonstrated even the brightest individuals falter in the climax of their profession. He simply messed up.
Kyle McFadden is the editor-in-chief of The Commuter and has his own weekly column called K-Fadd’s Cauldron. He also co-owns, manages and reports for Maryland Sports Access, where he covers many beats, including Maryland high school sports, college basketball and college football. He’s also a freelance sports journalist for The Baltimore Sun and The Frederick News-Post, covering colleges and high schools.