The Second Guess: Did the Rays use their closer too soon?

David Brown
October 17, 2008

When appropriate, Big League Stew reviews key decisions in the postseason to see if the right one was made.

The Turning Point: In order to quell a budding Red Sox rally in Game 5 of the ALCS, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon went to his closer, Dan Wheeler, to get the last out of the seventh inning. Wheeler succeeded but Boston scored three runs against him in the eighth to tie — coming back from a 7-0 deficit — before beating J.P. Howell in the ninth.

The Question: Should the Rays skipper have used Wheeler, who had 13 saves and finished 26 games in the regular season, with seven outs to go and other effective middle relief choices (Howell, Chad Bradford, Edwin Jackson, Trever Miller, David Price) standing by?

You're darned right: Maddon, who has pushed most of the right buttons all season, turned to his most trusted reliever in a moment of crisis. Wheeler, five days earlier in Game 2, pitched an amazing 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the Rays' 11-inning victory. If he could do that, then 2 1/3 innings in Game 5 isn't so far-fetched. Like Balfour and Howell, Wheeler just didn't come through this time.

Not in this lifetime: If Maddon was expecting Wheeler to put out a fire in the seventh, was he also expecting him to finish the game? Such assignments are a lot to ask of a short reliever twice in a series. Perhaps Maddon also was emboldened by Terry Francona using closer Jonathan Papelbon to hold the line in the seventh with his team trailing by five runs. Or scared of what the Red Sox were doing against Grant Balfour, who allowed Boston's first four runs in the seventh. Francona gambled and won; Maddon gambled when he didn't need to.

Hindsight is 20/20: Maddon had no way to know that Balfour, who was as steady as any reliever in the majors all season, would pick this night to melt down and awaken the Boston Kracken. That threw everything up for grabs.

Their say:

"Nobody feels worse than two relief pitchers tonight. We'll be back. I know we were a couple of outs from a World Series appearance, but if you still want to dwell on the negative aspects, then you are setting yourself up for defeat. You just have to push forward. I really believe this: it only is a bad situation if you permit it to become one." Maddon

"Just boil it down to we weren't able to execute and they were. It came a lot at once. That's the thing, they're very capable of doing that." — Wheeler

"I'm pretty disappointed in myself. I've been better than that all year long. That was my worst outing all year. It wasn't a good time to go out and give up four runs." — Balfour

Stew Verdict — Wrong button, Joe: Many things beyond Maddon's control went right for the Red Sox — from Evan Longoria's throwing error in the ninth, to outfielder Gabe Gross slipping on Coco Crisp's score-tying single — but going to Howell in the seventh would have been the regular-season move, and it was the move this time. Putting the relievers out of order, breaking the pattern, adding stress to a situation that didn't need more.