The colossal, inexplicable mistake of Buck Showalter

·MLB columnist

TORONTO – It makes no sense. It didn’t make any sense before it happened, and it didn’t make any sense as it was happening, and it didn’t make any sense in the immediate aftermath. It won’t make sense today, won’t make sense tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year. There is but one explanation for Buck Showalter’s all-time screw-up Tuesday night, and it is this: Even the smartest men are capable of ineffable stupidity.

Every theoretical permutation of Showalter’s decision during the win-or-go-home American League wild-card game not to pitch Zach Britton, who is only days removed from finishing off arguably the single-best season ever for a relief pitcher, leads to the same conclusion: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And that’s what made the Baltimore Orioles’ 5-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays all the more puzzling: If there’s any manager in the AL, maybe any manager in the world, who’s going to maneuver his way through the postseason with keen bullpen management, it is Buck Showalter.

So to see him devolve into the human shrug emoji, inning by inning, situation by situation, especially in the bottom of the 11th, when, with Baltimore’s season on the line, he watched Ubaldo Jimenez leave a fastball more center cut than the most prime filet for Edwin Encarnacion to deposit 440 feet away in the second deck of a shaking-to-the-rafters Rogers Centre – well, it was surreal in every sense of the word. The man who had managed teams into the playoffs by sheer force of his brain power, his preparedness, his ability to process the moment – he, of all people, had just as soon managed a team right out of the postseason.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a long time to think about his decision to not use Zach Britton. (AP)
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has a long time to think about his decision to not use Zach Britton. (AP)

All of which is not to say that if Showalter had used Britton, he would’ve escaped the first-and-third-with-one-out jam into which Jimenez had wedged the Orioles before surrendering Encarnacion’s home run. No, that’s the wrong way to look at it. The better tack is to try and understand what compelled Showalter to leave his best pitcher rotting in the bullpen when the urgency of the situation didn’t just call for Britton but screamed, bellowed, caterwauled for his presence.

If that mental vacation to the island of inexplicable isn’t the lone reason why the Blue Jays are moving on to an AL Division Series grudge match with the Texas Rangers, it certainly is the most preventable. Showalter couldn’t do anything about his hitters’ inability to square up the Blue Jays’ relief corps. He could’ve used the pitcher who has allowed one earned run in his past 57 innings at any juncture of his liking.

“Sure, it crosses your mind from about the sixth inning on,” Showalter said. “So there’s a bunch of decisions to make there during the course of the game. Our pitchers pitched real well the whole game to hold that club to two runs at that point. You could make a case, probably other than Zach, Ubaldo is pitching better than anybody we’ve had for the last six or seven starts.”

Now, this is true. Ubaldo Jimenez, a starting pitcher whom Showalter inserted into a most unfamiliar situation – 11th inning, one out, tie game, one run ends the 2016 season – had indeed been rather good of late, putting up a 2.45 ERA over seven starts after returning from the exile of the bullpen, where he was sent because his ERA nearly started with a 7. This would’ve been a perfectly reasonable move, in fact, if there weren’t someone in his bullpen whose ERA started with a decimal point.

Already Showalter had passed over using Britton in a seemingly obvious situation, with men on first and second and none out in the ninth inning. He stuck with the shaky Brad Brach, who struck out Jose Bautista, and even though Britton had warmed in the bullpen, Showalter went with sidearmer Darren O’Day, a flyball pitcher who immediately induced a groundball double play. Classic Buck. What a move.

Then came the 11th. And whereas Brach was one of baseball’s best setup types this season and O’Day a veteran with a long track record, Showalter started the inning with Brian Duensing, who spent most of the year at Triple-A. He struck out Ezequiel Carrera, naturally, before ceding to Jimenez, who promptly went single, single, goodbye, season.

Britton said he was warm then, too, ready as could be after getting his arm loose three times. As flimsy a philosophy as saving Britton for a lead may be – the standard thinking is you don’t use your closer in a tie game on the road, though Buck Showalter has made a career of defying convention – it demands not to be thrown out the window but RPG-launched when the season is on the verge of collapse.

And there was Britton, the Cy Young candidate, with the cannonball 96-mph sinker, still in the bullpen, his major league-record 80 percent groundball rate wasting away as Encarnacion thrust both arms into the air and triumph perfused Rogers Centre.

“I was expecting in certain situations if maybe there’s an opportunity for a double-play ball in a big situation, whether or not we were ahead, behind, whatever,” Britton said. “Coming into today, they just told me to be ready to go, multiple innings if need be. I was prepared.”

He was prepared, and he was healthy, and it’s not like Showalter hadn’t done this before. On July 31, Showalter went to Britton in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road and allowed him to pitch the 10th as well. The Orioles won that game. Against the Blue Jays.

So while Britton said he understood “the fact that you kind of want to save [me] just in case we do grab the lead,” he also said: “It was just frustrating to have to sit down there and watch and not be able to help the team.” Britton used the word frustrating six times. He kept going back to it, like Showalter kept going to relief pitchers – six of them in all – who weren’t named Zach Britton.

“Those are a lot of tough decisions, but we’re maybe a little different if you’re playing at home,” Showalter said. “There’s a lot of different ways to look at it. If we didn’t have so many good options down there and we wanted to have a strong Zach and have him in there in case the game goes extra innings. There’s so much more to that game. But I know the world that you have to live in. So I respect that.”

Zach Britton (right) was a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities during the regular season. (USA Today)
Zach Britton (right) was a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities during the regular season. (USA Today)

Sorry. Much as Showalter wants to spin this as some sort of media-created second-guessing, the bewilderment extended to every corner of the baseball world. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t used Britton; it was that any number of game states presented themselves with Britton’s use optimal, and Showalter ignored them all the way to his team’s demise.

Managing a baseball team is difficult. Nobody envies Showalter’s job, which requires on-the-fly thinking and instantaneous assessments. Did Showalter know the hitter on deck after Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, was 3 for 38 in his career against Jimenez? Even if he was intent on keeping Jimenez in the game, the choice to pitch to Encarnacion was curious as well.

It paled, of course, next to handcuffing Britton, who went 47 for 47 in save opportunities during the regular season but didn’t throw one of the Orioles’ 151 pitches in the year’s biggest game. Even Blue Jays reliever Jason Grilli, himself a former closer, said: “I don’t know what he was getting saved for.” The likeliest culprit is actually something admirable: Buck Showalter believed his offense, a home run-hitting machine, was going to score off Toronto’s shaky bullpen. He believed one swing would send his team to the ALDS, because nobody was scoring off Britton. He didn’t want Tommy Hunter, the man from whom Britton took the closer’s job in 2014, protecting that lead. He wanted the guy who finished this year with a 0.54 ERA.

Only that scenario never presented itself. On a crazy night, when a fan tossed a beer onto the field and nearly hit Orioles left fielder Hyun Soo Kim, when Kevin Pillar tomahawked a pitch that was nearly five feet off the ground for a double, when a game between two potentially beastly offenses turned into a pitchers’ duel, the disappearance of Zach Britton was the craziest. Because it turns out he didn’t disappear at all. He was right there, ready to go, ready to keep his season alive, ready if not for a manager who simply couldn’t get out of his own way.