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April 6, 2013 at 4:37 PM

Anatomy of a Mariners strategy gamble that paid off in theory, just not in execution

Today, we saw the perfect example of how the best-laid strategic decisions can sometimes go awry for a baseball team. Many have written in to me on Twitter asking why Eric Wedge did not go to one of the right-handed bats off his bench in order to pinch-hit for Raul Ibanez instead of letting him face southpaw Donnie Veal with two on and two out in the sixth inning.

It’s a fair enough question, since the Mariners had a plethora of right-handed options on the bench, including Jason Bay, Franklin Gutierrez and Jesus Montero. But it was also relatively early in the game, the score was tied (meaning extras were still a possibility) and it’s still early enough in the season that managers are sometimes reluctant to pull players after only two at-bats in a game for matchup reasons.

I know some of you roll your eyes at that latter one but the human condition is still what it is and a manager has to keep his entire team on board for 162 games. Start pulling guys that early — showing the ultimate lack of confidence — and it can cause problems down the road. Just like the seemingly innocuous practice of getting relief pitchers up and throwing in the bullpen and then not using them can become a source of major irritation for pitchers as the season progresses.

And also, sometimes a manager doesn’t want to start pinch-hitting as early as the sixth inning. Especially in the American League, where, unlike the NL, there is no pitcher coming up in the No. 9 spot every few innings.

Anyhow, Wedge decided not to pull Ibanez, who hit just .197 off lefties last season. Did the strategy work? Well, in terms of Wedge’s stated strategy, yes it did.

After the game, I asked Wedge whether he’d contemplated pulling Ibanez.

“Not at that point in time,’’ Wedge said. “For the exact reason that he comes back again late with a chance against a right-hander and you feel pretty confident it’s going to come back around that way. It’s early in the season and you want to give these guys opportunities. Raul’s obviously been a clutch hitter most of his career. It looked like he had one pitch to hit. Otherwise that guy (Veal) pitched him pretty good.’’

That right-hander was Jesse Crain and Ibanez did face him again with two on and one out in the eighth inning. That’s the matchup you would normally want if we’re going to play the whole lefty-righty game, so that part of it did work out in a one-run contest.

What didn’t work out was the execution part. Ibanez struck out.

But the strategy part of it: having the righty-on-lefty matchup, while still having bench guys to use in key situations, was there.

Wedge was able to have Jason Bay around to use as a pinch-runner precisely because he didn’t use him to pinch-hit in the sixth. Sure, the Mariners might have scored an extra run had Bay pinch-hit two innings earlier. Or, maybe not, Maybe he would have struck out, or grounded out or popped out or lined out. After all, there were two outs and two on. Not like it was a bases-loaded, no out situation and Ibanez hit into a triple play. Subbing in Bay at that early point was no automatic guarantee of success.

And Bay was a good pinch-runner in the eighth because he was replacing a DH. Had the Mariners needed, say, Robert Andino to do it, they’d be burning their backup infielder. Had Franklin Gutierrez done it, they’d be burning a potentially valuable pinch-hitter and a defensive replacement glove for the final innings.

These are all things to consider when contemplating the use of a pinch-hitter that early on.

In the end, the Mariners wound up with their right-on-lefty matchup. They had the pinch-runner they needed. And they had Gutierrez and Jesus Montero left over to pinch-hit in the ninth inning.

I’d call that effective bench management.

Was it successful management as far as results go? No, it was not. But that’s on the players. In the end, the players have to produce in the spots they’re left in. The Mariners, so far, have been leaving just a few too many runners on base at various times this early season. They’ve been getting guys on base but the bigger scoring rallies have been limited.

“Every single game that we’ve played this year I think we’ve had runners on base,” Michael Saunders said. “We’re just missing that timely hit or whatever it may be. But we fought hard. We were in the game the entire way through…if we continue to do that over the course of the season, we’re going to win a lot of ballgames.”

The Ibanez at-bat in the sixth against Veal was actually typical of what the Mariners are looking for. He went up there looking for a pitch he could hit someplace for a single and didn’t get it the first two pitches outside the zone.

So, with the count 2-0, Veal came back with a fastball that caught the outside corner for a strike. Ibanez said it wasn’t a pitch he considered “hittable” enough to waste a 2-0 count on. He’d rather take a strike in that situation than risk rolling over on a pitch he wasn’t too sure about.

Ibanez then worked the count to 3-1, only to see Veal make two pretty good pitches. The first was a backdoor slider dropped in for a called strike. And that set Ibanez up for the next pitch, which was pretty much a repeat.

“Once he was able to throw that for a strike, I had to be prepared to hit it,” Ibanez said. “And he made a good pitch. It could have gone either way if I’d taken it, but with guys out there (on base) I wasn’t going to take that chance.”

That’s the value of pitchers who aren’t afraid of throwing a good breaking ball when in hitter’s counts. Not all of them give in to the temptation to throw a fastball down the pipe for a strike. Veal pitched well today when it mattered an earned the victory.

For Ibanez, he simply did not come through when it mattered in the eighth and he had the right-hander out there.

“I didn’t get it done,” he said. “You’ve got to be better than that.”

And he’ll get his chances. The season isn’t over. This team is going to play .500 ball for much of the year and a few games will either break right, or a few more will break wrongly. I’m thinking they break right and this team overcomes its starting rotation shortcomings and maybe wins 85 or so and stays in contention for a good part of the season.

But it needs to get some more hits in bunches. That hasn’t come when it’s really been needed at times.

That and Felix Hernandez having no command — his own admission — and hanging an 0-2 slider to Alex Rios today was the big problem.

It wasn’t the in-game management. If the Mariners start playing for one run in the sixth inning the first week of the season, then we’re in for a long, long year. Fortunately, the team appears to know what it’s doing and now needs the players (both young and old, homegrown and free-agent-signed) to execute when the time comes for it  — plain and simple.

That’s what lost today’s game. Lack of execution, not lack of foresight.

Comments | More in game analysis | Topics: eric wedge; raul ibanez; jason bay; donnie veal

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