SweetSpot: John Russell

Duke dazzles, Russell puzzles

September, 29, 2009
9/29/09
3:49
AM ET
In case you missed it: Monday afternoon, John Russell made perhaps the most bizarre pitching change of the season, yanking Zach Duke -- who'd thrown 103 pitches -- with a 10-run lead and two outs in the ninth inning.

So what was Russell thinking? If anyone knows, it's Dejan Kovacevic ...

    Why take out Duke?

    He was not on a pitch count, Russell said, but the manager offered two explanations:

    1. He wanted Duke to get an ovation.

    2. He wanted to get reliever Donnie Veal some work.

    "I wanted Zach to have a nice ovation," Russell said. "He did a heck of a job, pitched a great game. We were trying to get him a shutout and, unfortunately, they scored the run. We just wanted to give the fans an opportunity to appreciate what he did rather than the game just being over. ... And it was good that we got Donnie in the game. That'll make him a little more prepared."

    --snip--

    Duke is second-time eligible for salary in the coming offseason, and a fourth complete game would have bolstered his bargaining position, tying him for the league lead with San Francisco's twin aces, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

    But team president Frank Coonelly strongly rejected any link.

    "It was JR's decision, and the last thing he or anyone else was thinking about at a moment like that is a possible arbitration case in the future," Coonelly said.

OK, class ... Let's see if we can figure out, together, why John Russell win is Monday's Dunce of the Day Award.

Is it because Zack Duke will be mad at him?

No. Maybe for an hour or three. But all will be forgiven and forgotten by next spring, when it matters.

Is it because Russell has exposed the Pirates as the they really are? No. The notion that Russell was following orders from the front office, while perhaps attractive to baseball fans who believe the CIA and Lyndon Johnson conspired to kill JFK, seems preposterous on its face.

John Russell is our Dunce of Yesterday because his move suggests a complete lack of awareness. The Pirates, so starved for good stories this season, had two of them Monday: Andy LaRoche's huge game and Duke's (almost) complete-game victory against the best team in the National League.

Too good stories, and all the manager had to do was stay out of the way. There's an old farmer's saying -- "Don't interfere with somethin' that ain't botherin' you none." -- and somehow Russell just couldn't resist interferin'. That game wasn't botherin' him none!

You know what? If Russell were a rookie manager, I could happily consider this a lesson learned by the fresh-faced kid. But Russell's nearly 50 years old and he's managed a major league club for nearly two full seasons. Two full seasons, by the way, in which his teams have lost more than 60 percent of their games.

Yanking a pitcher with two outs in the ninth inning of a meaningless game is hardly a fireable offense. But someday Russell will be fired, and I suspect he won't put this one at the top of his updated résumé.

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