World Series: Misteroberts’ Neighborhood

With the Dodgers one out from going to the 1985 World Series, manager Tommy Lasorda had a decision to make right on the spot. First base was open and Cardinals' bomber Jack Clark was coming to the plate. Lasorda had right-hander Tom Niedenfuer on the mound, and the Cardinals had Andy Van Slyke on deck with Willie McGee on third and Ozzie Smith on second.

Mike Marshall put the Dodgers up with a leadoff home run against Cardinals closer Todd Worrell. Now, the last thing Lasorda wanted was Niedenfuer facing the left-handed-hitting Van Slyke. Even though Van Slyke was hitting modestly in the League Championship Series: one hit, two walks in thirteen trips to the plate. On the regular season he hit thirteen homers and drove in 51, with a .360 on-base percentage against right-handed pitching.

What Lasorda might have forgotten in the moment was Clark, a right-handed hitter, being more powerful against right-handed pitching in 1985, hitting 13 of his 22 homers against them. But Lasorda didn't want to put Clark on first and give lefty Van Slyke a chance to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs at minimum with two outs. So Niedenfuer pitched to Clark. And Jack the Ripper connected.

To this day, nobody knows whether Clark's three-run homer landed in Pasadena or Alhambra. And the Cardinals won, 7-5, after Ken Dayley relieved Worrell and got the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth.

As things worked out, though, all Clark did was send the Cardinals to a World Series they'd lose in seven games after being three outs from winning it in Game 6. First base umpire Don Denkinger blew an obvious out call to open the bottom of the ninth, but the Cardinals couldn't stop the Royals from winning the game anyway. Then they got shellacked in Game 7 when they came to the ballpark more outraged over the blown call than prepared to face Bret Saberhagen.

By most accounts, otherwise, Tommy Lasorda faced his players squarely in the clubhouse, apologized for what was turned into his mistake, and wept. Then he picked up, dusted off, went on with life and managing the Dodgers, and managed them to a 1988 World Series conquest.

The foregoing is to remind people that managers make decisions for which Joe and Jane Fan — whether in the ballpark, in front of the television set, next to the radio, or in the White House — have no clue when it comes to the thinking behind them. Other than Dodger fans overhearing Lasorda fuming at the possibility of pitching to that blankety-blank Van Slyke Dodger Stadium had no idea why Lasorda preferred to pitch to Clark.

And nobody knew what was in Dave Roberts's mind when he hooked his Game 4 starter Rich Hill in the seventh inning, after Hill walked Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts on six pitches only two of which hit or painted the strike zone but then struck out Eduardo Nunez, a Game 1 hero, on three pitches.

The Red Sox went on to win Game 5 and the Series. And too many fans are thinking that, if goat horns must be applied, they should sit on Roberts's head.

What they didn't know until after Game 4 was that Hill himself went to Roberts and asked his manager to keep an eye on him as he opened the seventh. The 38-year-old Hill swore to give it everything of whatever he had left, implying it might or might not be as much as anyone hoped. And the Dodgers had just bombed their way to a 4-0 lead, after a Red Sox throwing error on what might have been a double play starting with a plate force-out allowed one run home, and Yasiel Puig followed immediately by hitting a 3-run homer almost two thirds of the way up the left field bleachers.

Roberts took Hill at his word. And despite the Nunez strikeout the manager went to his bullpen. He brought in Scott Alexander, a left-hander of little repute but a perfectly suited match to pitch to left-handed Red Sox second baseman Brock Holt, who'd made the history books as the first man to hit for a postseason cycle — two series ago. In the World Series to this point, Holt wasn't exactly murdering Dodger pitching.

So Alexander faced Holt. And walked him on four pitches, at least two of which were very borderline. (If there was one recurring Series subtext, it was how often both Red Sox and Dodger pitchers had borderline pitches called against them.) That was the last result Roberts expected.

Then he brought in Ryan Madson, a right-hander who'd been having a shaky World Series in which inherited runners were proving his undoing, to face pinch hitter Jackie Bradley, Jr., a left-handed hitter whose 2018 platoon split actually favored him against left-handed pitchers. And when Madson got Bradley to pop out to second base, Roberts suddenly looked like a genius in the making.

With the pitcher's spot due up next for the Red Sox and Boston reliever Matt Barnes looking about as much like a hitter as Roberts does like a grizzled sailor, Red Sox manager Alex Cora sent up Mitch Moreland, who'd slumped for most of the second half of the regular season and, in the postseason, still seemed too favoring of the hamstring he injured early in the postseason. Moreland was also coming away from a knee injury on a sliding catch in late August.

For all those reasons Madson should have seemed to have a slight upper hand regardless of his fresh struggles.

But Roberts didn't tell Madson to throw Moreland a changeup that came down right smack in the middle of the plate, where Moreland could hit a 3-run homer that traveled about the same distance into the right field bleachers as Puig's blast did to the left.

Then in the eighth, Roberts asked Kenley Jansen, normally his closer, to try for a six-out save. It was the second night in a row Roberts made the ask. In Game 3, after Walker Buehler's masterpiece and Joc Pederson's third-inning homer had the Dodgers up 1-0, Jansen opened the eighth — on five days' rest, no less — with Holt flying out to left and Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers striking out swinging. So far, so good.

Up came Bradley. Jansen threw him two that barely missed the edges of the strike zone, one up and one down. Then the right-hander threw the portside swinger something not enough off the middle of the plate and Bradley hammered it over the right field fence to tie the game for the first time on what proved a long night's journey into day, almost.

