Buck Showalter, five months later, knew the Zach Britton question was coming. No manager can do what he did last October, during that fateful night at Rogers Centre, and not have his radar up. But even the affable Showalter, one of our favorite guys to chat with, has his boundaries.
You don’t bump against them often. The line materialized Monday when the conversation turned to Britton’s absence from that wild-card game, the 11-inning, 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays. Showalter never has provided an explanation for not using Britton and apparently has no intention of offering one. Period.
“If something works, it’s right,” Showalter said before Monday’s exhibition game against the Yankees. “If something doesn’t work, it’s wrong. Sometimes you make a decision that’s really chancey and you don’t really like, or you pick the right thing and it doesn’t work out. It’s up to other people to engage right or wrong.”
That’s more postgame analysis, really, and not a defense of the choice to leave Britton holstered. So we pushed a little more. Was it the correct move to wait on using Britton for a save situation that never happened?
“If you knew how everything was going to turn out in your life, would you have done it differently?” Showalter said. “Of course you would. That’s my answer. Obviously if you knew the results, you would do something differently. We don’t. People want to play the game on computers. I don’t dwell on it.”
Fair enough. Everyone knows how this one played out. Britton, the 47-for-47 closer with a 0.54 ERA, warmed up three times that night, starting in the eighth inning. But with the score tied 2-2 in the 11th, Showalter stuck with Ubaldo Jimenez, who gave up a pair of singles before Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off blast.
Showalter, who is regarded as a brilliant in-game tactician, was clobbered by an army of second-guessers who couldn’t fathom why the game’s best relief pitcher wasn’t used in a do-or-die playoff. On the surface, he seemed to cling to the conventional wisdom that a closer shouldn’t be used in a tie game on the road. On Monday, Showalter hinted at other things possibly influencing his judgment, stuff he wouldn’t reveal.
“Britton could have pitched in the fifth inning in Toronto,” Showalter said. “He could have pitched in the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the 10th, the 11th. There’s a lot of factors there. But you’re careful about saying things that reflect some things that you just don’t talk about. And I’m not going to. We’ve moved on.”
The Britton Conspiracy remains the lasting narrative from that wild-card loss, but Showalter successfully navigated his way through six scoreless innings of bullpen use before Jimenez’s failure.
The way the rest of October unfolded made Showalter look even worse. The 2016 postseason featured the rise of the super-reliever, as Andrew Miller showed how a closer-type pitcher could be used in any situation from the fifth inning on to help decide the outcome. His postseason dominance bolstered the contention of those who have argued that a traditional closer’s role is an antiquated notion, like the sacrifice bunt.
Showalter said he didn’t pay much attention to all that because he had only a passing interest in the playoffs once the Orioles were eliminated. When told we didn’t believe him, he replied, “It’s true. Ask my wife.”
Regardless, he strongly disagrees with the idea that a closer should be deployed at various points of a game during the regular season, too, rather than just be saved for the ninth.
“Of course not,” Showalter said. “It’s not reality. If you try to do that, your guys will be on the DL in April. Anybody that doesn’t believe that, go ahead and try it. I’d love to play against you. You won’t have your bullpen after about a month.
“It’s a trend that happens in the playoffs — no other time of the year. Relief pitchers around here laugh when people try to say that. You can’t run those guys out there that much. Appearances are at an all-time high. So are innings. You can’t do it. It’ll bite you.”
Showalter has one of those super-relievers in Britton, arguably the most lethal bullpen weapon in baseball. Next time, we’d bet the O’s manager doesn’t make the same mistake twice.
Buck Showalter used these six relievers — and not Zach Britton — after removing starter Chris Tillman with one out in the fifth inning against the Blue Jays in the AL wild-card game last October:
Mychal Givens 2 1⁄3
Donnie Hart 1⁄3
Brad Brach 1 1⁄3
Darren O’Day1 2⁄3
Bryan Duensing 1⁄3
Ubaldo Jiménez 0.0*
*Faced three batters, all reached base.