Image credit: Kevin Cash (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
SAN DIEGO—In Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, with the Astros facing elimination and their season on the line, manager Dusty Baker went to the mound without his mind made up. The 71-year-old baseball lifer wanted to look his starting pitcher Zack Greinke in the eye, talk to his catcher Martin Maldonado and make a decision based on what he saw and heard. The Astros held a 4-2 lead in the sixth inning, but the Rays had the go-ahead run at the plate in the form of Randy Arozarena, the postseason’s hottest hitter.
Ultimately, Baker bet on his ace and was rewarded. Greinke struck Arozarena out, worked around an infield single and escaped the inning unscathed with another strikeout, sending the Astros on their way to a 4-3 win and new life in the series. Baker, after a 19-year playing career and in his 23rd season as a manager, leaned on his intuition and knowledge to know when to trust his players.
“I would say he is really, really good at that,” Greinke said after the game. “I’ve been impressed. He reads people really good, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a wrong decision. When he trusts what he sees, he sees the right thing almost 100 percent of the time. Not everyone has that skill. Not many people do, but he’s been impressive in that regard, for sure.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash faced a similar situation with his ace in Game 6. The analytically-inclined Cash made the opposite decision, and now the Rays 3-0 series lead is a distant memory.
Cash pulled Blake Snell in the fifth inning with the Rays leading 1-0 and the Astros No. 9 hitter due up, and Houston immediately pounced on the Rays bullpen for a 7-4 victory on Friday night. The series is tied 3-3.
The Astros became the second team in MLB history to be down 3-0 in a series and force a Game 7. The other, of course, is the 2004 Red Sox.
“If there is another team that can do it, it’s us,” Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker said. “We never put our heads down. We kept our heads up high.”
Cash’s decision to pull Snell opened the door. The 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner battled his control early and allowed a walk and a seeing-eye single to open the fifth, but was due to face light-hitting No. 9 batter Martin Maldonado followed by George Springer, whom Snell had struck out twice already and three times in five at-bats overall in the series.
Rather than trust his ace to get out of it, Cash briskly walked to the mound, took the ball from his No. 1 starter after four-plus innings—with no runs allowed—and turned the game over to his bullpen. As he walked off the mound, Snell was caught by television cameras rhetorically asking “the (expletive) we doing?”
“Disappointed for sure,” Snell said. “I felt really good. I felt locked in. I had a good game plan against that lineup. It’s just frustrating. I wanted to go deep in that ballgame and I was very confident with everything I had going. Even with the walk and the ground ball I still felt very, very, very confident that I was going to get through that lineup.”
The numbers said it was the right call to bring in righthander Diego Castillo with five righthanders due up in the next six batters. But Castillo had started to slip after heavy usage early in the postseason, and after a Maldonado sacrifice bunt, he surrendered a two-run single to Springer and an RBI double to Jose Altuve to lose the lead, walked a batter and allowed another RBI single to Carlos Correa.
In a span of five batters after Snell left the game, the Rays’ 1-0 lead turned to a 4-1 deficit.
“Look, it was fairly clear,” Cash said. “…That was a big moment for us. First and second, no outs, Blake’s pitch count was manageable but (I) trusted Diego could come in and do what he’s done all season long. They got the better of us. Pretty gut-wrenching feeling, but that’s the way it goes when you’re making those decisions.”
The first two runs were charged to Snell, but the fact remained he hadn’t allowed a run when he walked off the mound. As the Rays No. 1 starter, a Cy Young Award winner and owner of a 2.16 ERA in the postseason this year at the time he was pulled, he expected to be given a chance to work out of his jams, as he did successfully in Game 1 of the ALCS.
Instead, the Rays pulled him.
“It’s just frustrating,” Snell said. “I thought, you know, give me a shot to get out of that. I really feel like with how I was pitching that game and how I was going through that game, I felt like that would have been what was best for us, in my mind.”
The Rays didn’t help themselves in other ways. Catcher Mike Zunino committed three passed balls. The offense managed just three hits and one run until the seventh, by which point the outcome was decided.
Astros starter Framber Valdez pitched six strong innings with nine strikeouts and the Houston offense battled to drive Snell’s pitch count up and put him in a precarious position.
But the game—and the lead—turned on Cash’s decision to pull Snell. Where Baker trusted his ace in a crucial moment, Cash pulled his.
Now, the Astros are in position to make history, while the Rays have to try and avoid becoming a footnote to it.
“The game plan I had for them and being able to watch them for five days, the amount of work I was able to learn off of those days, I was very confident that I was going to get out of the fifth inning and continue to go deeper into that ballgame,” Snell said. “So yeah, it’s frustrating to say the least.”