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Waiting for the save situation ... forever

5/6/2010

From the mailbag a good question from a Mets fan (and no, not that Mets fan) ...

    Rob, as a fan of both the Mets and common sense, I simply can't take this any longer. The Mets lost two extra-inning games in Cincinnati this week, and K-Rod pitched in neither of them. It simply baffles me that every organization hasn't had a smart person sit down with the manager, and explain that your best reliever goes into the game in the bottom of the ninth when the score is tied. Many major league games are lost due to managers' insistence on holding back their closer for an extra-inning save situation. Why is this mistake made over and over again? Can anything be done to change this? I would love to hear your take on it.

    Jay (Marina, Cal.)

Before getting into the general argument, let's take a quick look at the three games in the series.

Monday night, Oliver Perez pitched six innings and was succeeded by Jenrry Mejia, Fernando Nieve, Pedro Feliciano, and finally Manny Acosta in the 11th, when Cincinnati's Laynce Nix hit the walkoff homer.

Tuesday night, John Maine went six innings, then was followed by Mejia, Nieve, Feliciano (notice a pattern here?) and finally Francisco Rodriguez, who dispatched the Reds with 13 pitches to earn the save.

Wednesday afternoon, Jonathan Niese started and went six innings. He was replaced by Hisanori Takahashi, who went three clean innings. Feliciano took over the 10th and the game was over five pitches later.

Was Rodriguez tired? He's probably one of the few Met relievers who isn't tired. Since the 28th of April, Rodriguez has pitched twice, one inning in each outing. Mejia, Feliciano, Takahashi, and Nieve have all thrown more innings than Rodriguez. Nieve gets a gold star or something; he's pitched in 17 of the Mets' 28 games.

So no, Rodriguez hadn't previously been worked hard. And the Mets are off today. Assuming he's not nursing an injury, there was simply no reason to rest him in either of the extra-inning games.

Most managers, maybe all of them, will use their closer in the top of a ninth inning in a tie game, because regardless of what happens there will never be a save situation for that pitcher; the home team will never have a lead to protect.

But the visiting manager ... Well, he's afraid. Of what? Of eventually getting a lead and not having his closer available to protect it. Most visiting managers will use their closer in a tie game only when everybody else has pitched.

Almost everyone who works in baseball will argue that relievers are better when they're given defined roles; the more precisely defined, the better. And for ace relievers it's become pretty simple: You won't pitch unless there's (Officially!) a save situation in the ninth inning or later.

There's something to be said for that. It's simple enough that even the dumbest manager can remember it, and it's specific enough that the closer knows when to start preparing himself to pitch. On paper, a manager should consider using his best reliever in the seventh inning, in a particularly tight spot. But we know that's just going to happen. It's too radical.

Is it radical, though, to suggest a very slight change to the guidelines? Is it radical to recommend that a manager deploy his best reliever in the bottom of the 9th inning, or the 10th, when a game is tied? To stop waiting for the save situation that might never arrive?

Can't we agree on just this small thing? You know, for the kids?