On Wednesday, September 18, Danny Salazar started and was beaten by the Kansas City Royals. The next night Ubaldo Jimenez started the first game of a series against the Houston Astros. He pitched well but was not involved in the decision as the Indians won in eleven innings in the famous “Matt Carson game.” That set the two up to pitch in the two-game series in Chicago last Tuesday and Wednesday. Both pitchers would have been pitching with an extra day of rest, which probably would be a good thing after a long season.
Terry Francona chose to switch the two, pitching Jimenez on Tuesday and Salazar on Wednesday. This may have been to keep Jimenez on normal rest between starts, or to give Salazar an extra day since they are trying to limit his innings. It may also have been with an eye toward having Jimenez ready for the final day of the regular season, where, as things worked out, he pitched a wonderful game against the Twins to clinch the wild card spot. The net effect of that decision, though, is that Salazar will be pitching the wild card game against Tampa instead of Jimenez.
This may work out. We have seen some tremendous performances by Salazar this season, and he may do that Wednesday night. If he does, Jimenez will be ready to pitch on normal rest in the division series opener Friday night. He can then set up the rest of the rotation for that series any way he sees fit, because the entire rotation will be rested.
But a one-game, win or go home, wild card game is mathematically more crucial than the opener of a best of five. Francona could have set up his rotation the last week of the season to have Jimenez, who is right now the hottest pitcher in the American League, ready for the Rays. Joe Maddon did exactly that, using his off days to have David Price ready to pitch the wild card game, but needed him instead to pitch the tie-breaker against the Rangers.
Salazar is certainly a uniquely talented pitcher, and he has the potential to come up big on Wednesday night and throughout the postseason. There will be a big advantage in the fact that the Rays have never seen him. But he is still a rookie with a total of two major league victories. Jimenez is red-hot.
If it had been my decision, I would have had Jimenez ready to pitch against the Rays. The logical response to this is that if Jimenez had not beaten the Twins there may not have been a wild card game for the Indians. This is true, but if you saw the lineup that the Twins deployed Sunday you probably would have felt pretty good about the Indians’ chances if they had brought Charles Nagy out of retirement to start that game, so it probably was not essential to use up their best pitcher in that situation.
Besides, if Salazar had started against the Twins and faltered, Francona would have had the option of going to his 42-man bullpen to get as many match-up advantages as he needed to, knowing that he would have still had everyone fresh for Wednesday. In Wednesday’s game, it will be back to the standard bullpen. While he will certainly not hesitate to throw everyone out there to get the win, the options will be more limited.
If I were managing, and I could not use my ace, I would go with the guy who pitched five days before. These days, pitchers seem to be bothered almost as much pitching on long rest as on short rest. If Salazar comes out and lacks command or is overthrowing, you can bet the announcers will attribute it to the extra rest. Corey Kluber pitched Friday night, and he has been the most consistent starter throughout the season, aside from Justin Masterson. Kluber has also shown a knack for big moments all year, with several wins that ended losing streaks. I’m not saying Kluber is a better pitcher than Salazar, but my brain looks for some type of logic in the way decisions are made, and from that standpoint Kluber makes more sense.
In the big picture, none of this matters.
I lived in Pittsburgh the last time the Pirates went to the World Series. In the biggest game of the year, Game 5 in the World Series when they were down 3-1, they started Jim Rooker, whose 38-year-old arm was completely shot and who hadn’t been used in so long I thought he had retired. The only reason they used Rooker was that nobody else was available, because the Orioles had beaten the crap out of the entire pitching staff. There was no logical reason for that move to work, but it did. Rooker pitched four innings of shutout ball, striking out seven, and never pitched again. The bullpen picked it up from there, and the Pirates rallied to win the series.
That is what is wonderful about baseball. We may think we understand it, but in the end the game contains wonders and mysteries that no sabermetrician will ever be able to solve.