Macha, Alou and Their Pitchers
The first time was on Wednesday when Dan Haren stayed in long enough to give up 12 hits and four runs, and it took a dramatic ninth- and 10th-inning comeback for the A’s to win. The second time was Saturday, when Barry Zito came out for the seventh after giving up 12 hits and five runs in the first six innings. Zito then pitched a solid seventh, holding his 7-5 lead as the A’s went on to beat the Tigers.
Each time, there seemed to be ample reason for removing the starter. Haren, who has generally pitched well this season, wasn’t fooling anybody in that Wednesday game, and he couldn’t get out of the sixth. Zito was struggling, too, and the Tigers are a very good hitting team, well over .300 as a team against left-handers.
But there were other elements in Macha’s decisions. In Zito’s case, he knew that Barry is a much different pitcher than in the past, able to hang in there without blowing up and giving the opponent a big inning. He also knew that Zito is a remarkably durable pitcher, which is one of the reasons A’s general manager Billy Beane dealt Mark Mulder and kept Zito. His motion is a fluid one, so he doesn’t put strain on his arm. That day, Zito threw 119 pitches, but seemed to throw the last pitch as effortlessly as the first.
Haren is a different matter because he hasn’t pitched enough to really define what kind of pitcher he is – or can become. For sure, though, he has to learn how to pitch when he doesn’t have his best stuff, because a pitcher who can win only when everything is going right is, well, Brett Tomko. Macha gave Haren a chance to work through some tough spots, which will help him in the future.
The main reason behind the Macha decisions, though, was that he was trying to save his bullpen. He knew the A’s wouldn’t have a day off before they started their road swing in Minnesota last night, and he didn’t want a tired bullpen going in. When Zito gave him seven innings, he could turn to Jay Witasick in the eighth, and also in the ninth after the A’s had widened their lead. It got even better for Macha and the A’s when Kirk Saarloos had a complete game victory on Sunday.
Managing the pitching staff has always been the most important part of a manager’s job, but that’s changed over the years. Once, it meant getting the most out of your starters. Now, the emphasis is on the bullpen. Teams build their staffs from the ninth inning backward, with a closer for that inning, a setup man for the eighth and specialists for the earlier innings. None of them can be effective, though, if they’re tired, and Macha was willing to risk losing a game – especially the Wednesday game – to keep his bullpen rested as the A’s head into the final two months of the season.
ACROSS THE BAY, we’re seeing a much different method. Felipe Alou has managed the Giants bullpen as if it were the last week of the season. Nothing new in that. He did the same thing last year, and he had an exhausted ‘pen by the end of the season. Some of the pitchers, notably Jim Brower and Matt Herges, still pitched “tired” as the start of this season.
In Alou’s defense, he isn’t working with much. With Robb Nen out for the second year and the 2003 closer, Tim Worrell, lost to free agency, Alou was auditioning for a closer all year in 2004. Starters, except for Jason Schmidt, weren’t going deep in the game, which put a further burden on the bullpen.
This year, with Schmidt’s in-and-out performances, it’s even worse. The starting rotation is a mess. Tomko and Kirk Rueter have each been taken out of the rotation to go to the bullpen, and Rueter is apparently there now for the rest of the season. Tyler Walker has been in-and-out as the closer.
But Alou certainly has not helped with his panicky managing. There seems to be no reason to some of his moves. He took Schmidt out of a game in Chicago because he’d thrown 100 pitches, saying he thought Schmidt was tiring because of the heat – but he’d left Schmidt in to pitch an 144-pitch complete game in the same heat in Chicago last year.
He took Kevin Correia out of the starting rotation and, in his first relief appearance, pitched him in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road. Not surprisingly, Correia blew the lead.
There are very few defined roles for Giants pitchers this year. Schmidt and Noah Lowry are only starters, but others have gone back and forth. Even 42-year-old Jeff Fassero has been used as a starter. It’s crazy. Yesterday, Alou announced that Correia and Brad Hennessey will be starters for the rest of the season, but knowing how the Giants operate, I wouldn't hold my breath on that.
THE A’S and Giants are in stark contrast in many ways this season, and none more obvious than the way Macha and Alou have handled their pitching.
Because Macha and his pitching coach, Curt Young, have done such a good job, the A’s seem to be in good position to make a run at the postseason, either as division champions or a wild card.
The Giants? Even if everything else goes right for them, the Giants are going to hit September with an exhausted bullpen, and that’s not a recipe for success.
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