Rangers manager Ron Washington played the first chess matchup of Game One correctly, bringing in Alexi Ogando to face Allen Craig in the sixth inning, but Washington imploded the next time he had to make an important move, and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and his charges started the World Series with a win.
While Washington was just an innocent victim of circumstance on Craig’s headline-grabbing hit, he was a deer in headlights when put to the test. When Mike Napoli walked to put runners at first in second in the next half-inning, La Russa went and grabbed Marc Rzepczynski out of the Cards’ bullpen. It was the second time that Napoli had tilted the scales back towards the Rangers’ favor. The first time, his two-run blast dropped the Cards win expectancy almost 23%, and more importantly nearly back to a 50/50 proposition. The game see-sawed from then until Craig’s double, but Napoli’s walk gave the Rangers a ray of sunshine, getting it back to a 40/60 proposition. Here again, Washington started with the correct counter move, bringing in Craig Gentry for David Murphy. But when Gentry failed to get the job done, freezing up on a changeup for a called strike three, Washington made the curious move to bring in Esteban German off the bench.
In a vacuum, German isn’t all that bad of a hitter. German has a career .333 wOBA compared to the .308 wOBA for Yorvit Torrealba — who was the logical choice in that situation. But last night’s game was not played in a vacuum, and German has just 79 Major League plate appearances in the last three seasons — Torrealba had 419 this season alone. Most of the good in German’s line came back in 2006, and he had not had an at-bat at game speed since September 25, while Torrealba had at least one plate appearance in three of the of the Rangers’ previous four games. German’s rust showed. He took a slider for a called strike one, and then waved wildly at the two that followed in a circuitous manner that would have made Wendell Kim proud.
Washington would defend the decision by saying German is a “contact hitter,” but while that is true, you need reps to be able to keep your batting eye sharp, and German did not have them (for what it’s worth — which is very little — German also isn’t a very good pinch hitter). Furthermore, Torrealba isn’t a hacker — his SwStr% this year was essentially league average. The bottom line is that while Torrealba isn’t the best hitter on the planet, he is up to game speed, and has been trusted in crucial situations all season. German was not trusted to be anything other than “highly paid clubbie” for the first two rounds, and before that he was riding buses for Round Rock. You’re talking about a guy who was not called up this year until rosters expanded, and who started only two games at the Major League level — both of which came in the wake of the Rangers clinching the AL West. This was not even remotely the place for him.
The decision also put into sharp light Washington’s decision to carry Matt Treanor on the World Series roster. As Torrealba had served as designated hitter at times this season, it seemed that Treanor was included in an effort to get Torrealba into the game as a pinch-hitter in St. Louis without worrying about being caught (see what I did there?) without a backup catcher. Yet in the first opportunity to do just that, Washington chose German instead. What then, is Treanor doing on the roster? Trying to make the case that Washington was saving Torrealba for a situation later in the game is a nonstarter as well — the Cardinals bullpen has been too good this postseason, and the Rangers needed the run right then and there. They didn’t get it, and wouldn’t get another good chance — Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Jason Motte set down the next six Rangers in order (we’ll leave the ridiculous non-call on Adrian Beltre’s grounder for another article).
The German decision wasn’t the only curious move Washington made. With Josh Hamilton hurting, you could make the case that the Rangers’ 2-3-4 hitters were their worst last night, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that your team leader in on-base percentage should be hitting higher than seventh. You could also file his decision to test Yadier Molina’s arm in the top of the first, intentionally walking Nick Punto and sacrifice in the top of the sixth in the curious department.
Tony La Russa has been strategizing on the diamond for a long time. Last night, he painted Ron Washington into a corner, and Washington countered by sending up a hitter so cold that the Coors Light “Super Cold” bar was jealous. Tim McCarver may not know how many letters it takes to spell “strike,” but you can bet Ron Washington does — because in this manager battle he now has strike one, and as a result, his team is down in the count in this year’s Fall Classic.