After Indians starter Corey Kluber pitched eight strong innings today in which he allowed only one run on three hits, and 13 strikeouts, Indians manager Terry Francona did what nearly every manager in baseball would have done. With the score Indians 3, White Sox 1, Francona gave the ball to closer John Axford at the top of the ninth inning. And why not? That’s what your closer is for, after all, and Axford entered today’s game with a league-leading nine saves. Cue Rush’s “Working Man” over the PA, hand the ball to your closer, and hope for the best. Usually it works.
It didn’t work today. Axford walked his first batter, Gordon Beckham, on four straight pitches. After two more balls to the next batter, Jose Abreu (whose first-inning homer accounted for the White Sox’ only run up to this point), Axford got Abreu to strike out. With a full count on the next batter, Adam Dunn, Axford’s sixth pitch looked good from the vantage point of my living room couch, but instead of ringing Dunn up, umpire Pat Hoberg called it ball four. The next batter, Dayan Viciedo, belted a 2-2 pitch over the right field fence for a three-run homer, giving the White Sox a 4-3 lead, and erasing the great job Kluber had done.
With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Lonnie Chisenhall singled, then advanced to second base on a passed ball. But there he remained, as Asdrubal Cabrera (and is there anyone on the team who you least wanted to see come to the plate in this situation? I can’t think of anyone) struck out swinging to end the game.
I guess the charitable way of looking at today’s game would be to say oh, well, two out of three ain’t bad. The Indians won the three-game series, and isn’t that what counts? And when your team is doing well, I guess you can look at it that way. But when your team is dead last in the division, and needs every win it can get, it’s not easy to take the charitable point of view. Gosh darn it to heck, the Indians should have won this game. They needed to win this game.
I’m not saying Kluber should have pitched the ninth. He’d already thrown 110 pitches. But as several commenters in today’s open thread post pointed out, the notion that in a save situation, you automatically go to The Guy Who Is Your Closer has increasingly led managers astray by failing to consider alternative ways of dealing with the ninth inning.
What if a manager were to tell his bullpen that yes, in a save situation, the ball would be given to The Guy Who Is Your Closer, but if that closer showed clear signs of not having his best stuff that day—for instance, walking two of the first three batters he faces, including throwing six consecutive balls to start the inning—then he, the manager, would have no qualms about removing the closer from the game before things got out of control? Yeah, the closer wouldn’t like that, because no one wants to be taken out of a close game, but winning the game is more important than the feelings of your players. If he doesn’t want to come out of the game, then maybe he shouldn’t have, I don’t know, walked two of the first three batters he faced.
I realize this is armchair managing at its finest, and that it’s easy for a guy who works at a library, and who hasn’t played organized baseball since he was about ten years old, to think he has all the answers. But isn’t something like this worth trying, if only for a few weeks? It’s just so frustrating to see a winnable game turn into a loss because one player just didn’t have great command of his stuff on a given day.
Kluber set an Indians record today by striking out seven consecutive batters. Catcher George Kottaras, filling in while Yan Gomes is on paternity leave, set an Indians record by becoming the first Indians player to hit home runs in his first two plate appearances as a member of the team. Those are fine achievements. It’s a shame that the team had to take a tough loss today.
I should acknowledge that the title of this post is tongue in cheek. But for purposes of comparison, be it known that Axford now has an ERA of 4.38 and a WHIP of 1.38. Perez, now a member of the Dodgers, has an ERA of 1.88 and a WHIP of 0.84, and has two more innings of work than Axford. I’m just sayin’.