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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Maddon pays for using closer too soon

By David Schoenfield


Joe Maddon, once again trying to be the smartest kid on the block, with your fancy glasses and wacky pregame guests and funny haircuts.

How dare you bring your closer in during the eighth inning. With runners on base, no less! Who do you think you are to manage outside the box and pretend it's still 1985 or something? Push your buttons! That's how you manage in this day and age. Your setup guy pitches the eighth. Your closer pitches the ninth. Don't try to think out there; it'll only get you in trouble.

Like it did on Monday night. You were doing fine. Your Tampa Bay Rays led the struggling Toronto Blue Jays 7-5 entering the top of the eighth and Joel Peralta was on the mound. That may have been your first problem: You had actually used Peralta to get out of a jam in the seventh. So when J.P. Arencibia singled and then Peralta walked Brett Lawrie with one out, you faced a dilemma: Keep in Peralta, who had thrown 22 pitches, or bring in Fernando Rodney?

I know you trust Rodney. He was so, so good a year ago; dude allowed only five earned runs all season. It was an Eckersley-like season in its efficiency and dominance. He'd been a little shaky so far in 2013 -- nine hits and seven walks and four earned runs in just 9.1 innings -- but he'd blown only that one save back in the second game of the year, when he may have still been a little fatigued from the World Baseball Classic, and the Rays won anyway. I mean, sure, it's Fernando Rodney, career journeyman with one miracle season under his belt, but he's your closer. He's your ninth-inning guy.

And that's my point. He's the ninth-inning guy. You know how many times he'd entered a game before the ninth this year? Zero. You know how many of his 48 saves last year saw him entering in the eighth inning? Just two, and both of those were in September, during a desperate drive for the postseason.

But you brought him in, hoping he could get five outs. By the way, entering Monday night there had been 237 saves in the majors this season. Not including these ridiculous three-inning saves in blowouts, you know how many of those 237 saves were more than three outs? Seven. And only three of those were more than four outs and those probably happened because the manager fell asleep.

I mean, did you really want to answer to the media if Rodney blew this one? Your thesaurus doesn't do much good when trying to explain losing a game because you brought your closer in too soon.

So Rodney got out of the eighth, although he did give up a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 7-6. In the ninth, Adam Lind walked on a 3-2 changeup. That was Rodney's wipeout pitch in 2012; in 120 plate appearances ending with a changeup, he recorded 55 strikeouts and just five walks and batters hit .071. It was nearly untouchable. But that was already the fifth walk he'd allowed off the changeup in 2013.

Pinch-runner Emilio Bonifacio then stole second and reached when Jose Molina threw wildly. But then Colby Rasmus struck out -- on a 3-2 changeup -- and Maicer Izturis grounded out to first baseman James Loney, leaving Bonifacio still at third with two outs. That brought up power-hitting catcher J.P. Arencibia, who had hit eight home runs but had season totals of 42 strikeouts and two walks. I'm not making that up. He pretty much will swing at anything between the two dugouts.

Here's what happened:

Rodney vs Arencibia
The locations of Rodney's five pitches to Arencibia (pitch No. 3 is hidden behind pitch No. 4).


Rodney threw four straight 97-mph fastballs to get the count to 2-2. Arencibia can still be dangerous with two strikes -- six of his eight home runs had come with two strikes -- but considering his free-swinging ways, a changeup somewhere off the plate may have been a good idea. That No. 5 circle was another 97-mph fastball and Arencibia made the home crowd very sad with a two-run homer to left field.

A crushing 8-7 defeat for the Rays. A great win for the Blue Jays, who survived another bad Mark Buehrle start (Tampa Bay scored all seven of its runs in the third inning, including an Evan Longoria grand slam).

Look, we could make a point that bullpens are volatile, and that maybe we shouldn't have expected the Tampa Bay's pen to be as good as it was last year when the Rays led the majors with a 3.19 bullpen ERA. The Rays now have a 4.80 bullpen ERA, 28th in the majors. We could point out that Rodney wasn't going to be as good as last season even if he was good again. I think the point from this game is clear, however: Joe Maddon outsmarted himself. Push the buttons next time, Joe, push the buttons.

Don't dare to make the unconventional move. Even if it was the right one to make.