Things were going swimmingly for the Red Sox Saturday night. Somehow the Rays had lost to Javier Vasquez and the Marlins and so, with a win, the Sox would jump Tampa into first place in the East. This would complete an about-face from 2-10 and, as we all know, every day the Red Sox spend in first place is a day of sunshine, happy puppies, and discounted sexual favors.
Then the 8th inning happened. Behind 3-1, the Cubs sent twelve men to the plate, scoring eight times. Though they didn’t need it, the Sox provided copious assistance walking three and committing three (!) errors in the inning.
Despite the errors, the goat of the game was reliever Matt Albers, who’s line (6 runs, 3 hits, 2 BB, 0 outs) reads like an understudy to Vin Mazzaro. With a two run lead, you’d think manager Terry Francona would have pulled Albers somewhere between giving up singles to the first two hitters and walking the next two. The fifth batter doubled and at that point the wheels were off the wagon. But why was Albers left out there? Where was designated 8th inning man Daniel Bard?
After the game, Francona said Bard had been deemed unavailable prior to the game which is why Albers was left to deep-six the game. The Red Sox had played 44 games before Saturday and Bard has pitched in 22 of them. You don’t need to take out your abacus to realize that puts Bard on schedule to throw in 81 games. Bard pitched in 73 games last season, so if the Sox are going to keep his workload consistent with 2010 they’re going to have slow his usage down a bit*. Further, if they want him to be ready and able come playoff time, it might not hurt to give Bard a few more days off.
*Whether they should slow his usage is a question for another time.
So the decision was made to sit Bard, which meant on a day with Alfredo Aceves starting following a day Scott Atchison threw three innings (on only 33 pitches, but still), the bullpen was going to consist of Rich Hill, Dan Wheeler, Franklin Morales, Matt Albers, and Jonathan Papelbon. Hill and Wheeler had already pitched in the game, and Francona wasn’t likely to bring Papelbon in to pitch the eighth with a two run lead. He also wasn’t likely to use Morales in a high leverage situation if he didn’t have to, so that left Albers. By the time the game got away from Albers, bringing Papelbon in would have been a waste, so that meant Morales, who promptly put the game away by giving up a first pitch bases clearing double.
Possibly the most pertinent question in all of this is could the Red Sox have used Bard more judiciously prior to Saturday’s game. The answer is maybe. Since May began Bard has pitched in ten games. Of those ten, the Red Sox have been either tied, ahead by one, or ahead by two in eight of them. If one was to nitpick about his usage, you’d have to look at the other two.
The first was the May 8th game against Minnesota with the Sox up by four. Bard pitched the 9th that day after having pitched the previous day. The second was the May 13th game against the Yankees. Bard entered in the 8th with the Sox up by three. He’d had two days off at that point and wouldn’t throw for another two days afterwards. Aside from the fact that it was a road game versus New York, Francona probably wanted to get Bard some work.
Four pitchers should be enough to get a manager through nine innings, especially against a mediocre offensive club like the Cubs. Maybe you’d have liked to see Bard sit out that May 8th game with a four run lead. Maybe you’d have liked to see Alfredo Aceves come back out to pitch the sixth inning on Saturday. Maybe you can squeeze one or two more outs from Rich Hill. Or maybe you can’t do any of that.
Francona isn’t perfect by any stretch and he’d likely be the first to tell you that, but sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt, even if it’s a losing hand. Using a reliever is a tough balancing act for any manager. Use the guy too much and you end up with a tired, ineffective, and potentially injured reliever. Don’t use him enough and he could get rusty and you’re right back at ineffective. It’s frustrating to watch one pitcher have a bad day and destroy the game that seemed so close to being won, but a great thing about baseball is there’s usually another game tomorrow.