Last night, the Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros 6-2 in Game 7 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, and became World Champions.
Already, Astros manager A.J. Hinch is being roasted on sports-talk TV and radio shows for his decision to pull starting pitcher Zack Greinke in the top of the 7th inning, with a 2-1 lead, having thrown only 80 pitches.
And he's being roasted further for compounding this decision by using Will Harris, then Roberto Osuna, then Ryan Pressly, then Joe Smith, and finally Jose Urguidy -- pretty much everybody but Gerrit Cole, who will almost certainly win this year's National League Cy Young Award, and could even win the NL Most Valuable Player.
Yes, Cole is a starting pitcher. True, he had pitched in Game 5, 3 days earlier. But it's Game 7 of the World Series. Win or lose, there's no tomorrow. He's got until mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, to rest. What was Hinch saving him for?
Andrew Jay Hinch was born on May 15, 1974 in Waverly, in northeast Iowa, and grew up in neighboring Nashua, and then in Midwest City, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City. He was a catcher, who debuted with the Oakland Athletics in 1998, and reached the postseason with them in 2000. He was a member of the awful 119-loss 2003 Detroit Tigers, and last played with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2004, their 1st season in Citizens Bank Park.
After spending 2005 with the Phillies' top farm team, he retired, only 31 years old. Like a lot of guys who weren't quite good enough as a player and had to retire that young, he went into coaching. The Arizona Diamondbacks named him their director of player development, and managed the team at the major league level for most of 2009 and the 1st half of 2010. The San Diego Padres soon hired him to run their scouting department, and he stayed there until 2014, when he was hired to manage the Astros.
He led them to the American League Division Series in 2015, a winning record in 2016, the World Championship in 2017, the AL Championship Series in 2018, and the World Series this year. In 3 years, he's won 311 games, 336 if you count the postseason, which is a record for any team over a 3-year period. (Keep in mind, there are now as many as 4 rounds of Playoffs, if you count the Wild Card Game.)
And Hinch is not a stupid man. He went to Stanford University, a very difficult school to get into, and has a degree in psychology -- something which certainly helps in coaching.
But his handling of the Astros' pitching staff in last night's Game 7 has been deeply questioned. As bad managerial decisions go, it's up there (or down there, depending on how you think about it) with such decisions as:
* 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers: Leo Durocher starting Curt Davis in Game 1 against the Yankees, instead of one of his better starters, such as Whitlow Wyatt, Kirby Higbe or Freddie Fitzsimmons.
* 1948 Boston Red Sox: Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse in the 1-game Playoff with the Cleveland Indians.
* 1949 Red Sox: McCarthy again, suggesting that all his genius as Yankee manager (1931-46) had deserted him, pulling Ellis Kinder while trailing season-finale title-decider 1-0 in the 8th, only to lose 5-3.
* 1960 Yankees: Casey Stengel starting Whitey Ford against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Games 3 and 6 of the World Series, in both of which he ended up pitching shutouts, instead of Games 1, 4 and 7, all of which the Yankees ended up losing.
* 1967 Red Sox: Dick Williams starting Jim Lonborg against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 on 2 days' rest, and compounding it by telling the media it was going to be "Lonborg and champagne." Lonborg had nothing, even giving up a home run to opposing pitcher Bob Gibson, who had 3 days' rest and was just fine. (He had, however, pitched a complete-game win over the Yankees in Game 7 in 1964, but was gassed toward the end. Another inning, and he might have lost.)
* 1973 Mets: Yogi Berra starting Tom Seaver against the Oakland Athletics on 3 days' rest in Game 6, instead of saving him for a potential Game 7. When Seaver lost Game 6, Yogi had to start Jon Matlack in Game 7, and they lost. (To be fair, Seaver didn't pitch badly in Game 6, and the Mets only lost 3-1. Had they been able to hit Catfish Hunter, they would have won their 2nd World Series in 5 seasons.)
* 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers: Tommy Lasorda throwing away Games 5 and 6 of the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals, by allowing Tom Niedenfuer to pitch to light-hitting Ozzie Smith (no one could have predicted he would hit a walkoff home run), and then allowing Niedenfuer again to pitch to slugger Jack Clark (and pretty much anybody could have predicted he would have hit a go-ahead 9th inning home run).
* 1995 Yankees: Buck Showalter letting David Cone throw 147 pitches to the Seattle Mariners in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, when he had Mariano Rivera available in the bullpen. (This is another "To be fair": At that point, nobody knew what Mariano would do from 1996 to 2013. At the time, putting him in would have been a gamble. But he had already won Game 2 in relief.)
