October 16, 2008

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LONGSHOTS: Going to the nines a thing of the past
by Dave Long

An interesting thing happened in back-to-back playoff games last week. It gave a side-by-side glimpse of how pitchers are handled today vs. back in the day and a vivid illustration of how in the life of a manager, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The first was in Game Four of the ALDS when Jon Lester was cruising along after seven stellar innings with a 2-0 lead over the Angels. He was replaced by Hideki Okajima in the eighth after exceeding the almighty pitch count level of 100. The next game was the opener of the ALCS with Tampa Bay. Dice-K was the starter and pretty much matched Lester’s effort in leading by the same 2-0 score after seven. But, in an about-face from the Lester game, Terry Francona used an olden-days approach by staying with Dice-K in the eighth even though he exceeded the almighty 100-pitch-count benchmark 

That flew in the face of almost everything Tito’s done in his Boston tenure. A time when he has the best winning percentage of any manager in team history and in the history of baseball’s playoffs as well. It was surprising, actually shocking is a better word, for two reasons. First, he’s a by-the-book manager if there ever was one and in today’s baseball it’s almost always seven and out even if you’re in total command as Lester was. And second, it was Dice-K who went back out in the eighth, and he’s prone to a bad inning with his high-wire act and the lead was just two.

The “seven and done” strategy has evolved over the past 20 years or so. Seven is the number these days because that’s generally the latest time when a guy’s pitch count goes over 100, and 100 pitches today means you’re done. I can’t quite remember when the pitch count came to rule baseball as it now does. The first time I recall even hearing it was when Roger Clemens threw over 150 in back-to-back games in 1990. It sent him to the DL in the middle of a 21-6 season and held him to “only” 228 innings after throwing 253 in ’89 and 278 in ’91, which is still nine more than Lester’s ’08 team-high 217.  

I do remember people grumbling that not-by-the-book Joe Morgan needed to keep a closer eye on it as Roger was too valuable to lose — which he showed later that year flipping out in the playoffs, but I digress. But I don’t have a clue when 100 became the number. Even still, LaRussifcation in baseball, as the Globe’s Bob Ryan calls it, was already in full gear. By then Tony LaRussa had been using the automatic eight-inning set-up guy and the clean ninth inning closer philosophy that resurrected Dennis Eckersley’s career as Oakland was winning three straight pennants between 1988 and 1990. And with sports being a copycat business it led directly to the current state of affairs where every manager besides Ozzie Guillen follows the LaRussa manual and yanks the starter after seven NO MATTER WHAT.

It actually started earlier. The Yanks in the ’70s and ’80s had guys like Dick Tidrow, Sparky Lyle and Ron Davis pitch the seventh and eighth before giving way to overpowering Goose Gossage and the ’70s Big Red Machine rarely had starters pitch complete games. But the difference was that the Reds had to because, aside from injury-prone Don Gullett and Tom Seaver for a short time, their starters weren’t A level. The Yanks did use bridge guys too, but if there was real trouble they went right to Gossage, like in the 1978 playoff game when he relived Ron Guidry with one out in the seventh and pitched the rest of the game to get a “real save” as opposed to the clean ninth inning type that helped send the Eck to the Hall of Fame. I’m not picking on Eck, who was great, but there’s a difference in how the two were used and it’s probably why Goose waited 20 years before finally getting in the Hall this August. For context: the most innings Eck pitched as a closer was 80. For Jonathan Papelbon it’s 69. Gossage threw 133 and 138 in ’77 and ’78. Plus, the Yankees never took Guidry out automatically after seven. If he was pitching even reasonably well he was going to finish if he could.

Today, however, the pitch count rules almost everywhere, except for Roy Halladay and maybe a no-hitter. I’ll admit there’s something to keeping pitchers fresher through the longer season of today by adhering to it. Plus, given how expensive a blown-out arm is in the days of multi-million, multi-year contracts, I understand why teams are so cautious. But I still haven’t been given an explanation as to why pitchers of a generation ago could throw so many complete games as Seaver did when he had 21 in 1971 and 231 in his career and still pitch 20 years, while bigger, stronger players of today’s evolved world can’t. And I won’t even ask how Iron Man Joe McGinnity could throw 434 and 408 innings while winning 31 and 35 for the New York Giants in 1904 and ’05, or what the pitch counts were the day Juan Marichal and 42-year-old Warren Spahn both pitched complete games in a 0-0 duel Willie Mays won in the 16th inning with a walk-off homer in 1963.

Since four sprinters running 100 yards each run 400 meters a lot faster than one guy running all 400, I understand how today’s relay race approach means fresher pitchers in the late innings. Although, the other side is, who’d you rather have pitching in the eighth of a 2-0 game, a fresh Okajima, or a used-to-going-the-distance Seaver, Marichal or Spahn? But that’s not how it’s done today, which I accept, though I do blanch at doing it automatically.

That’s why I was surprised when Mr. Automatic went new wave, then went back-in-the-day, with Lester and Dice-K. I was ticked when he took Lester out and felt validated when Okie and Justin Masterson immediately coughed up the lead. I agreed when Tito stuck with Dice-K, but that baby nearly backfired too until Okie and Masterson bailed Dice-K, Tito and me out after the first two guys got aboard. What it showed in the end was that whether it’s a today strategy or from below the Tarrier line, it’s still up to the players. If they do their job, they get the credit. And if they don’t — whether he goes by the book or not — the manager gets blamed.

Just like it’s always been.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


10/9/2008 C-eeing some interesting stories unfold this week

10/2/2008 "How come?" is the main question of the day
9/25/2008 Observations on baseball in 2008
9/18/2008 If I were a QB, a DB, a stat geek or a soccer mom ...
9/11/2008 After disaster Brady's bunch won't pass on season
9/4/2008 Pats start off with high expectation and some concerns
8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long
8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial — stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 — Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat