Jerry Manuel's (mis)use of his 55th out

This past Saturday’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets was truly one for the ages. Any 20+ inning contest draws a great deal of attention, but this game was particularly odd because it occurred almost 42 years to the day of a 24 inning game between the New York Mets and our Houston Astros on April 15, 1968. Fittingly the game was at the offense suppressing environment of the Astrodome and saw both starting pitchers, Don Wilson and Tom Seaver, pitch at least nine innings. Third baseman Bob Aspromonte had the game winning and only RBI, while Mets pitcher Les Rohr took quite possibly one of the hardest losses of all time.

Baseball is great like that. The temporal confines of the game are determined not by a clock but by the actions of the players on the field. This is what makes the sport unpredictable and always hotly contested. There is no Bill Parcells-esque running down of the clock in the fourth quarter or a shoot the ball with one second left on the shot clock slow down like in basketball. No matter what’s going on with the score, be it down one or up one, a baseball team puts the same intensity into every at bat. Garbage time simply doesn’t exist.

 

One of the other odd aspects of baseball is that teams on occasion will find themselves forced to use players in unorthodox ways. The most obvious of which is the positional player turned pitcher. Whether it be a nine inning blow out where a manager doesn’t want to use a real pitcher or an extra inning game where all the pitchers have already been used, it’s always exciting/funny to watch this fish out of water take the mound.

 

In the Cards-Mets game, such a situation arose for St. Louis. Felipe Lopez, a jack of all trades to begin with, pitched the top of the 18th with no runs crossing the plate. The next inning outfielder Joe Mather took the ball and had trouble finding the strike zone and walked lead off hitter Jose Reyes. With no outs and the speedy Reyes on first and a "pitcher" who had no idea how to throw over or pitch from the stretch on the hill, I figured the Mets would send Reyes to put a runner in scoring position with no outs. They did not. Instead, Luis Castillo, a man whose contact percentage throughout his career is 92.3%, was asked to was to sacrifice bunt. He did just that, and with one out in the inning, David Wright was intentionally walked, and then Jason Bay was hit by a pitch. Saber-favorite Jeff Francouer hit a sacrifice fly to deep left, scoring the first run of the game.

Now, I'm not a major league manager but I have to question that decision on the part of Jerry Manuel. Why would you use your first out of the inning, an out which in this game more than any other is extremely important, to sacrifice against Joe Mather? The man was unaccustomed to pitching and definitely unaccustomed to pitching with runners on base. Make the guy throw a strike, and if he doesn't prove he can, don't give him an out even if it does get a runner into scoring position.

After writing all this, I do understand that after 18 innings of play, Manuel must have felt some sort of pressure to get a run home and that was his way of doing it. The Mets would score that inning, only to see the Cardinals tie it up in the bottom of the 19th. Maybe Castillo had been allowed to swing away, they could have scored multiple runs in the top half of the inning and not needed to head into a 20th frame. This is nit-picking on my part, but after making 54 outs, Jerry Manuel's willingness to give away a 55th made me raise an eyebrow.

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