PHOENIX — It was Game 2 of the NLDS, and Torey Lovullo was doing an in-game interview on TBS. The Arizona Diamondbacks had already gotten into the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen that night, up three runs and facing Brusdar Graterol — one of the top Los Angeles relievers.
It’s not often that managers will comment on in-game decisions from their competitors. But Lovullo wanted to give a hat tip, in the middle of an inning, to Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts. He’d shown no hesitancy in yanking starter Bobby Miller, and the D-Backs bats suffered because of it.
“We know that (Graterol’s) one of their big pieces on the back end,” Lovullo said to the TV audience. “The fact that he’s in the game early, they might lose somebody late. It’s a great move by Doc. It stopped the momentum. That’s what playoff baseball is all about.”
A similar situation presented itself Tuesday night, in Game 4 of the World Series. This time it was Arizona that needed a momentum stopper. A way to stop the bleeding against a potent Texas Rangers offense. But Lovullo did not follow the strategy he’d complimented three weeks prior.
Instead of going to his top leverage relievers to quash the rally, he instead tried to steal outs with other pitchers who did not execute when it mattered most. The D-Backs lost 11-7 and now sit on the brink of elimination. They’ll need to win three games in a row against Texas to take home the trophy. One loss and this Cinderella run is over.
“We’ve had better days. I mean, when you’re down 1-3 like we are, you can understand the mood of the locker room right now,” designated hitter Tommy Pham said. “Only thing we can do now is try to win every game. … We put ourselves in a very tough spot right now. It’s going to take a lot. “
The Diamondbacks have a plan, a script, that often dictates their pitching plan. It’s no secret, and Lovullo has often referenced it vaguely, smartly avoiding many specifics daily.
This bullpen game was no different. That was evidenced by the fact that Miguel Castro was warming up after the fourth pitch from starter Joe Mantiply.
The script likely required an adjustment. Castro had struggled this postseason — posting a 6.35 ERA over seven appearances entering the evening. He’d already given up the walk-off homer in Game 1.
On this night, he allowed a run on a wild pitch. Then two more hits, including a two-run double to Marcus Semien. Instead of stopping momentum with one of Arizona’s top relievers, the D-Backs went to Kyle Nelson, who allowed three hits and recorded two outs. Then Luis Frias added more gasoline to the fire, serving up a three-run homer to Semien. He wasn’t helped by his defense, with Christian Walker’s committing a costly error. But he wasn’t effective either.
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With the score out of hand, all the top bullpen arms stayed right where they were. There was no reason to use them now. The time for that had passed.
Righty reliever Ryan Thompson said his sense of the plan was that Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald were likely set in their late-inning roles. But everyone else was subject to change. There was a blueprint in place before the game, but it could be adjusted.
Thompson said he prepared himself to be in as early as the second inning, even though that possibility hadn’t been expressed to him.
Using him in that situation would have been helpful. Thompson has been lights-out in these playoffs. He’s got a 2.31 playoff ERA to back an 0.69 ERA during his regular season in Arizona this year. Had he pitched, maybe the deficit would have stayed manageable. Maybe the six runs the Diamondbacks scored in the final two innings would have done more than just make the final score less lopsided.
“Those game plans are for if everything goes perfectly,” Thompson said, speaking generally about the plan and not second-guessing the manager’s decision-making. “And games in the playoffs don’t always go perfectly. So I think a lot of us were prepared for the situations that we would go in. It just didn’t work out the way we had planned.”
Love it or hate it, the Rangers were aggressive in their bullpen usage. Manager Bruce Bochy called on closer José Leclerc with two outs in the ninth, despite being up by six runs. Simply because there two were men on base.
Reasonable people could disagree with the decision itself. But no one can fault the purpose behind it. This is the back end of a World Series. The Rangers know how important winning Tuesday was to earning a championship. The magnitude of the moment was on his mind.
Lovullo has pushed all the right buttons these playoffs. He knows his team. He knows the matchups. And his script has worked so much that there’s no reason to be overly critical of it now.
But this probably called for a rewrite of that screenplay somewhere in the second inning. Certainly in the third.
By the latter half of the night, restless fans were throwing paper airplanes onto the playing surface. They did the wave. Anything to pass the time because their hope of seeing a win had evaporated quickly, and fully.
“The challenges are to get the right matchups and get the right pieces in place,” Lovullo said. “We felt like we did that. We just didn’t execute. You could see what happened. They had their top three hitters have three at-bats before the bottom of our order had one at-bat. That’s unacceptable.
(Photo of Miguel Castro: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)