Yes, managers, you are allowed to use closers in a tie on the road
Friday night's Orioles-Rays marathon hammered home a lesson about contemporary bullpen usage.
As previously detailed in this very space, the Orioles on Friday night suffered a crippling, 18-inning loss to the Rays. Had the O's won, they would've been only one back of the Rays in the wild-card standings, so, needless to say, it was a critical-mass kind of game.
On that point, here's the list of pitchers that Baltimore manager Buck Showalter used over the course of those 18 torturous and tortuous innings:
You'll notice the conspicuous absence of Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who came into Friday's game on a full day of rest and having thrown just eight total pitches in his Wednesday appearance. Let it also be said that Johnson -- 2.98 ERA, 142 ERA+, 51 strikeouts, 14 unintentional walks -- has been one of the team's most effective relievers this season. Johnson's also allowed exactly one run since the middle of August. He is, as mentioned, the closer, which suggests Johnson is Showalter's most trusted bullpen arm. Yet, over the span of 12 1/3 relief innings, he never pitched.
Showalter certainly had him in mind, as Johnson warmed up on numerous occasions over the course of the night, but he was never summoned to pitch. Why? Because the Orioles never had a lead after the seventh inning, and closers, according to prevailing customs and quite possibly local ordinances, simply can't be used in tied games on the road. After all, that would mean some other pitcher would have to work a save situation, should the road team take the lead in the next half inning, or the closer would be forced to work, say, two whole innings. We can hardly have that.
Needless to say, this is a deeply flawed line of thinking. I'd prefer closers not be used in strict accordance to the save rule -- go back to the days of the "fireman," when a team's top reliever handled the high-leverage situation even if it occurred in the sixth inning. But even short of that, a manager as smart and as accomplished as Showalter should know that you need to empty your best arms in a must-win, late September contest that winds up spanning the length of two full games. Instead, Johnson warmed up and sat back down, warmed up and sat back down ... Until the game was lost by Bud Norris, a mid-grade starter.
Even if you're going to manage with a slavish devotion to the save rule in innings six through nine, the least we can do is show some flexibility when the game reaches its fifth or sixth hour. It's long past time for major-league managers to get past the self-defeating idea that a closer is off limits in a tie on the road.
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