It was the kind of game that could have turned into a manager's worst nightmare. It would be difficult to explain four pitching changes in the last three innings if a five-run lead evaporated in the process.
That was the situation manager Phil Regan faced Friday night, when the Orioles escaped with a 7-5 win over the Boston Red sox. He relieved three consecutive pitchers who had five-run cushions at the time of their departures.
Over-managing? Not in this instance.
Too many late-inning pitching changes are made because they follow the standard operating procedure (i.e., make sure the closer gets the save whenever possible) rather than making moves out of necessity.
But this was not the case in the win over the Red Sox. Starter Mike Mussina might not have been cooked, but he had labored enough to warrant his removal after 6 2/3 innings. And once Jesse Orosco, a short-term specialist, finished the seventh, there was no point extending his stay and possibly jeopardizing his availability for the next night.
Enter Armando Benitez. You remember him -- the young right-hander with exceptional raw talent whose control went haywire and forced his demotion to Triple-A Rochester. He had pitched in his last three games with the Red Wings and warmed up in the bullpen his first night back with the Orioles.
But this situation was too good for Regan to pass up. He had virtually his whole bullpen available and he wasn't going to find a better spot to re-introduce Benitez to the big leagues.
"It was important to get him into a game in a good situation," Regan said. "I'll probably give him [last night] off because he's worked five in a row, but it was important to get him in a game as soon as possible."
Benitez had great success during his brief stay in Rochester (18 strikeouts, two hits in 9 2/3 innings). This was not the time for him to sit around. He needed a good outing, and got it, which was an important step in his reclamation project.
When Doug Jones appeared to pitch the ninth, however, there were more than a few quizzical glances. You don't normally use your ace closer with a five-run lead (three, the maximum for a one-inning save, is the norm), but again there were extenuating circumstances.
Jones didn't need a confidence boost. At this stage of his career he's beyond that. "He needed an inning of work," said Regan, who was forced to use Jones in lost causes for the same reason during the previous week's winless road trip to Cleveland and Detroit.
Regan didn't count on having to make yet another pitching change. You don't expect such developments when your closer needs three outs to protect a five-run lead.
That's when the game almost turned into a nightmare. When Mark Lee had to relieve Jones with two outs, the tying run was on first base.
"Doug needed that inning," said Regan, "but it's typical of a reliever's mentality that you lose your concentration a little in those kind of situations. We were just trying to get him an inning -- and those runs were the first he'd allowed in 15 innings."
And the only real damage was to Jones' ERA, which inflated from 3.27 to 4.37.
But the game did provide a good example of why it's a dangerous practice to use the closer only when there is a save opportunity. Sometimes you have to go against the grain and hope you don't have a nightmare.