Last night when I was sitting in the stands and the video screen showed Mariano Rivera standing around in the bullpen before the bottom of the eighth inning, I just assumed he was just standing around in the bullpen. Look! Mo's going to pitch in the bottom of the ninth, but might as well start the build-up now!
So I was surprised, as you probably were, when he actually came out for the bottom of the eighth, in a non-save situation. And I spent the next hour or so wondering what the hell Leyland was thinking. Of course I wasn't alone, and today a fair number of people are still wondering. Over at The Captain's Blog, for example, William Juliano writes, "Jim Leyland’s heart may have been in the right place, but the logic behind his epic blunder was horribly wrong."
Here's the thing, though: Jim Leyland is smarter than me. About some things, anyway. Once I got to the press box after the game and Emma Span explained Leyland's reasoning to me, it made perfect sense. Here's Juliano again:
Leyland’s curious decision wasn’t completely out of the blue. The veteran manager’s biggest fear was having the National League rally in the eighth, thereby denying Rivera a chance to pitch. When the score was 2-0, that logic might have made some sense, but once the A.L.’s lead increased to three, it was rendered obsolete. After all, in 659 games, Nathan had allowed four runs in only six appearances, so the chance of him squandering Rivera’s opportunity to close was remote. And, even if the National League did rally, Leyland could have still summoned Rivera to snuff it out. There was never a risk that the Yankees’ closer would be left in the bullpen, but by hedging a little, Leyland could have ensured the finish everyone wanted to see. Instead, the Tigers’ manager didn’t adapt his plan, and baseball fans paid the price.
I really appreciate someone actually going through the math. Yes, it was extremely unlikely that Nathan would give up four runs. But extremely unlikely things happen every day, in baseball and also in my bathroom. And I'm not at all swayed by the suggestion that if Nathan (or someone else) got into a spot of trouble, then Leyland could have summoned Rivera. Well, yes; he could have. But what made the moment so incredible was the build-up, and the absence of Rivera's teammates for a full two or three minutes. The whole field was his, and his alone.
Now, I'm not sure Leyland deserves much of the credit for that; according to Torii Hunter, it was purely spontaneous, which seems unlikely but then again I wasn't there. I just don't think the moment would have been what it was without Rivera entering to start the inning. In this case, the beginning was more important than the ending.
Sure, Leyland could and probably should have trusted Nathan to lock down the eighth inning. But this was hardly an epic blunder, and it's hard to figure what sort of terrible price the fans paid. On the 20-to-80 scouting scale of tremendous All-Star Game moments, we got a 78. If Leyland had played it differently, we might have gotten an 80. We might also have gotten a 0.
If Jim Leyland's like me, he commits epic blunders every day of his life. This was not one of them.