The press box was full for the Tampa Bay Rays home opener â full, I presume, of baseball scribes familiar with the micro-strategies that seem to happen in slow motion during a baseball game. And then there was me, sitting in the press box's back row.
My knowledge is pretty shallow â I donât, for instance, know the best situations for a hit-and-run â but nevertheless Iâm often fascinated by the cerebral nature of it all. I can listen to the Raysâ very fine TV announcers â Dewayne Staats and Joe Magrane â break it all down, explain stuff like why you donât throw a slider after a change-up (although I can only hang for two or three innings).
That caveat established, Iâm gonna weigh in on what I considered a strategic blunder by manager Joe Maddon last night. (Sure, you can read the sports columnists and get their expert takes, but this kind of neophyte analysis? Priceless.)
It was the top of the third inning with the Rays leading the Seattle Mariners 1-0. Young pitcher Matt Garza was on the mound. He gave up two singles, and then quickly registered two outs. With runners on second and third, Mariners clean-up hitter Raul Ibanez walked to the plate. Maddon called for Garza to intentionally walk Ibanez, presumably because first base was open. Bases loaded.
This seems to be a fairly common strategy in baseball, and I donât get it. If it were a steady old veteran control pitcher on the mound, Iâd say, sure, walk him and pitch to the supposedly easier guy. But this was Matt Garza, first-year starter, and he seemed to be struggling a bit. Next up for Seattle was No. 5 hitter Richie Sexson. Garza took the count to 3-2 and then â¦ threw ball four. Walked in a run.
OK, so a 1-1 score early in the game is not that big a deal, but why not let Garza pitch to Ibanez instead of intentionally walking him? If he gets the guy out, he goes into the dugout with confidence, up 1-0. Instead, Garza got the yips and walked in a run.
It got worse. The next Mariners batter, Wilkerson, hit a sharp single and drove in two more runs. Seattle 3, Tampa Bay 1.
Garza walked off the mound one batter later with a nerve injury in his arm. This figures into the equation, I suppose, but it doesnât change the notion that Joe Maddon set up his inexperienced pitcher to fail.
And it gets weirder. In the top of the 6th, Rays up 5-4, with two outs and men on second and third (first base open), Maddon instructed pitcher Gary Glover to intentionally walk Ibanez â again. Sexson came up, hit a bloop single to right and two runs scored. Mariners 6, Rays 5, which turned out to be the final score.
None of this is to suggest that Joe Maddon is a bad manager. I kind of like how he handles the team. But I think this time he relied too much on conventional wisdom. Both intentional walks clearly backfired. I especially think Maddon needed to consider Garzaâs psyche in the first instance. Those types of small failures can really have an impact on a young pitcherâs confidence.
Garza will have plenty of time to mull it over. He was put on the 15-day disabled list, and could possibly be out of the rotation until June.