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In stinging loss to Yankees, Dusty Baker did not give Astros the best chance to win

Last night’s collapse in the Bronx wasn’t the Astros skipper’s fault, but his tactical incompetence late in the game left the door open for a Yankees comeback.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Dusty Baker is not the reason why the Astros lost to the Yankees last night. But his late-game decision-making might have prevented an Astros win.

The Astros entered the bottom of the ninth with a three-run lead, successfully handing the game to their All-Star closer. With a 2.41 ERA on the season, Ryan Pressly had converted 14 saves in 16 chances. He had allowed just one home run in 18 23 innings, yielding a remarkable 1.9 percent Barrel rate in the process.

Pitching in consecutive days for only the third time in 2022, the veteran righty looked off-kilter from the get-go, walking the first two batters he faced before serving up a three-run home run to Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, who had a .288 slugging percentage through 210 plate appearances before launching his third homer of the season.

This wasn’t Baker’s fault. It’s just baseball. To his credit, he then made the right move in eventually turning to Ryne Stanek with the game tied, as Pressly was wholly ineffective and had needed 26 pitches to get a single out.

Again, it wasn’t Baker’s fault when Stanek then surrendered the winning run, an extra-base hit by the face of Yankees baseball, Aaron Judge.

Though there were two outs and the count had gotten to 3-0, pitching to Judge wasn’t entirely ill-advised. Intentionally putting him on and loading the bases for Anthony Rizzo, who is quietly putting together his best season since 2019, would’ve made for an extremely difficult situation for Stanek, whose lackluster control probably wouldn’t have fared well against a disciplined hitter such as Rizzo.

Perhaps taking your chances with the player who isn’t an MVP candidate would’ve been the better course, but overall, Baker wasn’t exactly to blame for the way things ended in the ninth.

However, the same can’t be said for what happened an inning earlier.

In the top of the eighth, with the volatile Albert Abreu on the mound, Yuli Gurriel led off the frame with a double. Then things got really weird.

Despite the Astros being up three runs at this point, Mauricio Dubón squared around to lay down a sacrifice bunt. This was with Jose Siri, the owner of a 69 wRC+ and a 32 percent strikeout rate, on-deck. Behind him in the batting order was one of baseball’s worst hitters in Martín Maldonado. There was no reason to bunt, and yet Dubón tried multiple times before ultimately drawing a walk.

It’s not definitively known if Dubón had been given the sign by the dugout to bunt, but after he first attempted to, he should’ve been immediately told not to, considering the situation in the game as well as who was hitting behind him.

But thanks to Abreu’s lack of control, the Astros caught a break, and had two runners on with nobody out. It was a prime opportunity to tack on runs against perhaps the best team in baseball. But instead of pinch-hitting for Siri, who is objectively not a major-league caliber hitter, Baker let his center fielder hit. The result was a pop-up.

Chas McCormick, who has a 105 wRC+ in nearly 500 big-league plate appearances in 2021 and 2022 combined, and has shown he can competently patrol center field, remained on the bench.

With Siri retired, there was one out and runners were still on first and second. But José Altuve now occupied the on-deck circle.

If ever there was a time for Baker to call for a sac bunt, this was it. Maldonado is no stranger to bunting, and doing so instead of bringing in a pinch-hitter would allow the savvy backstop to stay in the game and help protect the lead with his defensive mastery. Worst case, he’s unable to move the runners over and gets himself out, which would have then given Altuve, who was 3-for-3 with two doubles, a chance to expand the lead.

Instead, Maldonado goes throughout the entire plate appearance without even squaring around before ending the inning via a double play.

He managed to get into a 3-0 count, but after Abreu fought back to make it 3-2, Maldonado hit the ball on the ground and gave the Yankees two easy outs.

The Astros opened the inning with two base runners and did absolutely nothing after.

McCormick, a competent producer, is inexplicably still being platooned with Siri, who is a gifted defender but a black hole at the plate. It’s one thing to give Siri a fair amount of playing time, it’s another to leave him in the game in a crucial spot offensively. Then letting Maldonado swing away was an utterly befuddling decision that bordered on plain negligence.

Regardless, a three-run lead should’ve been enough for Pressly, but at the same time, Baker certainly left the door open for the Yankees.

Managers in baseball don’t have the same in-game responsibilities that their peers do in football and basketball. They’re not tasked with continually calling plays and/or implementing detailed schemes. They’re responsible for merely making a handful of tactical decisions, exploiting certain matchups while avoiding others.

Dusty Baker failed in that regard Thursday night.