Strategy matters, but not this time

The Phillies survive Charlie Manuel's bad move in the ninth to win Game 1 of the World Series -- but it won't always work out so well.

By King Kaufman
Published October 23, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

This column is big on the idea that the job of a major league manager is mostly about managing the organization, being the boss of 25 players and related personnel, and very little about in-game strategy.

There's only so much strategizing a manager can do. This isn't football or basketball, where a brilliant scheme might just take the day. Whatever the plan, the batter has to hit and the pitcher has to make good pitches, and the outcome of that central battle is often immune to the most ingenious stratagem.

Having said all that, a game here and there can turn on a good or bad managerial decision. Over a long season, that effect is dwarfed by the effect of the manager's leadership skills. But in the postseason, the turning of a single game can turn a whole series.

So: What the heck was Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel doing Wednesday night in Game 1 of the World Series?

The Phillies won the game, riding a fine pitching performance by Cole Hamels and a two-run first-inning homer by Chase Utley to a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays and a 1-0 lead in the Series. But it was nip and tuck all the way, a terrific pitchers duel that came down to Phillies closer Brad Lidge mowing down Tampa Bay's three, four and five hitters in the ninth to preserve the save.

That was after the Phillies had failed to add any insurance runs in the top of the ninth when Eric Bruntlett popped out to end the inning with runners at second and third. And just in case you missed that: It was Eric Bruntlett who popped out to end the inning.

The mystery isn't so much what Bruntlett was doing in the game at that point, with lefty bats Greg Dobbs -- arguably the best pinch hitter in the game this season -- Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins available. The mystery is what he's doing in the major leagues.

Bruntlett hit .217 this year, and he matched his .297 on-base percentage with a .297 slugging percentage. Among the players who put up better offensive numbers than that this year were Adam Wainwright, Mark Hendrickson, Braden Looper and Jake Peavy.

He'd come in as a pinch runner and then defensive replacement for Pat Burrell after Burrell had walked in the seventh inning. Bruntlett's a utility player. He'll play anywhere, but he's a middle infielder by trade, though not a particularly slick one. Throughout his career, which until this year had been spent in Houston, he'd always played a little bit in the outfield, but Manuel has used him mostly out there, despite having plenty of other options. So Taguchi is also, somewhat mysteriously, on the roster.

Bruntlett's not much of an outfielder and he couldn't hit France if he fell off the Eiffel Tower, but aside from that it made sense for him to be playing left field in the late innings of a World Series game. Jason Werth had doubled with one out in the top of the ninth, and then after the Rays walked Utley to get to the slumping Ryan Howard, who struck out, Dan Wheeler, a right-hander, came in to face Bruntlett.

Bruntlett was even worse against right-handed pitchers this year than he was overall. Against right-handers, he hit .199, with a .261 on-base percentage and a .255 slugging percentage. Dobbs hit .309/.339/.507. Even Jenkins, who appears to be pretty much finished at 34, hit .256/.313/.415. A crucial insurance run was on second. Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, the last of whom already had a home run on the night, were due up in the ninth. Pinch-hit for him!

Nope. Not even after a double-steal meant that a base hit, something Bruntlett had virtually no chance of achieving, would have given the Phillies a three-run lead. Bruntlett popped out.

It didn't matter because Lidge made quick work of the heart of Tampa Bay's order in the bottom of the ninth and the Phillies had Game 1.

But it might have mattered. A bloop and a blast in the ninth would have given the game to the Rays. It still might have even had Manuel used Dobbs to hit for Bruntlett. Dobbs was fantastic as a pinch hitter this year, but he still made an out 62 percent of the time. But his odds of extending the lead were a lot better than those of Bruntlett, who against right-handed pitching made an out 74 percent of the time.

Other than Dobbs, who sometimes starts at third base, Manuel doesn't have much of a bench to work with, as evidenced by his using backup catcher Chris Coste as a designated hitter. Coste is a pretty good hitter for a backup catcher, but as a DH he makes a pretty good backup catcher.

With such a limited resource, Manuel has to make smart decisions to get everything he can out of his reserves. He didn't do that in Game 1, and while it didn't cost the Phillies, it's something to look for in the rest of the Series.

Because once in a while, strategy really matters, and if it matters once in seven games, that's a lot.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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