The situation: Runners on first and second, two out, top of the seventh inning. Cardinals lead, 4-2, with Trever Miller pitching. Washington removes left-handed leadoff man Willie Harris for righty-swinging Alberto Gonzalez
The decision: TLR calls on Jason Motte to face Gonzalez, but Jim Riggleman counters with Adam Dunn.
The outcome: In a hugely entertaining at-bat, Motte gets Dunn to chase a high fastball for strike three, ending the inning.
The analysis: The Cardinals didn’t know for sure whether Dunn was available, after he was scratched from the lineup due to illness. But La Russa had to at least be aware that the possibility existed for Dunn to pinch-hit against Motte.
So, worst-case — and TLR is always aware of the worst case — you’re choosing between Miller against the very light-hitting Gonzalez, or Motte against Dunn.
Gonzalez has two home runs in 484 Major League plate appearances. At worst, he’s a candidate to single or double and bring home one or two runs. There’s pretty much no way he gives Washington the lead.
Meanwhile, Motte’s two biggest weaknesses in his young career are his vulnerability to the home run and an enormous platoon split. Dunn is a left-handed hitting home run hitter, basically the worst possible matchup for Motte. The two most likely outcomes are strikeout and three-run homer.
Per TLR, the plan was to pitch Dunn “tough” — a concept we’ve addressed in this space before, where the idea is not to give the hitter anything over the plate but still hope you get him out. It’s a risky way to pitch.
The comment: “We just weren’t going to give him a cookie. You’re just going to pitch him tough, and Motte’s got some good stuff to try that with. You’re throwing 90-lus like that, it’s tough to center, but if there’s one guy who can, they had the right guy at bat. …
“I didn’t know [whether Dunn was available]. but we’ve got an open base just in case.”
My verdict: It worked, and for some folks, that’s enough — if the decision works out, it was the right decision. I try to avoid that line of reasoning, because otherwise this whole feature isn’t much fun.
I think it was a very, very risky decision. Even if Gonzalez stays in the game, I just don’t think he’s the kind of hitter you play matchups against. He’s not dangerous enough. You leave Miller in, and if Gonzalez manages a single, you can still bring in Motte to face Cristian Guzman, who is a switch-hitter but quite a bit more effective against left-handed pitching. I’m pretty sure I would have stayed with Miller.
Bonus chess match: Several of you asked about the decision to bunt with Motte in the next half-inning. I defended it at the time, arguing that it’s foolish to waste a pinch-hitter on a sacrifice attempt.
I still feel it’s silly to use a pinch-hitter to sacrifice when you only have five players on the bench, but several of you brought up a third option: using a starting pitcher. They bunt quite a bit more often than the relievers. After thinking about it more, that’s what I would have done, and that’s what it sounds like TLR would have done if he’d had a second shot at it too. Here’s his comment:
“We don’t swing as relievers, but we bunt. But we don’t bunt much during the season, so it’s not really a fair challenge for him. So it’s my fault. I should have gotten a starter in there for him. I didn’t want to use up a player.”