Ripped from the headlines: “Baker’s pitching moves go awry in Astros’ Game 1 loss”

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The laughs stopped in the Astros’ dugout after Kyle Tucker‘s second home run of the night, and were replaced by utter shock. Astros’ beat writer, Brian McTaggart, seemed to put part of the blame for the Game 1 loss on Astros’ manager Dusty Baker for some questionable decisions in the opening game of this 2022 World Series. There was plenty of blame to share in this post-mortem. 

Credit to the Phillies for sprinkling some more postseason magic on another improbable win. This time the victim was the Astros who were undefeated in the postseason until this point. The Phillies never gave up when they found themselves in a 5-run deficit.

Before last night, no World Series team had lost a game they held a 5-run lead since Baker’s Giants blew the 2002 World Series. There have been 226 World Series games now with 5-run leads, and only six losses — and Baker is the only manager in MLB history to have lost two of those games. Before last night, the odds of losing a World Series game with a 5-run lead was just 2.22 percent.

Still, Baker and his team can win this 2022 World Series, and if the Astros win, all of the negatives will be forgotten. That’s how it works. If the Astros don’t win, Dusty’s fate could be the same as after he lost the 2002 World Series with the Giants.

Let’s just say it, Baker is a lock to go into the Hall of Fame no matter what happens in this World Series, and so is his starter from last night, Justin Verlander. Both will be enshried in Cooperstown. But both of them have a series of World Series and postseason failures. Verlander has never won a World Series game, and Baker has 12 years of reaching the postseason and has done it with five different teams — but as of today — no World Series winning rings.

Baker might be the best regular season manager ever with 2,093 wins! But he still has not fully figured out that the postseason cannot be managed like an April game. Leaving in the 39 year old Verlander to blow the 5-run lead was not one of the finest moments for the pair. Verlander seems to be a lock to win the Cy Young award this year, but who cares as that relates to winning last night.  He returned this year from UCL surgery and just hit the wall in the fourth inning —but then was brought back for the fifth inning to give back the remainder of the five run lead that he was staked.

Even with Baker’s questionable managerial decisions, the Astros’ offense never scored another run after the third inning. The Phillies made the plays when they needed to and earned this win with some timely hits and some great defense. The 73-year-old manager did not lose this game. He never swung a bat or threw a pitch. Astros players did not execute for the final seven innings of this game that went final at 6-5 in the 10th inning.

After the game, Baker was asked why he left Verlander in for the fifth inning.

“I mean, we were in the same boat that they were in,” Baker said. “You could say how come they didn’t take [starter Aaron] Nola out earlier. You know, it’s hard to take Justin out because he can struggle for a while, but he usually gets it back together. You don’t want to just go through your whole bullpen that early in the game. So like I said, there were two outs. Had there been no outs, it might have been a different story. But with two outs, you need one more out to get out of that inning.”

Well, they did take out Aaron Nola earlier at 4 1/3 innings, and Nola exited in a 5-5 tie. Verlander stayed in for 5.0 full innings. In the postseason, taking out a starter after a few innings is not early. Some managers this postseason have pulled their starters in the first inning. Each run matters and each game matters more. The first team to lose four games is finished. The Phillies didn’t blow a 5-run lead so they weren’t in the same boat until the game was tied in the fifth inning. Again, no laughing matter.

“Had there been no outs, there might have been a different story, but with two outs, you need one more out to get out of that inning,” Baker said.

But Dusty, there were no outs to start the fifth inning, and you made the decision to give Verlander the fifth inning clinging onto a 5-3 lead when you have the best bullpen in baseball. Verlander then put runners on second and first with no outs in the fifth inning. So what are you talking about? After J.T. Realmuto doubled off of Verlander in the fifth inning, the game was tied at 5-5.

The other move that was questioned by the media was Baker’s use of his fourth starter, Luis Garcia, who came in for relief in the 1oth inning and took the L via a Realmuto home run. Ryne Stanek, one of Baker’s best bullpen arms was available to start the 10th inning instead of Garcia, but wasn’t immediately used.

Houston’s bullpen had the lowest team bullpen ERA in the regular season at 2.80, while the Phillies ranked 23rd at 4.27. Phillies manager Rob Thomson pulled his starter with one-out in the fifth inning to go to his bullpen early, and FOX play-by-play announcer Joe Davis likened Thomson’s bullpen management to what the Nats did in 2019 with Patrick Corbin.

