Rangers have yet to push right bullpen buttons
If you've watched the Rangers this postseason, you may find the following statement hard to believe, but it's 100 percent true: Texas had one of baseball's best bullpens in 2010.The walk-happy, prone-to-implosion group that manager Ron Washington has called upon lately bears little resemblance to the crew he had throughout the season. It fell to new depths on Thursday night, when a bullpen meltdown turned a very manageable 2-0 deficit into a 9-0 rout in the span of a single inning. If Texas' had gotten the job done on Thursday night, the club's offense might have had some shot to tie things up in the ninth. If the 'pen had come through on Wednesday, the Rangers might have had a chance to win the game. That's how October baseball goes, of course. Anything can happen in a series. Punch-and-Judy hitters can go deep. Brilliant starting pitchers like Cliff Lee can throw a shoe. And one of the Majors' best bullpens can struggle to throw a strike, all while the likely American League Manager of the Year struggles to find the right assignments for his pitchers. And let's be clear here: This is not just on the pitchers themselves. Washington, widely regarded as one of the key factors in Texas' run to a division title and AL pennant, simply has not pushed the right buttons through the first two games of the World Series and for much of the postseason.
The bullpen, and the management thereof, is obviously not the only reason that the Rangers find themselves in a 2-0 hole. But it's up there. And by contrast, the Giants' bullpen has kept up its season-long brilliant work.Thursday's game was the ugliest example yet. After six-plus strong innings, Texas starter C.J. Wilson came down with a blister and had to be pulled from the game. Darren Oliver allowed his one inherited runner to score, but mostly acquitted himself well. In the eighth, though, it got out of hand quickly. Darren O'Day struck out the first two batters before allowing a single to Buster Posey. Washington called on lefty starter Derek Holland to face lefty-swinging Nate Schierholtz, an odd decision in the first place, given Schierholtz's career-long reverse-platoon split. Holland is a fine pitcher, and he obliterated lefties this year, but Schierholtz is not the kind of hitter against whom you play matchups. That was the smaller problem, though. The bigger problem was what happened once Holland started pitching. He couldn't find the strike zone. And couldn't. And couldn't. He walked Schierholtz and right-handed-hitting Cody Ross on a total of eight pitches. Washington came out to visit ... and left him in. Holland went on to walk Aubrey Huff (another left-hander without the typical platoon split), bringing in a run, before Washington fetched him. And brought in not dominating closer Neftali Feliz, but the last man in his bullpen, mopup man Mark Lowe. It didn't work out. Washington, who has consistently refused to use his best reliever in anything but a ninth-inning save situation or a blowout, said he never even considered getting Feliz into this game. "No, I didn't," Washington said. "I didn't at all. "I thought [Holland] would correct himself. I felt like he could finally get back in the groove. I certainly brought him out there to get Schierholtz out of there, and he didn't. I didn't expect 12 balls in 13 pitches. But it happened. You know, I wanted him to get Schierholtz, he didn't, and once he didn't get Schierholtz, he wasn't a situational lefty, where I brought him in to get a left-handed hitter. In that situation, I wanted him to get that guy, but Holland has gone through other people before." Giants manager Bruce Bochy has shown an aggressive willingness to use his best reliever, Brian Wilson, in non-conventional situations. It's what you absolutely have to do in October. Saves don't matter, and protecting a pitcher for tomorrow doesn't matter. You must win today, and a 2-0 deficit is a winnable game. To use a pitcher who wasn't even on the AL Division Series roster rather than one of the most dominating relievers during the season is a mistake. Even when Bochy didn't go to his hammer, he had the right pitcher in the game. He saved lefty specialist Javier Lopez for just the right moment, using Lopez to get a huge out against Josh Hamilton to finish the eighth. "That's what he's here for, and we needed a big out there against a tough hitter, and he got the out," Bochy said. "I knew if that situation came up, I had Lopez ready, that he would face him. After that, then I would have had Wilson in the game. But it's Lopez's guy, so there was no doubt in my mind what the plan was." And that, as much as anything, seems to be the biggest difference here. There's a plan on the San Francisco side. It seems much less that way on the Rangers' side. If this were a one-time occurrence, either the performance on the field or the managing, it would be a different matter. But it's been going on throughout the playoffs. Even before Thursday, Rangers relievers had walked 17 batters in 29 2/3 playoff innings -- more than the AL's three other postseason teams combined. And even before Thursday, Washington had shown no inclination to use Feliz in high-leverage situations other than a traditional ninth-inning save opportunity. So something is going to have to change. Either the pitchers besides Feliz are going to have to start throwing strikes, or Feliz is going to have to be available in more situations. Better yet, both. Otherwise, it's going to add up to more heartburn and heartache for the AL champs.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.