Saturday, May 20, 2006

Good Times Bad Times

Games 41 & 42 - Mets

Mets 7, Yankees 6
Yankees 5, Mets 4 (11 inn.)
Record: 25-17

How quickly the wind can change, and today's game, much like the wind, blew to a significant degree. The first two games in baseball's overhyped Battle of the Boroughs were tense, late-finishing contests, if not classics. (I hesitate to extol the greatness of a game that features seven errors and a hideous blown lead.) That said, both were somewhat excruciating to me, thanks to modern technology.

Last night's exciting, 9th-inning win -- on a David Wright smash over Johnny Damon's head -- was eye candy for Mets fans, but the Extra Innings package had us all on a strict diet. For some reason, despite an uncanny bias towards mass-airing every Sox-Yanks game, pre-game, post-game, and re-enactor dramatization, the magic of television couldn't bring me the Yankees-Mets "Subway Series" Game 1. Agonizing. It ran on WPIX in the tri-state area and nowhere outside of it. I followed along on the ticker and entertained our houseguests to no end.

Today technology actually provided a great deal of enjoyment, as I sat on the beach for several hours with a cooler of suds and XM radio delivering WFAN's coverage of the game. It was brilliant, and quite an enjoyable means of experiencing the Mets win the second game. Except that it wasn't.

Somewhere after Billy Wagner threw his second pitch of the inning, the battery -- and my ability to hear the disgusting events that followed -- conked out without warning. I raced home soon thereafter but arrived after 4-0 had become 4-4. My chance to see Jorge Julio surrender the winning run and my exhaustive efforts to try to learn and comprehend what had gone down in my moments of blackout and why -- well, they only added to the gut-wrenchingly helpless malaise that settled over me like a fast-moving fog.

For those that might contend that I was blessed and not cursed by the slow, painful aggravation of hearing this loss in real-time, the frustration of missing it is amplified by my irrational belief that my battery failure affected the outcome of the game. What, after all this, you came here for sanity?

Predictably, Willie Randolph is taking a beating in the 'sphere, even moreso than Billy Wagner. While Wags has struggled more than we'd like, there's more of a track record to fall back on in blind optimism for his improvement than Willie's. I'm usually well between the poles of extreme accusation; in this case, while we can't overlook the ride of the Valkyries Wagner took us all on today by any means, Willie Randolph's gaffe was doubly fallible. Let's examine.

Randolph brought Wagner into the 9th inning of a 4-0 game. The sages at Baseball Tonight take as much time to make calculated judgments as I do to answer "Should I make that a double?", so Jeff Brantley issuing an edict like Never bring your closer into a non-save situation and using 20/20 hindsight to stare down anyone offering exceptions shouldn't mislead anyone; on the contrary, I usually applaud bullpen creativity. Managers who use their stoppers only in save situations and for just an inning at that lack the ingenuity to take their team to the so-called next level. At the same time, those who throw time-tested practices out the window completely are destined for high-profile abuse. The happy medium of strategic exceptions to every rule is a worthy path. That's why on its face, I won't join the hordes looking to pike Willie's head for violating that principle alone.

What really gets me about the ol' skipper is his seemingly stark unfamiliarity with his pitcher's pulses. In addition to ignoring obvious signs and trends about his pitchers (like, for instance, that Wagner's precision is usually down in consecutive appearances), it feels as if he is the very last person in the ballpark (or in the television viewing audience) to realize when his guy is toast. If his hook were any slower, it wouldn't move at all (and presumably Tom Glavine would still be pitching from his Opening Day start). I'm not asking for a quick one, but when it's brutally obvious that your pitcher -- no matter how great an arm, reputation, and contract he has -- just does not have it, leaving him in the game is akin to surrendering.

Billy Wagner was off, and off became awful very quickly. The consensus on when he should have been pulled is debatable, somewhere between 1-3 batters before he actually departed . . . assuming you believe he should have been in the game at all. After Duaner Sanchez sliced through the eighth, Willie went to Billy and everything got silly.

Here's a point: the chances of a pitcher going from ace to disgrace on consecutive nights are much, much higher than that of a pitcher doing the same in consecutive innings. Appreciate it when the man on the hill is dealing, and keep it in the back of your mind that nobody on this or most big-league rosters is able to eradicate bad outings entirely. Overreaction in the other direction is foolhardy, too, wearing guys out consistently, but when you know your more-than-solid set-up guy is throwing well in the 8th (on very few pitches), don't be afraid to give him the chance to finish off a 4-run ballgame. It sounds like hindsight, but it's what we've been preaching for a long time.

So . . . in conclusion . . . if you are going to break with tradition and use your closer in a non-save situation (look, I know it's only been two days since I asked Willie to do exactly that, but I meant in tie games, not comfortable leads, dammit), know something about the history and state of your pen, be able to spot an alarming meltdown taking place before the hook-and-ladders arrive, and don't be afraid to bail on the decision before it bites you in the ass. By striking out on these three managerial necessities, Willie Randolph has invited the histrionics of the Township and beyond, and better him than me to deal with the fall-out.

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