Now, though, Jansen opened the Game 4 eighth by getting Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi to ground out meekly enough. But then Jansen threw eventual World Series MVP Steve Pearce a cutter that had too much of the middle of the plate, and Pearce parked it over the center field fence to tie the game at four.

"One bad pitch yesterday, one bad pitch today," Jansen lamented after Game 4. "I gotta pay."

Until Game 2 of the 2017 World Series Jansen was postseason money with 16 saves and an 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. Then Houston's Marwin Gonzalez ripped a Game 2-tying home run off him — again while Jansen was asked for a six-out save. During the 2018 season no National League relief pitcher surrendered more home runs than Jansen. And Jansen dealt with an unnerving heart issue down the stretch for which he'll have offseason surgery.

The Dodgers paid even worse in the top of the ninth, thanks to Holt's one-out double, Devers singling him home promptly, both off Dylan Floro to start the inning, and Pearce eventually tagging Kenta Maeda, freshly installed as the third Dodger pitcher of the inning, for a howdy-do 3-run rouble, before there came an intentional walk and Bogaerts singling home Pearce. In between, Alex Wood — a starter like Maeda who'd been moved to the pen for the postseason — was helpless to stop Benintendi beating out an infield grounder to load the bases for Pearce.

Roberts might have reached for either Pedro Baez or Julio Urias to open the Game 4 eighth but for one small matter: he was reluctant to use either of them so soon after they'd both worked in Game 3, especially Urias pitching the 17th inning, and Floro had worked an inning and a third in Game 3 with 3 strikeouts. Wood worked a simple 18th for the win, and Roberts probably didn't want to re-burn Maeda in Four unless it was absolutely necessary.

Whatever else Roberts was thinking in those moments, he got burned to a crisp. With the best intentions, the best available information, the best in-the-moment thinking he could muster, Roberts watched it blow up in his face. Maybe the one thing he and the Dodgers forgot to account for was the tenacity of the Red Sox. Against another team Roberts's thinking might work. It might even have worked against the Red Sox if only they'd obeyed his orders.

But Joe and Jan Fan couldn't possibly have known everything Roberts knew going in. Neither could President Trump, who hammered Roberts notoriously upon lifting Hill in a tweet that only further exposed the president as a shoot-first/question-later type. Trump has enough trouble managing his own White House, which often enough has to manage him, without thinking he can manage a World Series game or knowing without knowing when relief pitchers are "nervous."

Dave Roberts, meet Charlie Dressen, who couldn't disobey his bullpen coach Milt Stock and let one bounced curve prompt him to reach for Ralph Branca instead of Carl Erskine against a Bobby Thomson who wasn't exactly a curve ball hitter.

Meet Don Zimmer, who dog-housed Bill Lee irrationally and then let Bobby Sprowl and not Luis Tiant try to stop the bleeding of the Boston Massacre in 1978.

Meet Tommy Lasorda, who chose to pitch to Jack Clark with the best possible thinking available to him.

Meet Gene Mauch, who hooked a still-effective Mike Witt in the ninth with one out to go but Rich Gedman, who made Mauch nervous because of his 2-run homer off Witt earlier, in Game 5, 1986 ALCS, coming up. (We won't even think about bringing up the 1964 Phillies.)

Meet John McNamara, who let sentiment overrule baseball and left Bill Buckner at first base for the bottom of the 10th.

Meet Grady Little, who misread Pedro Martinez's fuel tank in Game 7, 2003 ALCS.

Meet Terry Collins, who likewise misread Matt Harvey's fuel tank in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series.

Meet even Casey Stengel, certified genius, who couldn't find a way to align his 1960 World Series rotation in a way that would have let his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford pitch three games instead of two.

But most of all, Mr. Roberts, meet the 1978 Yankees, the 1985 Cardinals, the 1986 Red Sox (for the ALCS, anyway), the 1986 Mets (in the World Series), the 2003 Yankees, the 2015 Royals, and the 1960 Pirates, who pounced upon the gifts given them when they might just as easily have crumpled. (We're not including the 1951 Giants because, well, they cheated their way to forcing that pennant playoff in the first place.)

If there's one incontrovertible fact about baseball with championships on the line, it's that more often than you think the best thinking gets laid to waste by the better playing on the other side.

If Holt doesn't work out the walk, if Moreland doesn't connect even on the hanging changeup, if Pearce doesn't start his Series MVP destruction and misses the meatball (and yes, it can happen), and if even the Relentless Sox don't hit squatski in the Game 4 ninth, Roberts looks like a genius.

But they did. And then came Game 5, with David Price's fully-consummated postseason redemption, Pearce's mayhem at the plate, a couple of more late-inning home runs in the bargain, and the Red Sox finishing in the Promised Land as just what they were this season: the best team in baseball.

Making Roberts look like the fool he most certainly isn't. Now, flip it over. If the Dodgers execute when Roberts exercises his thoughts, they make Red Sox manager Alex Cora — who looks like a genius for managing and winning the Red Sox's fourth World Series conquest in 15 seasons and the 21st Century whole so far — look like a dunce.

As was pointed out by one post-Game 4 analyst, even Albert Einstein was proven wrong lots of times and didn't mind admitting it when proven right. Here's hoping the Dodgers give Roberts, generally a solid manager, further chances to prove himself right, and that his players as opposed to the other guys actually execute when called upon.

Because there's nothing and nobody quicker to make even a great thinker look foolish than the elements, or the other team.

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