“Closer Mentality” dooms Team Italia in the 8th inning of final WBC game

The situation: Bottom of the 8th inning, Italy leads 3-1.

Due up for the team from Puerto Rico: Carlos BeltranYadier MolinaMike Aviles, with Alex Rios next in line. These hitters represent the so-called “heart” of the lineup.

Popular thinking: Bring in the set up man and let him take care of the business. The “closer” will take care of the “weaker” 6-7-8-9 hitters in the bottom of the lineup in the 9th inning when the set up man takes care of what he’s supposed to in the 8th.

The problem with this thinking: you are letting their best hitters, who are pretty good, go up against an inferior pitcher to Team Italia closer Jason Grilli. If you get out of this alive, yes, that’s great, but what if you don’t? John Smoltz said on the broadcast that, “You have to make sure you get [Grilli] in the game,” but he meant that the set-up men had to do their job, not that the highest leverage situations late in the game deserve the highest quality pitcher to combat these batters. If he falters, you know their best have beat your best; isn’t that the way you’d want to lose if you had a choice?

What happened: Chris Cooper walked Beltran. New pitcher Nick Pugliese saw Molina hit a single off of him, and Beltran moved to 3rd. Brian Sweeney comes in to get Aviles to ground into a fielder’s choice, a run scores, and Aviles is on 1st. Rios singles, and Aviles would go to 3rd on the play. Pat Venditte would be ordered to come into the game and would get Luis Figeroua to fly out to Chris Denorfia in what I’ll call “standard depth” LCF. Denorfia’s throw was horribly off line, a run scores, Rios moves to 2nd, game tied. Andy Gonzalez would hit a ball to the right of new shortstop Jack Santora, but would make a throw that would bring first baseman Anthony Rizzo off line, and Rios would come in to score. Try as they could, Puerto Rico was unable to further the damage, and would leave the inning up 4-3. No other pitching changes for Italy were made that inning, or for the rest of the game.

The end result: Four pitchers used in the 8th inning, none of them named Jason Grilli. They will never know what could have been had Grilli, their best option in the bullpen, tried to put a stop to the Puerto Rico rally. Now, the players from Italy will go back to their respective camps off an impressive and unlikely run in the World Baseball Classic, wondering what could have been, and hopefully, questioning the way the strategy of baseball is executed in regards to the way the bullpen is utilized.

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