The Orioles fell to the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday night in Toronto (TOR 5, BAL 2). The game spanned 11 innings, and the Baltimore bullpen wound up working 6.0 of those innings. In spite of that heavy load, closer Zach Britton -- rather easily the most dominant closer in baseball this season -- didn't make an appearance.
Britton warmed up in the bullpen on three different occasions on Monday night, but Showalter never summoned him. As those late innings unfolded speculation on social media unfurled: Britton had to be hurt. Why else wouldn't Showalter call upon him for those high-leverage innings in a do or die game? As Showalter called up Brian Duensing and then Ubaldo Jimenez, we became sure of it. Something was surely wrong with Britton. Well ...
He was "fine" and "available," to hear Showalter tell it.
At this point, you can only be puzzled. If this were any other manager, you'd write it off as a hidebound and unimaginative approach to reliever usage -- the closer in a time game on the road thing that's been too much with us for too long. Showalter, though, has long ago established himself as one of the best bullpen tacticians around. How else could he win with the rotations he'd had in Baltimore? Showalter has a knack for using his relievers for multi-inning outings but keeping their workloads manageable by limiting their use on back-to-back days.
He also understands leverage, as Britton -- again, the best reliever in baseball in 2016 --had by a wide margin the Orioles' highest average leverage index this season. As well, there was nothing particularly rigid about the way Showalter used his closer during the regular season. Eleven times he pitched in the eighth inning. Four times he pitched in extra innings. Seven times he pitched in tie games. He pitched 28.9 percent of his innings in non-save situations. Coming into Tuesday night, Britton had pitched once in the last five days, so it wasn't a rest issue.
So we're left to wonder: Why would a veteran manager with so much success and such an impressive history of running bullpens make such a demonstrably poor decision in a must-win game? The full context of what we know about Showalter and what we know about the game in question makes one wonder whether there's something more to the story. Maybe Showalter or one of this coaches saw something during Britton's warm-up that gave him pause? Maybe it was an injury that Showalter for some reason chose not to disclose? That would all make more sense than branding this as a deeply uncharacteristic blunder, but, alas, a blunder it seems to be. Consider this ...
Zach Britton says he felt fine and was ready to go. Just never got used. Says watching the final inning was "frustrating."— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) October 5, 2016
And then consider this additional remarks by Showalter in his postgame presser ...
Buck: "You could (regret) afterwards, but we went 4 innings trying to get to that spot (of using Britton)."— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) October 5, 2016
Buck: "Playing on the road had something to do with it too."— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) October 5, 2016
As strange as this is to say about Showalter, this sounds an awful lot like a manager's letting the save rule dictate his relief choices when he could least afford to do that. If that's the case, then we're forced to say Showalter made a tactical mistake on Tuesday night that may have cost the Orioles their season. Just when you think you know someone.
It's often said that the best thing a manager can do is put his players in a position to succeed. Broadly, this entails knowing the right match-up or even the right moment for each contributor on the roster. The Orioles' manager on Tuesday night, though, didn't do that. By choosing a famously erratic hurler like Jimenez over the surest lockdown closer in the game with the season hanging in the balance, Showalter failed in the rawest way a manager can fail.