Think about it this way, if Bryan Abreu pitches the fifth inning and keeps that 5-3 lead, then there is no 10th inning to use a reliever. As it was, Abreu pitched the sixth and seventh innings for Baker. The net result would have been 5.0 innings pitched by Houston’s bullpen which is what they pitched anyway after the game went into extra innings. Abreu has a 0.00 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in the postseason in seven appearances.

It has been mostly blasphemous to call out Baker in any city and especially in Washington. One time, top baseball writer Tom Boswell accused Baker of “awful managing” but quickly deleted his tweet (see the screenshot below). Baker was made out to be the hero by the DC media and criticizing him was never the popular opinion as he was described as a “Teflon man” because nothing bad ever seemed to stick to him. What manager is perfect? Baker is a huge personality and with only two years in D.C. was beloved by most.

One of many negative tweets about Baker that were deleted after the fact.

This might have been the most negative tweet that survived by Boswell on Baker.

For those who do not remember, September 13th of 2017 was the infamous 116-pitch Max Scherzer game where the term “fatiguing” entered the baseball lexicon. Boswell called BS on it the next day in that tweet. Scherzer was then diagnosed with a leg injury and tried to pitch through it and was not able to pitch until Game 3 of the NLDS, and he took the loss as a reliever in the elimination Game 5 of the NLDS. Bad September decisions by Baker affected the 2016 and 2017 Nats’ postseasons. Who can forget on September 26, 2016 when Wilson Ramos tore his ACL on a rainy night in a meaningless game after the Nats had clinched two days earlier. Why were starters still in that game? The worst case scenario happened as the Nats were without Ramos for the postseason after he had the best season of his career that year batting .307 with an .850 OPS. Key September decisions backfired and impacted the postseason rosters. Again you can’t play those games like they are April games.

Baker led the Nats to two postseasons in two years, but some of the same fatal flaws we saw in his postseason managing like going to his worst reliever first in a key game was just part of it. Last night, Baker had the .088 and struggling Jose Altuve bat first in his batting order. With runners at the corners and one out, Altuve rolled into a tailor-made doubleplay to snuff out one rally. Nats fans remember a struggling Jayson Werth starting every game of the 2017 NLDS while Howie Kendrick rode the bench. Loyalties went far and Werth to this day still has Dusty’s back like several players do. You can’t go to Sammy Solis to blow the save when you have every one of your top relievers available, and that’s what Nats fans debated in Baker’s postseason decisions. Hi Lev situations call for the use of the best you have.

One time Baker was pressed why he played the struggling Danny Espinosa in the NLDS with the Nats, and Baker angrily shot back with an answer that sealed the fate of Espinosa after the season, and sources also told us it did not sit well with Baker’s boss, Mike Rizzo. As Jesse Spector of the Sporting News wrote“In addition to giving his own player the most ringing vote of non-confidence maybe ever, Baker posed a question for which there are multiple viable answers.” Espinosa was traded after the 2016 season. Here was Dusty’s response:

“Well, who else do I have [besides Espinosa to play]?” Baker said before the scheduled Game 2 of the NLDS. “That’s my answer. I mean, you can give me somebody better, then I can play somebody instead of [Espinosa]. You know, certain times, you have certain people on your team, and that’s what you’ve got.”

Roster construction, and lineup construction matters in a postseason game, and certainly some of the blame could have been on Rizzo. Manager Dave Martinez was right, it is the little things, and they are magnified in the postseason by about a factor of 23 as compared to the regular season. One postseason win in a 7-game series is worth about 23 wins in the regular season. Fours wins are equal to 92 wins in the regular season. Four losses are equal to 92 losses.

“I didn’t listen to it,” Martinez said in a Forbes interview about calls to be fired in 2019. “I just came in every day to do my job. The focus was to stay positive with the boys, let them know that, hey, this will turn around, we’ve got to play together as a team. Don’t point fingers. Things will work itself out and they did.”

Managers are hired to be fired someone once said. It is one of the toughest jobs in sports. Few have stacked up to the success of Baker with taking five different teams to the postseason, twelve postseason appearances, and three World Series appearances. He is so far ahead of the average manager. But he shouldn’t be free from criticism.

Criticizing managers is nothing new for the media in hindsight. But let’s face it, most were saying this in real-time on twitter or on blogs as the fourth and fifth innings were unfolding — stunned that Baker made no move in either inning. If the Astros win tonight, they still have a great chance to win this series. If not, they are in trouble. The best teams rebound when the going is tough. This will be a big test for Houston.

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