3:51 PM EDT, September 14, 2013
With his team reeling from three straight losses and desperate to win every game possible over the final 2 ½ weeks of the regular season, Orioles manager Buck Showalter started unheralded backup catcher Steve Clevenger behind the plate instead of two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner Matt Wieters in the opener of the three-game road series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
It was one of those Buck-ball decisions that leaves fans scratching their heads, but the local kid made good and delivered a game-tying double in the seventh inning on Friday night at Rogers Centre to put the Orioles in position to collect that critical victory.
Admit it. It kind of made you nostalgic for 2012, when it seemed like every button Showalter pushed produced that kind of result. This year has been very different — as many predicted it would be — and there have been long periods when that managerial magic has been as hard to find as an eight-inning start or a clutch hit with the bases loaded.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for that and most of them have nothing to do with Showalter's managerial acumen. He has made some curious moves over the past few weeks as the Orioles try to snap out of a three-month stretch of .500 baseball. Some have been based on his well regarded baseball instincts and some simply products of necessity, but he definitely has not gotten the kind of results that everyone had begun to take for granted before the weather warmed up in June and the Orioles started to cool down.
There are plenty of examples, but his critics tend to point to his middle-inning pitching decisions — particularly related to a number of games in which he stayed with starters who had become undependable the third time through the opposing batting order — and his loyalty to struggling closer Jim Johnson.
Showalter has never been reluctant to explain his in-game strategy, whether it succeeds or not, and his decision on several occasions to stay longer with Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen than the final score would eventually validate was based on the same Buck logic that got the Orioles to the playoffs last year.
He has long preached that the starting rotation has to consistently go deep into games, not only to give the team the best chance to win, but also to keep the bullpen from getting worn down over the course of the summer. Whenever he talks about trying to achieve this pitching equilibrium, he refers to himself as "Captain Obvious," but it really isn't so obvious to frustrated fans who can't understand why he didn't bring in a setup guy in the sixth inning when past history said that the starter was about to unravel.
It's funny, because Showalter often talks about being in the moment, but he has never managed that way. He has always been a big-picture guy who sees the horizon and knows that you can't get there by pulling out all the stops to win one game in July. That's frustrating for fans who wonder why he left rookie Kevin Gausman in to start the eighth inning against the heart of the New York Yankees lineup on Tuesday night but took him out in favor of T.J. McFarland with the game tied in Toronto on Friday.
We all have 20-20 hindsight, but the biggest difference between last year and this year is the health and effectiveness of the bullpen. The Orioles would probably be defending the first American League wild-card position and still have a shot at the AL East title right now if Johnson was anywhere close to being as effective as he was in 2012. They would likely be in much better position to win either one of wild-card slots right now if Darren O'Day had been available more than one time in the past 13 games.
Showalter has made his share of moves that didn't work out. Managing is not a perfect science, though it probably looked that way when he was running the table in extra innings last year and winning a higher percentage of one-run games than anyone else in baseball history.
He probably looked stubborn when he ran Johnson out there on Friday night after Thursday's meltdown, but he knows what he has left in his bullpen and he knows he has little choice at this point but to go all in with his inconsistent closer to have any chance of jumping over three teams to get into the wild-card round.
If the Orioles don't make it, it won't be because Showalter stopped being a good manager. It'll be because they couldn't replicate last year's out-sized performance by the bullpen and couldn't convert enough scoring opportunities when they needed to the most.
All the managerial second-guessing in the world isn't going to change that.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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