SAN FRANCISCO — We like to give credit where it is due. After all, it’s much more fun to heap praise and be positive than it is to whine, complain and sulk over things that can’t be controlled. Then again, that’s pretty obvious.
As a manager of the four-time defending NL East champion Phillies, positivity is Charlie Manuel’s best tactic. He builds up his players by telling them how good they are and always filling their heads with thoughts that the hits and/or great pitches are going to be there when needed the most.
In fact, Manuel says that before Game 5 he’s going to walk through the clubhouse, look each of his players in the eyes and have a little chat. It won’t be anything as extreme as a pep talk, but maybe just a few words with each guy on the team.
“I don’t know if it will be about baseball or not,” Manuel said.
So yes, Manuel is great at keeping his guys loose as well as gauging the mood of the club. It’s probably the not-so secret to his success.
But as far as the managerial battle of wits with Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, Manuel is about to get swept out of the series. Indeed, some of the in-game decisions from Manuel have not gone down as his best work and that has been exposed during the first two games played at AT&T Park.
When a manager consistently makes the same types of decisions and they work out, it’s difficult to blame it on luck. Oh sure, it might seem like he’s falling backwards only to nimbly land on his feet like a cat at the last second, but there is a fine line between instinct and luck.
However, in Game 3 and 4 of the NLCS which finds the Phillies on the brink of elimination, Manuel’s instincts have not been at his best. In fact, the choices Manuel made with his bullpen in Game 4 began with seeds sown in Game 3 when he used right-hander Jose Contreras for two innings and 24 pitches. That would have been a fine move had the Phillies been in position to actually win Game 3 rather than be shut down by starter Matt Cain.
Nevertheless, when Contreras went to the mound for a second inning in Game 3, it didn’t take much of a hunch that it would come back to haunt Manuel. As fate unraveled in Game 4, every button pushed seemed to be the wrong one. Knowing that he had starter Joe Blanton for five innings… six if he was lucky, it didn’t seem too well planned out that Contreras finished the previous game. That was evident when Blanton was removed from the game with two outs in the fifth when he was due to bat third in the next inning.
Instead of double-switching or using another reliever, Manuel burned Contreras again when he promptly finished the fifth and then was pinch-hit for.
Perhaps the move in the fifth inning could have been lefty Antonio Bastardo on lefty hitter Aubrey Huff with two outs and the speedy Andres Torres in scoring position? But we’ll never know because Manuel left Blanton in for one hitter too long and then wasted his most effective setup man.
As it turned out, Manuel called on Chad Durbin to give him an inning or more only to have it explode on him like one of those trick cigars from the old cartoons. The problem with asking Durbin to give some innings in a pivotal game is he’s more than a little rusty. In his lone postseason performance, Durbin walked the only hitter he faced with two outs in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Reds, only to end the inning by picking off the hitter to end the inning.
Until Game 4, those six pitches and the pick-off was the only work Durbin had in 17 days. Knowing this, why didn’t Manuel divide up the work to close out Game 3 instead of burning out Contreras? Can’t pitching coach Rich Dubee elbow Manuel in the ribs while on the bench to remind him to give his relievers some work?
From there, Manuel used Bastardo and Ryan Madson for the seventh and the eighth, which worked out. Bastardo retired the lefty Huff (two innings too late) and then gave up a double to Buster Posey before Madson closed out the inning with a walk and double play.
If that would have been the end, it was enough. But then the hit… er, misses, kept coming. Like in the eighth when Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth led off the inning with back-to-back doubles to tie it up, it was reasonable to expect a big inning. Except when Jimmy Rollins came up with Werth on second and no outs he didn’t get the runner over to third. Worse, he popped up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval without even a pass at a bunt or a pitch pulled to the right side.
According to the manager, the idea was for Rollins to pull the ball even though he had explained his shortstop was struggling to hit from the left side.
“Rollins usually pulls the ball. If he hits the ball to the right side of the diamond, that’s one of his strong points, he'’ got a short quick swing to the left side that he usually pulls the ball,” Manuel explained after the game. “Not only that, if he pulls the ball, he also has a chance to get a hit or drive the run in, and that's how you play the game. And we do that a lot with Rollins. We let him hit there because that’s one of his big strong suits from the left side is pull the ball.”
It was a strong suit when Rollins was healthy. But in the NLCS when there is a chance to avoid going down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, it’s the wise move to bunt the runner over when the hitter has struggled and been injured.
Finally, the choice to put starter Roy Oswalt in the game on two days rest after he had iced down following his 20-minute side-day session wasn’t the type of out-of-the-box thinking that Manuel is known for… and it wasn’t this time, either.
Oswalt saw the way the game was unfolding and figured if he didn’t step up, Kyle Kendrick would have started the ninth inning of a big playoff game with the score tied.
Then again, that all would have been avoided if Contreras had not been misused in Game 3. It also would not have been as magnified if Bochy had not been on top of everything. If the Giants finish it off, the manager should get a lot of the credit…
And the blame.