* 1999 Mets: Bobby Valentine bringing Kenny Rogers in, instead of Octavio Dotel, to pitch to Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 of the NLCS. Rogers delivered the most famous base on balls in the sport's history, and the Braves won the Pennant.
* 2001 Yankees: Joe Torre bringing Rivera in for several 2-inning saves, until he ran out of gas at the worst possible time, the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
* 2004 Yankees: Torre again, refusing not only to brush the Red Sox hitters back as they came from 3-0 down to win the ALCS, but also to bunt on Curt Schilling and his sutured ankle in Game 6. He wanted to show class. Yankee Fans wanted to win. It was, after all, the Red Sox, and they didn't care about class, only winning.
* To cite the best-known recent example from football: Pete Carroll blowing a shot at back-to-back titles in Super Bowl XLIX, by having his Seattle Seahawks throw the ball on the New England Patriots' 1-yard line, instead of running the ball.
* To cite the biggest example from basketball: Butch van Breda Kolff of the Los Angeles Lakers taking Wilt Chamberlain off with an injury with 5 minutes left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals; and then, with 2 minutes left, when Wilt said he was ready to go back in, VBK refused, and the Celtics won by 2 points.
But was Hinch's double-barreled decision justified?
Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame A.J. Hinch for the Houston Astros Losing the 2019 World Series
5. Justin Verlander. He's an 8-time All-Star who's won 4 Pennants, has a career record of 225-131, has excelled in both Leagues, and, this year, joined the 3,000 Strikeouts Club. Of all the players in this World Series, he's the only one who -- presuming he doesn't do something as stupid as what Pete Rose did -- has already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. (Max Scherzer of the Nationals, his teammate on the Pennant-winning 2012 Tigers, is probably a good season or two away. Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals is at least 4 good ones away.) (UPDATE: Verlander won the 2019 NL Cy Young Award.)
But he lost Games 2 and 6 of this year's Series, to fall to 0-6 in Series competition. We've joked about the inability to come through in the postseason of guys like Alex Rodriguez and Clayton Kershaw, but Verlander is falling into that category, too. If he had won either Game 2 or Game 6, there would have been no Game 7, and the Astros would now have 2 titles in 3 years, and we'd be talking about their place in history.
4. Zack Greinke. He wasn't pitching all that great. Of his 80 pitches, he'd only thrown 49 strikes. True, he'd only allowed 2 runs. But the last 2 batters he'd faced were Anthony Rendon, who had crushed a home run, and Juan Soto, who he'd walked.
The next 3 batters were Howie Kendrick, who hit a lead-changing home run off Harris; Asdrubal Cabrera, who singled off Harris; and Ryan Zimmerman, who was walked by the next pitcher, Osuna. In other words, exactly the same as Greinke had just done, with a single in between. Would Greinke have done any better? Maybe. But maybe not.
3. Gerrit Cole. He was no sure thing. True, he had gone 20-5, not losing a game between May 22 and October 22, with an ERA of 2.50 and a WHIP of 0.895. Also true, in the ALDS and the ALCS combined, he went 3-0 with an ERA of 0.41. And he had won Game 5 of the World Series.
But he'd also lost Game 1, allowing 5 runs in the 1st 5 innings. And he was, in fact, on only 2 days' rest. It worked for Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, and if Cole had been brought in for Game 7, he would've been needed for 2 1/3rd innings (unless it went to extra innings). But that's a lot of pitches needed against a Nats team that was feeling it -- to borrow their slogan, staying in the fight.
The last time a Washington team had won a World Series was in 1924, when Walter Johnson, in the 18th season of maybe the best career any pitcher had ever had, individually speaking, finally got to a World Series, but lost Games 1 and 5, before being brought in as a reliever in Game 7, and pitching innings 9 through 12 and becoming the winning pitcher. Maybe Cole would have done the same thing. But maybe he wouldn't have. There is no way to know.
2. The Astro Bullpen. Those guys would have made Hinch look like a genius if they'd gotten the job done. They didn't.
1. The Washington Nationals. In exercises like this, the easy answer is to say, "The other team/player was better." I don't think the Nationals were a better collection of talent than the Astros. But they were a better team. They did #StayInTheFight. They did get the job done -- or, as they say in English soccer, they did the business.
VERDICT: Not Guilty. If this were a civil case, where you only have to have a preponderance of the evidence, we might have to find against Hinch. But this is, effectively, a criminal case. (Not that he would be imprisoned.) So we have to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In situations like these, we have to consider if the decision to relieve Greinke, and the follow-up decision to bring in a reliever other than Cole, made any sense at the time. And those decisions did make a little bit of sense.
So, you could blame A.J. Hinch for the Houston Astros losing the World Series. But it's better to credit the Washington Nationals for winning it.