Watching the Rangers' bullpen completely melt down in the eighth inning last night, I couldn't help but wonder how the Nationals' relief corps might have handled that situation. Seven runs allowed, all with two outs? Four straight walks, two with the bases loaded? Yeah, we've seen that before.
At least one member of the Nats bullpen was watching and had sympathy for Texas left-hander Derek Holland (who at one point threw 11 consecutive balls). As Collin Balester wrote on his Twitter account (the typos are his):
"Sometimes throwing Strikes isn't easy. I feel for Holland I never like to see anyone struggle like that.I have been there before#worldseries"
The funny thing is, the Rangers bullpen was quite good all season. That unit posted a 3.38 ERA, sixth-best in the majors (the Nats ranked fifth). It held opponents to a .236 batting average (tied for fifth-best). It did issue 203 walks in 503 2/3 innings. But the group as a whole was very strong, boasting five pitchers with ERAs under 3.00: Neftali Feliz, Darren O'Day, Darren Oliver, Alexi Ogando and Michael Kirkman.
The Nationals had three relievers with sub-3.00 ERAs: Sean Burnett, Joel Peralta and Balester. (You could also throw Matt Capps in there if you want to count his numbers before he was traded to Minnesota.) They had five more relievers with ERAs under 4.00: Tyler Clippard, Miguel Batista, Drew Storen, Doug Slaten and Tyler Walker.
In the end, the depth of the Nats bullpen was perhaps as important (if not more important) than its talent. With a starting staff that threw only 889 1/3 innings (only the Pirates rotation threw fewer), Jim Riggleman needed a lot of work out of a lot of relievers this year. Guys like Batista and Peralta, who often pitched the fifth and sixth innings, were just as important as Storen and Burnett in the eighth and ninth.
So how would the Nationals have handled that eighth-inning situation last night? When the inning began, the Rangers were down 2-0, needing a new pitcher after using a pinch-hitter in the top of the inning. Figure Peralta or Clippard would have gotten the call to face Andres Torres, Freddy Sanchez and Buster Posey. If Riggleman felt the need to turn to a lefty once Nate Schierholtz's spot came up, Burnett probably would have been next in line. And even if something went wrong there, Riggleman would still have had either Peralta or Clippard, Batista, Balester or even Storen.
Ron Washington might have been wise to think in those terms. As Game 2 (and perhaps the entire World Series) crumbled before his eyes, his closer remained on the bench. Feliz never warmed up. No, the Rangers never had the lead to put Feliz in a position to pitch in the closer's traditional role. But sometimes a two-run deficit in the eighth inning is just as important a spot as a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Sometimes even more so.
Managers have fallen into a trap of thinking they can never use their closer unless it's the ninth inning and their team leads by one, two or three runs. That's incredibly foolish thinking. Had the Rangers simply been able to record one more out in the bottom of the eighth, they could have entered the ninth down only two runs. They still would have had a fighting chance to win the game. Who was the best option to record that one out? How about their best reliever, even if he is the closer?
Instead, the parade of second-tier Texas relievers turned that game into a rout. And by the time the ninth inning came around, the score now 9-0, there was no hope of a rally.
Bullpen usage is one of the most-important parts of a manager's job. Ron Washington's decision-making last night was almost as bad as his relievers' attempts to throw strikes. If the Rangers lose this series, that torturous inning may haunt them for a long time.