There was a moment in the top of the ninth inning on Wednesday night that made you wonder if you were actually watching Game Four of the ALCS.
Nelson Cruz, on first with two out in a tie game, took off so early from first base before a 1-2 pitch to Yorvit Torrealba that Joaquin Benoit didn't even bother throwing a pitch. He just tossed the ball to second, Cruz was out and the game moved on to the bottom of the ninth. It was the kind of move that would be unacceptable in a March game, but in October it was almost unthinkable that you'd make that kind of mistake.
Or would be, if it wasn't for the fact that you were watching a game between two managers who seemed hellbent on making the blunder that led to his team's loss. Cruz's mad dash for second might have been on his own, but based on the way Ron Washington was managing the rest of the game we're pretty sure he didn't make extra certain that Cruz knew not to take any unnecessary risks.
Because taking unnecessary risks was all Washington was about on Wednesday night. With the score tied 3-3, he intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera with one out and no one on base in the bottom of the eighth. It's not a great move to put the go-ahead run on base, but it is one that you could defend because Cabrera is perhaps the best hitter in all of baseball. Well, it would be easy to defend if Washington hadn't been pitching to Cabrera with runners on base all series and getting burned for it. Cabrera drove in the first two Tigers runs of the night with a two-out double, making it less about Washington making the smart move and more about Washington doing whatever he could to make life more difficult for his team.
After the walk, the Rangers had Cabrera, who runs with all the speed of a dying water buffalo suffering from an arthritic hip, on first and a good chance at a double play with Victor Martinez at the plate. Naturally, Washington holds Cabrera on first base and opens up a hole that Martinez bounces a single through to put runners on first and third with one out.
Wash got out of the inning unscathed because Jim Leyland's side was just as uninterested with making the smart move. Delmon Young flew to right where Cruz has a terrific arm, but the Tigers were cool with making the old water buffalo try for home. In a play that seemed to take 45 minutes, Cruz's throw got to Mike Napoli with enough time for Napoli to catch up on his correspondence and draw himself into a protective shell that Cabrera could not puncture. They showed the replay over and over again, perhaps to convince people that this actually happened and shots of Cabrera's face make it clear that even he thought it was ridiculous that he was running for the plate on the play.
There's been talk of pinch running for Cabrera, but leaving him in was totally defensible. Young is barely functional thanks to his oblique injury (which raises the question of why Mike Adams grooved him pitches when Young established he would chase and miss sliders off the plate) and Alex Avila, the on-deck hitter, hasn't hit at all in the postseason. Coming out of the inning tied was a real possibility and losing Cabrera would have severely limited their chances of winning. Giving Avila a chance to break his slump and/or allowing any of the other things that could get Cabrera home to happen was the best play.
Leyland was just getting warmed up. His night of madness actually started in the sixth when the score was tied at two with Elvis Andrus on first base and two outs. Michael Young, who hadn't hit at all in the series, was at the plate, but Leyland was much more concerned with Andrus trying to steal. He had Rick Porcello throw over to first four times, including twice once Porcello had gotten Young in a 1-2 hole. At that point, getting the hitter out and escaping the inning should be the only thing on a pitcher's mind, but Leyland called one more pickoff and Porcello threw it away. Andrus was on second and Porcello, who had to be distracted by the whole affair, grooved a pitch that Young, to the shock of all, hit for a run-scoring single.
The running game is just irresistable to Leyland, because he felt it was necessary to have Austin Jackson steal second in the bottom of the 10th with one out. Jackson was thrown out and the inning ended when Ryan Raburn struck out swinging. Miguel Cabrera was on deck when Raburn made out, forcing you to ask why Leyland was so hellbent on avoiding the double play when he had a good chance of getting Cabrera up with a runner on base. Leyland said the decision to run was Jackson's, but the manager has the say in when a player gets carte blanche. Leyland shouldn't have offered it in such a big spot. As we've established, Ron Washington LOVES pitching to Cabrera with runners on base and that would have been a helluva shot to win the game.
Ultimately, you have to ask if Leyland even wanted to win the game. After Josh Hamilton's double to lead off the 11th inning, Leyland had Jose Valverde pitch to Michael Young. Young struck out, but Leyland than had Valverde intentionally walk Adrian Beltre, who has looked awful at the plate since fouling two balls off of himself in Game Three, to bring up Mike Napoli. You know what happened from there.
That's all pretty negative, but we'll offer some parting words of praise. Both managers are getting some heat from their choice of pitchers in the 11th, but both Leyland and Washington chose correctly. Leyland stuck with Valverde because a second inning of Valverde, who needed just eight pitches to get out of the 10th, was better than a first inning of anyone else. Washington turned to Neftali Feliz with a four-run lead because Feliz is a better pitcher than Scott Feldman. Neither man needs to apologize for going with their best, even if it might cause some problems for them in Game Five.
We shudder to think about how these guys will solve those problems, but when managers make as many missteps as these two did on Wednesday night there's no need to invent new ones.