PHOENIX -- The great thing about managing poorly is that you've got a pretty good chance of winning anyway, especially if your opposite number is also managing poorly and especially if you've got the far better team. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Joe Torre's not going to be the first manager of Team USA who didn't guide his club out of pool play in the World Baseball Classic.
Sunday, Torre mismanaged just about every way you can mismanage. In the end, it didn't matter because he was managing a far superior lineup against a pitching staff that included two legitimate major-league pitchers. There probably just wasn't anything that Team Canada manager could have done.
Still, this game, do-or-die for both teams, remained very much in doubt after eight innings. When Team USA came up in the top of the ninth, they led 5-4. But thanks to an odd intentional walk ordered by Torre in the eighth, Canada's Joey Votto was guaranteed one more plate appearance. Sure, Craig Kimbrel was warming up in the bullpen and the odds were very much against our Friends from the North. But a one-run game in the ninth ... Hey, it's baseball. A bloop and a blast and you shock the world.
Oh, about those two legitimate Canadian pitchers ... One of them was Pirates phenom Jameson Taillon. He pitched well, but was pulled after only four innings and 52 pitches. The other was not Molleken, Phillippe Aumount, Jimmy Henderson, or Scott Mathieson. While Molleken and Aumont both pitched effectively Sunday, none of the four is likely to throw 50 innings in the majors this year.*
No, the second legitimate Canadian was John Axford. Over the last three seasons he's racked up 105 saves, with nearly three times more strikeouts than walks. Again, the Canadians were trailing by just one run after eight innings, and (oddly enough) they were the home team in this one. Keep it close and anything might happen in the bottom of the ninth.
Ernie Whitt left John Axford in the bullpen. I was so sure that Axford was coming out of the bullpen that I wrote his name into my scorebook. But Scott Mathieson, who'd put out a fire in the eighth, came back out for the ninth. Scott Mathieson, who just turned 29, has 44 major-league innings under his belt, and spent last season in Japan. Granted, Mathieson pitched well in Japan. But nobody on this side of the Pacific is going to confuse him with John Axford.
Strike that. Sunday, one person does seem to have confused Scott Mathieson with John Axford, and that one person just happened to have been managing Team Canada.
No, of course that's not fair. It's not that Whitt doesn't know that Axford is probably the better pitcher. It's that Whitt has no earthly concept of how to manage in a game he's losing by one run in the ninth. From the postgame press conference:
Q. Was the only way you would go to Axford to start the inning would be if you had the lead? Was there any thought of going with him in the one‑run game?
ERNIE WHITT: No, he's your closer. To me, I had confidence in Scotty. And, again, that's a power arm that closes for the team in Japan and has done a nice job.
I liked the fact that ‑‑ I don't like that we were a run down but we were in the ballgame at that time and we just wanted to keep it close. And I felt that if we were within one run, then we had a chance. But Ax threw an inning yesterday. Unfortunately, we ‑‑ I didn't want to use him as much as we did tonight even. If we lost the game, we lost the game. But the fact is you always try to keep your closer for the last inning. That's what you try to do.
I'm trying to be real respectful and stuff, so this is the part where I acknowledge in all sincerity that Ernie Whitt has forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know. But in this particular instance, I don't have any idea what in the hell he's talking about. If he's actually suggesting that Axford wasn't ready to pitch effectively Sunday because he threw an inning Saturday, I wish he would just come out and say this. But that doesn't seem to be what he was suggesting, because later he said this:
Well, you always want the players to get their innings in. But the bottom line, when it comes down to a game like today, I mean, you have to win. And we put ourselves ‑‑ Jameson did a great job throwing four innings for us. Molleken came in and threw two great innings, got us to the sixth inning, which was a scenario that if anyone was hoping for, we were hoping for. And we had it all ‑‑ like I said, the game plan was to use Aumont, Henderson and Axford to close it out, but it didn't work that way.
So all along the plan was to use Axford like managers use their closers these days. But the notion that Axford was being saved FOR THE LAST INNING seems like the product of someone's who mentally challenged, because Ernie Whitt had no way of knowing when the last inning would come. More to the point, there never would have been a lead to protect. By definition, if you're going to use Axford at all after the eighth inning, it's going to happen when you're either losing or tied. No Canadian pitcher would have the opportunity to close it out, and the fact that Whitt stuck to that terminology afterward suggests he never really thought through the actual game, as opposed to the game plan.
This won't be the worst managerial move of 2013, because a) Axford did finally pitch, after Mathieson put a few guys on base, and pitched poorly; and b) Kimbrel locked things down in the bottom of the ninth, striking out Votto to end the game. It won't be the worst, because it really didn't matter. It might wind up being the dumbest, though.
* Update: Jim Henderson's better than I said. Central point stands, I think.
A couple of other thoughts about the WBC ...
There were roughly 22,000 fans in Chase Field for Sunday's game, and more than half of them were cheering for the Canadians. Remember, Phoenix is a hugely populated metropolitan area and there are many thousands of American baseball fans in town for spring training. But there might have been 10,000 people rooting for the good ol' U.S. of A. And it wouldn't have made a damned bit of difference if Justin Verlander had started instead of Derek Holland. So rather than piss and moan about Americans' apathy, why not celebrate the packed stands in San Juan, Puerto Rico? I'll bet that's what Commissioner Selig does.
Some years ago, Bill James addressed the controversies about All-Star Game rosters with a simple question: "Who is the game for?" The players? The fans? The leagues? The television networks? Well, before worrying overly about the World Baseball Classic, it's worth asking the same question: Who is it for? While I think Commissioner Bud would love for the WBC to be for everybody, it probably never will be. Baseball is a local sport in the U.S., and so it's always going to be difficult to get Americans to care about a national team. But that's really a small concern, considering how many fans around the world are passionate about the event. Everything doesn't have to be about us, you know.
Finally, I have to take issue, however mildly, with the selection of Canada's Michael Saunders as Pool D's most valuable player. Sure, he hit a ton. But in the bottom of the eighth inning Sunday, he came up with a runner on base and a right-handed pitcher on the mound. If Saunders had homered, the game would have been tied. Instead Saunders bunted for a single. This wouldn't have been so bad, but next three Canada hitters were Chris Robinson, Adam Loewen, and Pete Orr.
Bunting can be great. But you really gotta pick your spots.