Since Orioles manager Buck Showalter never explained why Zach Britton, the best reliever in baseball, didn’t relieve Tuesday night, here’s three possible reasons why:
- Britton was watching the vice-presidential debate.
- He was working on his Cy Young Award acceptance speech.
- Showalter was saving him for the divisional series against Texas.
None of those make any less sense than Showalter, who after the game sounded a lot like Mike Pence when asked about Donald Trump. He talked a lot but answered without answering.
The Orioles used seven pitchers Tuesday and threw 151 pitches, none by Britton, in their last game of 2016. Showalter got almost as many questions about it afterward.
Showalter said Britton was a consideration and not using him wasn’t philosophical (saving him for a save situation). He talked about the other Orioles pitchers and said, except for Britton, Ubaldo Jimenez was pitching as well as any Oriole in September. Which explains why Showalter is considered such a good manager. Who else would think to use your best pitcher when you can use your second-best?
Showalter only showed any pique when the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner said he was sorry for asking again. “Are you really?” Showalter said, and then offered to explain privately after the press conference to Kepner, as if he had a secret plan. Judging by Kepner’s analysis Wednesday morning, it was a lot like Nixon’s plan to end the war in Vietnam: neither secret nor a plan.
From Kepner’s Wednesday morning article: “When we did, in the tunnel leading back to the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre, he said he could handle criticism and mentioned that a manager always knew more than he could say.”
That’s no doubt true, but if there was any more, no one was saying. (If there isn’t no one should be implying otherwise). Britton said he was fine and Showalter said he was fine, but there shouldn’t have been any doubt about that because Britton warmed up three times. Why warm him up if you’re not going to use him? Showalter didn’t say.
Showalter has earned, or cultivated, an image, with Tony La Russa retired, as baseball’s best and smuggest manager. The two are not often not only compatible, but necessary.
The best of managers can see, like the best of chess masters, the effects of moves innings ahead, not just at that at-bat. But Showalter’s Tuesday night performance seemed more like the paranoid Bobby Fischer of the 1990s than the brilliant Fischer of 1972.
Britton warmed up as early as the eighth, but as he readied, Showalter opted for: 1.) Brad Brach, who allowed seven hits, seven runs and three walks in his last five regular-season innings; 2.) Darren O’Day, who pitched only 3.2 innings after Aug. 11 because of a bad shoulder; 3.) Brian Duensing, who pitched more innings in the minors (32.1) than the majors this season (13.1) and has a career 4.13 ERA; and 4.) Jimenez, whose last seven starts were good ones, but hasn’t relieved since Aug. 19 and had a 5.44 ERA this year.
Showalter never opted for Britton, not even with the Josh Donaldson-Edwin Encarnacion-Jose Bautista part of the order. (And the only thing more remarkable than Britton’s absence was the TBS broadcasters not mentioning it. I’m guessing they were more concerned with next July’s mid-game interview than informing viewers).
Until the 11th Showalter seemed prescient, which maybe fueled his conviction. Brach induced a double play to end the eighth and O’Day another, after a Donaldson double off Brach, to end the ninth. Duensing struck out the only batter he faced. But Jimenez’s five-pitch outing wasn’t as fortunate (watch a replay and note catcher Matt Wieters turning away. He couldn’t watch what was probably his final play as an Oriole.).
None of this is to say the Orioles would have won even had Britton pitched. They had four hits in 11 innings, none after the sixth and nary a baserunner after Chris Davis walked in the seventh. The last 14 Orioles went down in order, and their home run or bust offense, busted.
That’s not all Showalter’s fault, except for whatever part he had in building a one-dimensional offense. But not using Britton was exclusively his.
“Buck Showalter, more than almost anybody else, has shown he can usually get the most out of 25 guys,” wrote Jeff Sullivan on fangraphs.com. “But Tuesday, Buck Showalter was faced with an easy choice. On more than one occasion, he ignored it, and the best reliever in baseball watched his team lose, like all of the rest of us did. Showalter made no use of his team’s biggest edge, and though that didn’t directly cause the loss, that doesn’t make it any more forgivable.”
Sullivan is right. The Orioles won seven of nine games to win the wild-card spot on the game’s final day, then became the first team out without the resolve they demonstrated to get in. The Tigers and Mariners had to be watching and thinking if they had made the playoffs, they would have tried harder to stay in them.