World Series Game 4: Another Thriller, Another Strange Ending

Another tense World Series game and another strange play on the bases to end it. There was no controversy, this time, as there was in Game 3. But Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara picked off St. Louis Cardinal pinch-runner Colten Wong to end 2013 World Series Game 4 with a 4-2 win for the Red Sox and even up the series at two games apiece.

Wong allowing himself to be picked off constitutes about as big a blunder as one can imagine. Because it was the ninth inning there was no value in his run per se, simply that he allowed the tying run to come to the plate. And who was that tying run? None other than Carlos Beltran, he of the 16 postseason home runs and several clutch hits–including the long ball–in this year’s playoffs. And if Beltran should “only” get on base? The next man up was Matt Holliday, who in spite of his 0-for-4 night, is still swinging the bat as well as any St. Louis hitter.

In these circumstances, Wong straying too far from first base is the baseball equivalent of Denver Broncos’ free safety Rahim Moore letting Jacoby Jones get behind him in last year’s NFL playoffs when the Broncos led the Baltimore Ravens by a touchdown with less than a minute to go and 70 yards between the Ravens and the win. It’s a mental mistake that simply can’t happen.

Red Sox manager John Farrell made a lot of pitching decisions last night that were unorthodox and please note that is neither criticism nor compliment. It’s simply a statement of fact. Farrell pulled Clay Bucholz when the starter had pitched four effective innings. Farrell pulled Felix Doubront after the latter had retired eight straight hitters and then given up one hit. Farrell brought in presumed Game 6 starter John Lackey to pitch the eighth inning.

I was hard on Farrell’s decisions in Game 3, but I would like to note for the record that I don’t consider a manager simply doing something other than I would have done to be the basis for a criticism. In the vast majority of circumstances there is usually a reasonable argument to be made either way. I didn’t feel Farrell’s decision-making on Saturday night met that standard, but I do in Game 4. Let’s review the circumstances behind each move…

*When Bucholz was lifted after four, Boston trailed 1-0. There were runners in scoring position, but two men were out. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a pinch-hitter in Mike Carp, when you know a productive out isn’t possible. Bucholz’s pitch count was still in the mid-60s, and while the air was full of talk about Bucholz’s fatigue, if you didn’t know this, you would not have assumed anything was wrong with the man who, when healthy, is the best Red Sox starter. That’s the argument against Farrell’s decision.

The argument for is that Bucholz’s fatigue isn’t all media talk–the pitcher himself has acknowledged it. Farrell had a natural starting pitcher in Doubront ready in the bullpen, one who was pitching well in this series. It’s quite reasonable to say that even if Bucholz’ spot in the order hadn’t come up, that it was time to lift the pitcher and not push one’s luck any further with his diminished velocity. I had mixed feelings at the time, but had already determined this was not a move that justified any second-guessing.

*The move really didn’t justify second-guessing after Doubront came out and starting mowing down St. Louis hitters with ruthless efficiency. He got eight straight outs, when a double in the seventh caused Farrell to turn to Craig Breslow.

The argument for this move is that two outs in the seventh to face a lefthander hitter (Matt Carpenter) and a switch-hitter you want to turn around (Beltran) has been Breslow’s role all season long. The argument against is that Breslow has been unsteady–and that’s being kind–in the World Series, and that since both pitchers are lefties, there is nothing to be gained by risking Doubront’s removal based on one hit over nine batters.

I would not have pulled Doubront, and Breslow promptly allowed a hit and a walk, cutting the lead to 4-2. I still believe Farrell’s decision is quite defensible. Even though Breslow just looks out of sorts, he’s been fantastic for Boston all season and was in complete lockdown mode through both rounds of the American League playoffs–no runs allowed.

There’s a lot to be said for just sinking or swimming in the postseason with the players who got you there in the roles they’ve established themselves in. Frankly, if Breslow can’t right himself, the odds are against Boston winning this Series and that’s not the manager’s fault.

*Junichi Tazawa came in for the seventh, got Holliday to end the inning and then Farrell went with John Lackey. The argument for this move is that Lackey is a championship-toughened veteran, and Sunday was his day to pitch on the side anyway. The argument against is twofold–first, that Tazawa has been, along with Breslow, a key setup man all year and that Tazawa hasn’t looked like he’s coming apart at the seams. The other is this–use Uehara to get six outs.

I’d have gone with Tazawa, at least until one man got on base and then would have used Uehara to face the tying run. Lackey vindicated the manager’s faith–even though a runner got on by an error (though it was a ball hit very hard), the pitcher kept the two-run lead intact and enabled Uehara to wait until the ninth.

While I might have done some things differently than Farrell, all of his moves were defensible, even had they not worked. And what I liked above all was that the manager approached this like he understood the stakes–this game had to be managed like it was all-or-nothing for the Red Sox. They were the team trailing in the Series, who needed just one win to get everything back to Fenway Park. If the bullpen is tired, or if this affects the Game 6 plans, so be it. You have to fire every last bullet possible to get a Game 4 win when you trail in the Series and that’s what the manager did.

A few other notes from Game 4…

*I’ve managed to make it through over a thousand words on this game and not mention Jonny Gomes’ three-run blast off Seth Maness in the sixth inning that gave Boston a 4-1 lead. That either shows that TheSportsNotebook is willing to dig under the surface for the story, or it shows that I’ve dug so far under the surface that I can no longer see what’s important.

*TheSportsNotebook has been critical of St. Louis manager Mike Matheny for his repeated choice of Game 4 starter Lance Lynn over Shelby Miller in the postseason rotation. I stand by it, but Lynn was solid last night. He was charged with both runners that scored on Gomes’ blast, but as I wrote in a similar circumstance in Game 2, it’s unfair to the starter when he leaves a runner at first with two outs and gets that run billed to his account. How is that run not the fault of the reliever?

*Matheny’s debatable decision of last night came when he intentionally walked David Ortiz to face Gomes, just prior to the fatal blast in the sixth. It was a 1-1 game at the time. I know Ortiz is scorching hot–you could argue him for Series MVP even if the Red Sox lose–but consider the circumstances.

When Ortiz came up, Dustin Pedroia was on first with two outs. The only way Papi drives in the lead run is if he homers or hits a double against an outfield that would presumably have played very deep. When you walk Pedroia into scoring position, Gomes can now produce the lead run by slapping a single the other way.

You can give Big Papi all the credit in the world for his hot streak and clutch skill, but you can’t possibly think he’s as likely to hit a home run or double against a deep outfield as Gomes is to muscle out a cheap single. ┬áPlease note, none of this second-guess is built around the fact that Gomes’ homered–that’s on Maness, for throwing a sinker that ended up letter-high, not the manager.

We’re down to a best two-of-three now and it’s anybody’s guess where the edge lies. Boston has potentially two home games and Jon Lester pitching tonight. St. Louis counters tonight with Adam Wainwright and has Michael Wacha in reserve for Game 6.

At the start of the World Series, I picked Boston on two key grounds–that they could win both Games 3 & 4 against Joe Kelly and Lynn (obviously did not happen) and that Lackey could split his two starts with Wacha. If Boston did both, they would likely win in six, if they got one, they could go to seven games. As well as Lester pitched in Game 1, it’s asking a lot to think that, regardless of how he pitches tonight, that he beats Wainwright twice.

But it’s fair to say that this World Series has met expectations–we’ve got two great pitchers lined up in a pivotal Game 5. The city of St. Louis hosts Monday Night Football tonight, with the Rams playing the Seahawks. It could end up looking like a youth football game, with only the parents of the players on hand, as this great baseball town revs up for its last home game of the season.