PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Don’t quote Joe Girardi on this, but we definitely got the sense that the Yankees’ manager was relieved it was the Mets’ Jeurys Familia — and not his own Dellin Betances — who was used on consecutive days at the World Baseball Classic this past weekend.
Giradi is a fan of the tournament, and like commissioner Rob Manfred, believes the Classic is important for the sport. But Girardi also thinks the WBC has potentially dangerous flaws, which is why he suggested Tuesday the first two rounds should be pushed back a week, with the semifinals and championship played at midseason, in the days leading up to the All-Star Game.
Splitting the Classic into two halves, spaced more than three months apart, may sound radical. But to Girardi, subjecting pitchers to the current WBC workload, at this stage of spring training, is the less logical strategy. And the pressure on the Classic’s managers, such as the Dominican Republic’s Tony Pena (also Girardi’s first-base coach) makes their job nearly impossible.
“Because he’s got his country here,” Girardi said, pointing toward his right ear, then added, while gesturing to his left, “and he’s got all the other mangers here.”
That’s the internal tug-of-war Pena probably experienced Sunday, when he chose to send out Familia for the 11th inning, with the D.R. ahead 10-3 after using him to save Saturday night’s intense 7-5 win over Team USA. Problem was, Pena had Familia up anyway to pitch the bottom of the 11th — before it turned into a blowout — and the Mets’ closer only threw 11 pitches the previous night, fewer than his other choices.
As Girardi pointed out, if the Dominican team had lost Sunday’s game, and needed to play a Monday tiebreaker, Pena’s pitching staff would have been seriously taxed. “He might have had to forfeit,” Girardi said. “That’s our concern about pitchers. You’ve got to make sure they’re brought along slowly.”
Familia pitching on consecutive days, and three times in four, is not ideal this early in spring training. But it didn’t violate any WBC rules, which stipulate a pitcher can go back-to-back as long as he gets a day off afterward. Otherwise, 50 or more pitches require a minimum of four days rest between outings; 30 or more, one day. For the first round, each pitcher is on a 65-pitch limit, followed by 80 for the second and 95 for the championship.
Therein lies the issue for Girardi, who would prefer to see the first round moved to this week, which would allow starters to be stretched out more — and give relievers more time to build arm strength. In his view, the current schedule puts the WBC managers in an impossible spot.
“You hope that guys don’t necessarily have to throw two days in a row this early,” Girardi said. “But you get an extra-inning game, and then you can only use so many guys, and it becomes tough.”
As for the WBC’s Final Four, Girardi’s blueprint calls for extending the All-Star break to a full week — maybe by having three fewer regular-season games, or starting three days earlier — and then playing the semis on Tuesday, the championship on Wednesday, followed by Thursday’s All-Star workout and the game itself on Friday. The season would resume the following Monday.
“Then you have guys that are built up,” Girardi said. “You’re not worried about them going two days in a row. I think they’re more prepared. Maybe teams think it’s more risky, but more Tommy John [surgeries] happen in the month of April than any month. So now you put them in a competitive situation in March, and there’s concerns. I think they have a better chance of being hurt in March.”
Girardi has faith in Pena, a catcher for 18 years in the majors who also has plenty of managerial experience. But he’ll also be holding his breath every time Betances takes the mound for the D.R. And remains grateful that Masahiro Tanaka, his No. 1 in the midst of a terrific spring, opted not to play for Japan.
“I think that when it comes down to it, you want to give your players the opportunity,” Girardi said. “But you don’t have a problem when they say no.”