Wednesday, June 11, 2008

First Guessing: 6/11/08

“Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.” – John Stuart Mill

Willie Randolph had some tough choices to make last night. After Mike Pelfrey completed his seventh inning of work and had crossed the mythical 100-pitch barrier, he could’ve gone to a set-up man to pitch the eighth inning. That would be the conservative decision, a decision influenced by what someone else curiously decided a few years ago was the “proper” approach to take with starting pitchers.

His eyes, though, had to see something different. They had to see how strong Pelfrey still looked and how confidently he was pitching. His heart had to feel something different, too. In a season where so much has gone wrong for the Mets, how could any partisan rooter not desperately want to see a complete game shutout from the young Pelfrey? Even Randolph’s memory had to remember something different – a time when pitchers finished what they started and the word “closer” had not yet entered the lexicon.

Faced with two courses of action – taking the conservative route or taking the bold route – Willie Randolph decided to take the bold route for a change. It generally hasn’t been in Randolph’s nature to do so since he became the Mets’ manager over three years ago. He is an unrepentant pitch counter; only John Maine has crossed the 120-pitch threshold in 2008. Met starters have only finished what they began 15 times in Randolph’s managerial tenure, the same number of complete games that Curt Schilling pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1998.

(Side note: Schilling made 35 starts that season and only failed to broach the 100-pitch mark three times. Schilling threw at least 120 pitches in more than half of his starts. Does the Pitch Count Posse have any explanation for how Schilling has been able to make nearly 250 more major league starts since he was so ‘abused” during the 1998 season?)

Randolph’s bold decision was rewarded. Pelfrey breezed through the eighth inning, quickly dispatching of Jeff Salazar, Justin Upton and Chris Young. The pitcher was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning, and Willie was faced with his second tough decision of the evening – to pinch-hit for Pelfrey or to give him a chance to pick up a complete game shutout.

Randolph steeled his nerves again and delighted the crowd by sending Pelfrey up to hit. It would’ve been so easy to just give the ball to the closer Billy Wagner, who was rested and ready to redeem himself after Sunday’s disaster in San Diego. It was the by-the-book move, the conservative move – and it would’ve been the wrong move.

Pelfrey started the ninth, the first time in his major league career that he had earned the right to pitch in the final regulation frame. Stephen Drew lofted a soft single over the head of Luis Castillo to lead off the inning. It was only the fifth hit Pelfrey had allowed all game and was not struck in a way that suggested the big right-hander had reached the end of his rope.

The manager stood on the top step of the dugout and pondered his options. Does he give Pelfrey the chance to finish what he started, or does he finally succumb to the conservative choice and go to the closer? Did Willie Randolph, a veteran of 18 major league baseball seasons, close his eyes, take a deep breath and remember a time when a starter would’ve screamed his manager off the mound for having the temerity to try to take the ball out of his hands at that point in the game?

It was there that Willie Randolph’s spirit finally gave out. In a ballgame where he showed great courage and great foresight by shrugging off the conservative course of action on two separate occasions, the third time was where he lost his nerve.

It was the wrong move even before Wagner served up a game-tying home run to Mark Reynolds. It was the wrong move even after Carlos Beltran drove a pitch deep into the Shea night that landed beneath the giant scoreboard in right-center field and gave the Mets their first win in nearly a week.

It was the wrong move because at the most critical juncture of the game, in the most critical juncture of a season threatening to spiral out of control, Willie Randolph lost sight of what got his team to that point – the right arm of Mike Pelfrey. It was Pelfrey’s right to decide the final outcome of this game; not Randolph, not Wagner, not anyone else but him.

Ace starters are not born – they are made. They are forged in the fire of the final innings, with the game on the line and with the starter given nowhere to look but inside himself. Mike Pelfrey deserved the chance to begin his journey toward becoming an ace starter tonight. Willie Randolph took that away from him when he took the ball out of his hands and gave it to another man.

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