October 16, 2009
When appropriate, Big League Stew reviews a key decision during the playoffs to see if the right one was made.
The Turning Point: Dodgers manager Joe Torre stuck with rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw(notes) for six batters after Carlos Ruiz(notes) put the Phillies ahead with a three-run homer in the fifth inning. The sixth man, Ryan Howard(notes), hit a two-run double to make it 5-1 Phillies before Torre changed pitchers. Kershaw, at 21 the youngest starting pitcher in league championship series history, allowed five runs, four hits and five walks — along with a record three wild pitches in the fifth alone. Philadelphia beat the Dodgers 8-6 to take Game 1 of the NLCS.
The Question: Did Torre err by not acting sooner on Kershaw, perhaps after he walked pitcher Cole Hamels(notes)? Like Grady Little sticking with Pedro Martinez(notes) during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, might the decision to stick with with Kershaw hang around Torre's neck?
Let the kid pitch: Kershaw is the Dodgers' best pitcher; that's why Torre went with him in the series opener. The Phillies are vulnerable to lefties and with left- or- switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins(notes), Shane Victorino(notes), Chase Utley(notes) and Howard coming up in the fifth, you might as well use the live lefty arm already on the mound. Besides, Kershaw got two outs before facing Howard, who had a weak split against lefties (.207 batting, .653 OPS) this season.
Go to the bullpen: Kershaw tossed four scoreless innings to start, but he didn't get through them clean. And the fifth was shaping up into a disaster from the beginning. The biggest clue Kershaw was off was a walk to Pedro Feliz(notes) just before Ruiz went deep. Feliz almost never walks.
Hindsight is 20/20: How was Torre to know that the Phillies would keep scoring later in the game against his vaunted bullpen, notably lefty George Sherrill(notes)? The Dodgers also managed 14 base hits, which should be enough to score plenty of runs and erase the damage for which Kershaw was responsible.
• "I mean, I had guys warming up. Certainly unexpected. I had a choice; after the three-run homer, he walked the pitcher, he gets a ground out and a strike out, then we have two left-handers coming up, and I have to make a decision whether I want Scott Elbert(notes) to pitch to them or Clayton Kershaw. You know, to me, he's a starting pitcher in Game 1, so I felt that that's what I wanted to do." — Joe Torre
• "That's too early for [Hong-Chih Kuo(notes)], yeah. I mean, I've got a quality left-hander on the mound. Things didn't work out. We gave away too much as far as the number of walks we issued. But I mean, this young man, I trust him a great deal, and it just didn't work out tonight." — Torre
• " ... It looked like he reined it in a little bit when he got Rollins and he struck out Victorino. But those next two guys [Utley and Howard] are pretty tough." — Torre
• "The first four innings I felt great, and then I couldn't make adjustments fast enough. In the playoffs, you're not going to have a lot of leverage. If you don't make your pitches, before long you're out of there." — Clayton Kershaw
Stew Verdict: When it came to pulling his starter, Torre treated Game 1 of the NLCS like it was a middle-of-June affair against the Padres. Torre is the guy with six pennants and four World Series titles, not some rookie manager in over his head. He believed too much in Kershaw, who was dominant in the division-clincher against the Rockies. Kershaw might be the Second Coming of Sandy Koufax before it's all over, but even Koufax wasn't great until he turned 25.
Torre's lack of urgency might not have cost the Dodgers anything — how many of us can tell Scott Elbert from Roger Ebert? — but pulling Kershaw was the prudent thing to do after walks to Felix and Hamels. Many believe that Little (whom Torre coincidentally succeeded in L.A.) cost the Red Sox the World Series by not pulling Pedro back in '03. Torre, compared to Grady? Say it ain't so, Joe!