Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Go With Garza!

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Usually I blog about sports PR, marketing, image-building or other similar topics here, but I can't pass up an opportunity to blog about baseball under these unusual circumstances. I did write a book about the aport, afterall, so I should be allowed to write about it here every now and then - especially during the World Series. So, here goes...

Tonight's game between the Rays and Phillies is a three-inning game. Make no mistake. This is not a game entering the bottom of the sixth; it might as well be a 0-0 tie - 3-1/2 innings to see whether the Phillies can win their city's first professional sports title in 25 years or the Rays extend their fairytale season.

With that said, there is no way in the world that either team should begin the game with a reliever on the mound. Well, I'll take that back. The Phillies might want to consider it since they have a two-game edge and really can have all of their guns loaded for games six and seven if they save their starters tonight. And if the relievers come through, they'll really have their guns loaded going into spring training as the champions of the world.

Tampa, on the other hand, has got to approach this as a must-win mini-game. There's no other way to view it. Professional athletes, especially baseball players, are creatures of habit. Over the marathon 162-game schedule they become extremely comfortable in their roles - especially the pitchers - and learn exactly what they need to do to prepare themselves to handle their role effectively.

Relief pitchers sit and wait their turn all game and then are on call from the fifth inning on, ready to jump up and get themselves warm in a matter of minutes so that they can go put out a fire. They don't know for sure until the game unfolds whether they will be used. But, based on the ebb and flow of a given contest, depending on their assigned role, most of them can figure out by the fourth or fifth inning if they will be called into action at some point. From that moment on they begin their mental preparation, followed by the physical act of getting their arms and their bodies ready to peform - maybe for only one pitch or maybe for as long as two or three innings.

For relief pitchers a routine is established to which the mind and body become accustomed. It's when managers remove these players from their comfort zones and place them into unfamiliar circumstances that they tend to fail. If you don't believe me, check and see how many of Mariano Rivera's career blown saves have come when he has been asked to record four or more outs instead of the usual three.

Starters, on the other hand, are used to waiting around all day, studying the opposing lineup, long-tossing and running in the afternoon and then going through a 25-minute routine before the opening pitch. Although tonight's game is only going to last three or 3-1/2 innings, the pregame routine is more in line with what is normal for a starting pitcher. A starter would take the mound fully prepared and mentally focused, while a reliever might be just enough out of sorts to have trouble finding the strike zone and ultimately give away the game.

My choice would be Matt Garza, the MVP of the ALCS. Garza has been filthy throughout the postseason and has not pitched since Saturday. A couple of innings tonight would be like a side session for him. He'd throw that in the bullpen, anyway. I don't think there are many guys who'd be jumping to the front of the line to hit off of his 95 mph fastball and wicked slider tonight in frigid, wet and windy conditions.

Even if Garza throws one inning and gives way to a reliever, at least all parties are going to be placed in situations that they are used to, which in my mind gives them a better chance to succeed. Heck, Garza could throw two easy innings and still pitch either Game 6 or Game 7 for the Rays.

Joe Maddon is a smart guy. I'm sure he has a feel for what his players can and cannot handle. He says he's going with Balfour, so I'll just assume that he knows something I don't. I just go back to the 1986 World Series when John McNamara left some bullets in the Red Sox gun, hoping his team would get to a Game 7. Right now, if there's no Game 7, there's no shot at a world champioship for the Rays. That's why they should approach the next two-plus games as if they are Game 7s and let the chips fall where they may if they do indeed get that far.

If I'm managing - and ther are 5,000 reasons why I'm not - Matt Garza, who already won a Game 7 this year, is on the hill. In my mind that would give me the best opportunity to force a couple more "Game 7s" and give Garza more than one opportunity to impact the remainder of the series.

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