I usually am not one to say that any particular play or moment in a game can cost a team the victory, but after watching the 2008 All-Star Game, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible.
As the bottom of the eigth inning began yesterday at Yankee Stadium, the National League was clinging to a 3-2 lead and looked as if it may be headed for its first victory in a dozen years. The bullpen gates opened, and out came the National League saves leader (25), Brian Wilson, into the game to pitch in his first All-Star Game.
Was Clint Hurdle going to leave him in for a two-inning save? It seemed unlikely, but was definitely a possibility. The only other option was left-hander Billy Wagner, and, with his recent woes, there was no way Hurdle would leave it up to Wagner to close. Wagner had 22 saves on the season but in 28 chances, blowing four of those six in the past month. Wilson hadn't blown a save since May 2 at Philadelphia and has continued to dominate through lineups after a rough start to the season.
Obviously, it was difficult to tell whether or not Wilson was going to be able to power through the eighth inning with Carlos Quentin, Carlos Guillen, and Grady Sizemore due up to bat, so getting Wagner ready was a great call just in case he was needed.
Wilson immediately made an impact on the game, hitting 95 mph on the radar gun with his first pitch, a ball to Quentin. With the count 2-0, Quentin flied out to center field. Next came Guillen, who saw just how dominant and nasty Wilson could be and why he was a second representative for the San Francisco Giants with starter Tim Lincecum. Wilson and Guillen battled, with Wilson hurling pitches reaching 96, 97, and 98 mph, while Guillen fouled off several trying to stay alive and just put the ball in play against the hard-throwing right-hander. With the count full, Wilson threw one of the filthiest pitches I have ever seen, striking out Guillen for the second out of the inning.
At this point, Hurdle had a tough decision to make with Sizemore, a lefty, coming up to hit against Wilson, a righty. Completely overlooking the situation at hand, Hurdle decided to bring in the left-hander, Wagner, to get the lefty-lefty matchup, rather than stick with the dominant Wilson. We all knew what was coming.
With the count 1-1, Sizemore singled to right field, and, all of the sudden, things were not lookig so good. Wagner, struggling to keep the ball above 90 mph, was no comparison to what Wilson had been throwing just minutes before him, but he was Hurdle's guy, nonetheless.
Rookie Evan Longoria came into the game to pinch-hit for Milton Bradley and, with the count 1-2, Sizemore took off for second, sliding in safely with a steal on a ball to even the count. Longoria then ripped a double down the line to score Sizemore and tie the game at 3.
Now, normally it would not seem like a bad idea to bring in Wagner at that point in the game. After all, he has been one of the game's top closers over the past few years and he is the multi-million dollar man for the Mets. Wilson is still a young, fairly unproven rookie who is capable of blowing up at anytime.
The problem is that there was just absolutely no reason for the change to be made. The lefty-lefty matchup is overanalyzing the situation and shouldn't be used as a justification for such a move. Wilson was throwing gas on the mound and has been performing at this level in these types of situations all year long.
Hurdle knows this, having seen Wilson pitch against his team five times this year with four saves and ten strikeouts. There is just no question that if a guy is doing that well in situations where he is used to pitching, he should stay in the game, no matter who is coming up to bat. No manager would take out a hitter who was 2-for-2 on the day and replace him with a struggling hitter, no matter how big the name was.
Hurdle brought in Wagner to help save his own appearance, too. Let's face the facts: If the game was going to be tied up and a save was to be blown, who would he rather have do it? Wilson or Wagner? If Wilson blew the save, Hurdle would be ripped for relying on a young rookie and people would demand answers for why he didn't bring in Wagner. If Wagner blew it, the blame would solely rest on his shoulders, and Hurdle would be in the clear.
Whether or not Wilson would have come back to pitch in the ninth to close out the game, had it stayed a 3-2 game, is up in the air. In fact, it is unlikely that it would have been the case, and Wagner probably would have been summoned to pitch the ninth. That would have been an acceptable move on Hurdle's part. To take Wilson out of the game with two outs in the bottom of the inning while on a roll was just a terrible decision.
Wilson will come back to San Francisco having made a serious statement in the All-Star Game and, even though he was removed to soon, there is no question that players and managers around the league know who he is and will be sure to give him the respect he deserves now.
The decision ultimately cost the National League the game and home field advantage in the World Series. While the National Laegue had its chances later in the game, this small decision to take out Wilson changed the World Series and provided the American League with one more small advantage, as if they needed it. It is unfortunate to see that a decision in a game, so otherwise meaningless, could have such a big impact.