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A few "little things" that might have been big

By Tom Tippett
October 3, 1999

A few things I noticed while watching the Mets-Pirates and the Reds-Brewers games (thanks to the MLB package on DirecTV) Friday night:

1.  In the top of the 8th in NY, the Mets were leading 2-0 when the Pirates leadoff man reached on a walk.  The next batter hit a grounder to the left side.  Rey Ordonez ranged a long way into the hole, did his patented backhand-the-ball-while-sliding-on-one-knee move and made a weak, off-balance throw to second as he fell toward third base.  The runner was safe, and the Pirates went on to score the tying runs in that inning.

In my view, this was a tough chance, but it sure didn't look as if that little slide was necessary.  I could easily picture other shortstops (Garciaparra, Larkin, Jeter, Bordick, Clayton and a half-dozen others) simply backhanding that ball, planting, and making a strong throw to second.  It was a play that could have been made.  Ordonez didn't make it because he got too fancy, and it could have cost the Mets the game and the season.

2.  At the beginning of that 8th inning, Mets manager Bobby Valentine had inserted Melvin Mora as a defensive replacement for Rickey Henderson.  In the bottom of the 8th, with the score 2-2, the Mets loaded the bases with two out, bringing Mora to the plate.  Who would you rather have up in that situation, Henderson or a rookie who entered the game with 4 hits in 29 career atbats?  Mora grounded out to short to end the inning.

3.  In the top of the 11th, with the score still 2-2, the first two Pirates were retired, and the pitcher slot was due up.  Scott Sauerbeck was allowed to bat for himself, presumably because he was a lefty who was pitching quite well in this game and because there was little chance of scoring in this inning anyway.  The fact that a lefty was still on the hill for the bottom of the 11th turned out to make things quite interesting.

4.  In the bottom of the 11th, with the score still 2-2, Shawon Dunston led off with a pinch single, bringing Mora to the plate.  Mora sacrificed Dunston to second, providing the perfect opportunity to walk Edgardo Alfonzo (a righty) to get to John Olerud (a lefty).  Olerud grounded weakly to first, advancing the runners, providing the perfect opportunity to walk Mike Piazza (a righty) to face Robin Ventura (a lefty).  At that point, Ventura saved Valentine from serious second-guessing by looping a single over second to win the game.

But I'm going to second-guess Valentine anyway.  Have you ever heard the expression, "Never confuse a good outcome with a good decision"?  I'm not sure where I heard it first, but it might have been when I was studying risk management in business school. But it definitely applies here. 

When you're dealing with an uncertain future, sometimes you can make a good decision and get burned anyway, and sometimes you can make a bad decision and get away with it.  For example, if you make a move that increases your chances of success from 30% to 40%, you'll still 'fail' more than half the time, even though you put yourself in a better position to succeed. And if you make a move that reduces your chances from 30% to 20%, you'll still get the result you want one out of five times.

I think Valentine got away with one here. When he removed Henderson for Mora in the 8th, he gained a small advantage on defense but created an offensive weakness.  (Ironically, it was Ordonez, a defensive specialist, who failed to make the play that could have kept the Mets ahead.)  That weakness was apparent when Mora came to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 8th and again in the 11th when Mora's sacrifice opened the door for the Pirates to pitch around the Mets' two best right-handed hitters with a lefty on the mound.

5.  Let's cut to the Reds-Brewers game now.  In the bottom of the 9th, with the score tied 3-3, Reds closer Danny Graves was on the hill.  Ron Belliard hit a routine ground ball that found a big hole and went into LF field because the Reds were guarding the lines.  I'm not going to second-guess the decision to guard the lines, but it almost made a difference in this game.

6.  This brought up Geoff Jenkins, who was hitting .313 with 21 homers and had the left/right advantage against Graves.  Jenkins was asked to lay down a bunt, and he did, bringing up switch-hitter Brian Banks.  Banks was promptly walked intentionally to get to Jose Valentin, who was batting .227 at the time and bats from the right side.  Valentin hit a deep fly that was caught on the warning track in left field and Marquis Grissom (another righty) grounded weakly to second to end the inning.

Suppose Jenkins was allowed to swing away.  If he and Banks make outs, the inning still ends without a run.  But if either of those two raps a single that moves Belliard to third, Valentin's out becomes a game-winning sac fly.  Instead, the Brewers chose to surrender an out and Jenkins' bat so they could send two mediocre righties up against Graves.

7.  In the top of the 10th, the Reds had the go-ahead run on second when Eddie Taubensee hit a line drive to center.  Grissom made a diving catch to save the run, but I can't say I was overly impressed with the jump he got on the ball.  He seemed to be playing pretty deep, and when the ball was half-way there, I was thinking this would be an easy play.  I could be wrong, but I think a top-notch CF would have made this play pretty easily, without leaving his feet.

8.  Finally, in the bottom of the 10th, righty Scott Sullivan came on to pitch for the Reds.  After throwing two pitches that looked like strikes but were called balls, he hit Loretta with a pitch to put the leadoff man on.  Up came Jeff Cirillo, a man with three RBI in the game, a .324 average and a .399 on-base percentage.  So of course he was asked to bunt, and he popped up the first pitch for the out. 

Let's assume for a moment that Cirillo got the bunt down.  Now you'd have a man on second with one, a lefty who's your best hitter (Jeromy Burnitz) coming to the plate, and the pitcher spot due up after that.  That's a slam-dunk intentional walk if I've ever seen one, so what were they thinking when they asked Cirillo to bunt?

Well, it all became moot when Burnitz struck out, pinch-hitter Kevin Barker singled, and Ron Belliard singled home the winning run.

In conclusion, it was loads of fun to have so many critical situations and debatable managerial calls come up in less than an hour.  The managers I'm second-guessing won their games, so maybe they know something I don't, but I'm convinced that both made questionable decisions and were lucky to be saved by good outcomes.

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