No re­lief for closers in play­offs

Us­ing teams’ top re­lief pitch­ers in non-tra­di­tional roles be­com­ing a catch-22 for man­agers in 2016 postseason

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Stephen Whyno

WASH­ING­TON >> When it comes to the postseason, man­agers aren’t al­ways sav­ing their best for last.

Closers have taken the mound for five-out saves, in non-save sit­u­a­tions and even as early as the fifth inning so far in the 2016 play­offs. In one per­plex­ing case, the best closer in base­ball this sea­son didn’t take the mound at all.

No longer is it easy for a man­ager to merely hand the ball to his closer for three outs in the ninth. Chicago Cubs skip­per Joe Mad­don considers man­ag­ing the bullpen his big­gest con­cern on a daily ba­sis, and it’s all mag­ni­fied in Oc­to­ber when one de­ci­sion back­fir­ing can mean the end of the line.

That’s what hap­pened when Bal­ti­more Ori­oles man­ager Buck Showal­ter used six other re­liev­ers in an 11-inning loss at the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL wild­card game, leav­ing Zach Britton in the bullpen de­spite the All-Star closer’s 47 for 47 save suc­cess rate and 0.54 ERA in the reg­u­lar sea­son. Showal­ter was im­me­di­ately se­cond-guessed by ev­ery­one ex­cept his fel­low man­agers who know their next call to the bullpen could be scru­ti­nized just as much.

“I never ques­tion what any­one else does be­cause you’ve got to make tough de­ci­sions,” said Blue Jays man­ager John Gib­bons, who got a five-out save and a six-out win from closer Roberto Osuna in the AL Di­vi­sion Se­ries against Texas. “You know what, most peo­ple don’t ever agree with your de­ci­sions re­gard­less.”

Showal­ter said play­ing on the road and the course of the game af­fected the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process, not his phi­los­o­phy. Across the ma­jors, tra­di­tional closer prac­tices are be­ing chal­lenged.

In Game 1 of the In­di­ans’ ALDS against the Bos­ton Red Sox, Cleve-

land’s Terry Fran­cona brought Andrew Miller into the game in the fifth inning be­cause “he’s re­ally good.” Miller threw two score­less in­nings and got the vic­tory, brush­ing off the idea that what he did was un­prece­dented.

“The play­offs are a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal,” Miller said. “There’s 30 closers, and most teams have a setup man. There’s seven (re­liev­ers) for most teams. The other five guys have to pitch from the first inning to the ninth ev­ery day . ...

When­ever Tito asks any­body to pitch, we’re all go­ing to be ready to go.”

Mad­don tends to be “less tol­er­ant” in the play­offs than usual and ev­ery­one has a shorter leash. Rookie Los An­ge­les Dodgers man­ager Dave Roberts has learned quickly that this time of year, “you act a lit­tle more ag­gres­sively.”

Fran­cona go­ing to Miller in the fifth was about as ag­gres­sive as it comes, though players won­der if it’s more the start of a trend than an anom­aly.

“Bullpens are be­ing used a lot dif­fer­ently than they have in the past, as far as when you’re go­ing to use guys and when you’re

go­ing to get your closer in the game for five outs,” Dodgers third base­man Justin Turner said. “The whole closer-pitches-theninth-inning thing, (it) doesn’t mean those are al­ways the big­gest three outs of the game. Some­times those three outs come in the eighth or the sev­enth.”

Af­ter pre­par­ing him with inning-plus saves dur­ing the sea­son, Roberts wasn’t afraid to use closer Ken­ley Jansen for two outs in the eighth and then three in the ninth in the Dodgers’ win over the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als in Game 1 of the NLDS. That same night, the Na­tion­als’ Dusty Baker put closer

Mark Me­lan­con in while trail­ing in the ninth to get im­por­tant outs and give his team a bet­ter chance.

Days off dur­ing the play­offs make it dif­fer­ent than the reg­u­lar sea­son as far as bullpen us­age, Baker said. Then there’s also the im­me­di­acy of the sit­u­a­tion that takes over.

“There’s in essence no to­mor­row,” Red Sox man­ager John Far­rell said. “So you may have the abil­ity and the lux­ury to be a lit­tle bit quicker with some of your de­ci­sions, not bal­anc­ing re­cov­ery or rest.”

Roberts bases de­ci­sions off his staff, his pitch­ing coach and his “gut.” Some­times a man­ager’s gut back­fires, like when the New York Mets’ Terry Collins put closer Jeurys Fa­milia into a tied NL wild­card game and watched as he al­lowed a three-run homer to the San Fran­cisco Giants’ Conor Gil­laspie.

“He’s got 51 saves and over 90 saves in two years? I’ll take that,” said Collins, while ac­knowl­edg­ing Fa­milia’s three blown saves against the Kansas City Roy­als in the 2015 World Se­ries. “He was the guy I wanted out there in the ninth inning, and we’ll try to do a bet­ter job to make sure he’s a lit­tle more rested go­ing into the postseason.”

With no per­fect recipe for re­lief, man­agers of­ten re­sort to us­ing top-tier starters out of the bullpen. The Blue Jays did it with David Price and the Mets with Noah Syn­der­gaard last year, and over time that strat­egy has had mixed suc­cess.

Man­agers gen­er­ally want to put their players in the best po­si­tions to suc­ceed. What pitch­ers want is the ball when it mat­ters, no mat­ter the sit­u­a­tion.

“To me it doesn’t mat­ter — some­times it is in the sev­enth or the eighth, those might be the tough­est times,” Jansen said. “You’ve just got to put in your best pitcher.”

KATHY WILLENS — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mets closer Jeurys Fa­milia walks off the field at the end of the top of the ninth af­ter giv­ing up a three-run home run in re­cent Na­tional League wild-card game.

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