Monday, May 22, 2006

That'll get the old adrenal glands pumping

Last night, Billy Wagner gets the call in the bullpen, starts out for the mound, and the crowd at Shea cheers.

Wagner wasn't sure what to make of the applause. He thought it was from Yankee fans thanking him for falling apart so completely Saturday afternoon and expecting him to do the same for them again.

Saturday he took the mound with the Mets up 4 to zip over the Yankees and shocked the Yanks by not giving them anything good to swing at. Jason Giambi managed a single, Robinson Cano did too. Miguel Cairo is probably still mad at himself for giving into temptation and lofting one when Wagner clearly had nothing. Everybody else Wagner faced might as well have left their bats sitting on their shoulders while he showed the crowd where the strike zone was by drawing an imaginary dotted line all around it with his pitches.

He walked the bases full. Walked in a run. Hit a batter to let in another run.

All of a sudden the great job he did Friday night's a memory so distant it might have been a dream.

But last night he comes back and redeems himself and all good Mets fans can forgive and forget and let their hopes rise a little bit again.

Guess I'm not a good Mets fan. I'm still grumpy.

Going into the series, I was praying for 2 out of 3, so I should be thrilled. But Saturday's game shook my faith in Willie Randolph a bit.

I'm going to risk opening up a debate on the designated hitter here. I'm actually neutral on the DH. I'm so used to there being different rules for the two leagues that when I'm watching a game in an American League park I don't even think about it.

But not having to send the pitcher up to the plate does make life a little easier for managers. When you never have to take a pitcher who's in a groove out of close game to put in a pinch hitter because you're desperate for runs, that's got to be a load off your mind. You can leave your starter in another inning, let your middle reliever take you into the ninth, and save your best pinch hitters. A National League manager, thinking about lifting a pitcher, has to consider how many more pitching changes he's going to have to make as a result, how empty his bench is going to get and how fast.

Defenders of the DH can argue that not having that automatic out every ninth batter can still bring about situations where the manager's forced to take out a pitcher he'd rather leave in, so you've still got your strategy there, bub, and besides it's just no fun for the fans that there's that automatic out every ninth batter.

This isn't directly relevant to Saturday's game. Pedro Martinez was pitching like Pedro Martinez and when he's doing that you just wish he could stay in there forever. But part of Martinez being Martinez is that he's fragile and he's just not going to pitch complete games anymore. Even if Willie Randolph had had the DH to work with, if the game had been played in the Bronx instead of Flushing, Martinez probably would have been gone. But Sanchez, who had pitched fine in the top of the 8th, wasn't due up in the bottom of the inning. He could have come out in the 9th. Randolph's hand wasn't forced.

What I'm getting at is that a manager's toughest job, I think, is handling his pitching staff. So while I was as surprised as Tim McCarver and the other guys in the broadcast booth when Randolph brought Wagner in even though it was not a save situation, I don't think the decision was crazy or wrong on the face of it.

McCarver worried about it because as he said if the Yankees managed a comeback against Wagner, Randolph didn't have another Billy Wagner to call on to shut them down.

But the Mets weren't winning because they'd been knocking the Yankee pitching staff around all day. A four run lead against the Yankees with the heart of their order due up looks dangerously insufficient. Randolph wanted the game over so he made the simplest and most apparently logical decision. He called for his best reliever.

Now. The adrenaline question.

The criticism of Willie's decision was based on the idea that great relievers like Wagner are at their best when they're working at the very edge. They live on adrenaline and there's just no way you can expect adrenaline junkies to perform unless it's in a high wind and there's no net.

I don't know that great relievers live on adrenaline.

Dennis Eckersley lived on mad.

Goose Gossage lived on nails, raw meat, and a blazing hatred of the batters who had the gall to make him have to come out there and work.

I guess adrenaline figured into it for them.

But Tug McGraw lived on hope.

Dan Quisenberry lived on batters' amazement that his arm didn't unscrew and come off at the shoulder with every pitch, him throwing like that.

And Mariano Rivera seems to live on divine grace and being at one with the universe.

What most relievers live on is strength, focus, luck, and one good pitch.

If Wagner lives on adrenaline, and coming in with a four run lead was too relaxing a situation for him, all I can say is that his adrenal glands should have started pumping again at about ball 3 on Alex Rodriguez.

Willie Randolph doesn't buy the adrenaline deficit excuse.

"When I put in a call to the bullpen, I assume all my players are mentally and physically ready to come into the game," Randolph said. "Period. Unless someone tells me on the other end, that's different."

He's right in a "I'm the boss, we're professionals, this is your job and it's important you do it right" kind of way.

But great managers don't just know baseball, they know people. Wagner did an amazing job Friday night and it would have been only human of him to have come to the park Saturday, less than 24 hours later, mentally and physically wrung out.

Randolph didn't need him. The rest of his bullpen's doing pretty well for him. He should have let Wagner get some rest. There are 119 games left to play.

Over the course of the season Randolph will be right far more often than he'll be wrong when he makes the decison to call for Wagner.

But that'll be just more proof Billy Wagner's a great reliever, not evidence Willie Randolph is a genius when it comes to handling his pitching staff.

Last night Wagner comes in. Robinson Cano goes down on three pitches. Bernie Williams bloops one to right. Melky Cabrera singles to left. It looks like Wagner was better off when he couldn't find the strike zone. But then Stinnett strikes out and Cairo grounds one to Matsui at second and that's all she wrote.

Great game, great series.

I'm still worried.


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