Orioles manager Buck Showalter hates having an emphasis put on one moment in a game, regardless of whether it’s a win or a loss. To him, there are hundreds of situations in each game that ultimately determine the victor. So picking out just one drives Showalter crazy.
In a game like Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards, though, it’s not a stretch to trace the outcome to a single decision in the fifth inning.
With runners at second and third base and one out in a 1-1 tie, Seattle’s best player, second baseman Robinson Cano, came to the plate with first base open. Conventional baseball wisdom says the fifth inning might be a little early to issue an intentional walk.
But many other factors lined up for such a decision.
For one, it was Cano, a certified Orioles killer. Entering Saturday, Cano in his career had hit .334 with a .547 slugging percentage, career-best 28 homers and 103 RBIs in 625 at-bats against the Orioles. At Camden Yards entering Saturday, Cano had 14 homers and 41 RBIs while hitting .363 with a .580 slugging percentage in 317 at-bats.
Most of that came when Cano was a New York Yankee, which is the second part of the equation. He’s a Mariner now. He’s not in the same caliber of lineup he enjoyed for so many years in New York.
Still, despite not having much protection, Cano is second in the American League in batting average (.330 after Saturday night).
The guy hitting behind him Saturday was first baseman Kendrys Morales, a veteran the Orioles pursued a little this offseason. Morales is a career .275 hitter, but, for contractual reasons, he didn’t play this year until June 9, and it has shown. Going into the fifth, Morales was just 3-for-28 (.107) in eight games with the Mariners since a July 24 trade from the Minnesota Twins. Morales’ struggles made the intentional walk seem even more likely.
Finally, there was Showalter. He’s never been afraid to put an extra guy on base if it gets him a better matchup. The most famous example, of course, came in May 1998, when Showalter, then managing the Arizona Diamondbacks, had reliever Gregg Olson walk San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and two outs in a two-run, ninth-inning game. The move worked when Olson got Brent Mayne to fly out for an 8-7 victory.
So what did Showalter do Saturday at Camden Yards?
He had starter Miguel Gonzalez go after Cano, instead of walking him to load the bases for Morales. Showalter’s decision was based on numbers and instincts. Cano was just 2-for-26 against Gonzalez entering that at-bat. And Showalter liked how Gonzalez had been pitching. He had allowed just two extra-base hits in his first 4 1/3 innings.
"Just trusting Miggy there. He's made a lot of good pitches and had a lot of success against [Cano], and it just didn't work out,” Showalter said of his decision. “They have a lot of good hitters there. Miggy was carrying pretty good stuff and pitching well and [I] felt comfortable he wouldn't make a mistake to him. But we did.”
Gonzalez threw an 84-mph, split-fingered fastball on a 1-1 count to Cano, who slammed it over the right-field scoreboard for a three-run homer. Essentially, that was the game.
“I thought it was good just trying to go after him. Nothing different,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had really good success against him. You just tip your hat. I left the ball up and he was able to get a piece of it.”
Cano said he wasn’t surprised the Orioles pitched to him.
“There was only one out. I guess that was the reason,” Cano said. “With one out, if you put another guy on base … Morales is in a little slump right now, but we know he can hit. If he hits a double, that’s two RBIs. If I hit a fly ball, it’s a sac fly, and it’s only going to be one run. And there would be two outs.”
After grounding out in the fifth, Morales is hitless in nine at-bats against Gonzalez in his career. Interestingly, Morales came up in the ninth against left-hander T.J. McFarland with the bases loaded and two outs and delivered a two-run single that put the game completely out of reach. So maybe Morales would have come through in the fifth. And, again, some managers will tell you the fifth inning is too early to start intentionally walking people. Showalter was asked afterward about that.
“It was a little early,” he said. But "I have a lot of confidence in Miggy that he won't give in to it there, and we do have a base open. You have to give a lot of respect to the next hitter, as evidenced by the ninth. I understand there's a decision to be made there and we live in a result-oriented society. I've done some things I didn't feel good about and felt good about it afterward, so I understand how it works.”
In retrospect, it was the wrong decision. More than anything, though, it was an interesting one. Especially since it was made by Showalter, who once gambled in the most precarious scenario years ago, only to have it work out splendidly.
“I was lucky there,” Showalter said, “was unlucky tonight.”