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‘Opener’ didn’t cost Athletics game against Yankees but…

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I want to start this all off by saying that Liam Hendriks did not cost the Oakland Athletics the game last night. Nor, for that matter, did their use of an “opener” cost them the game. They lost the game because the Yankees shut down the A’s bats until it didn’t matter anymore and Aaron Judge and the Yankees lineup is super, super good, and they would’ve scored runs against anyone. The better team won. I don’t think the outcome would’ve been different if the A’s had started Mike Fiers or whoever. Heck, I don’t think it’d have been different if they had started an in-his-prime Dave Stewart.

But I also think that the manner in which the A’s used Hendriks and the opener was far from optimal and that last night’s game should stand as a lesson reminding us that how one bullpens in the postseason has to be very different from how one bullpens between April and September.

At the outset, I’ll provide my usual disclaimer when it comes to talking about bullpenning and the use of openers and whatnot: I’m on record of not being a big fan of it. As I wrote last month, that objection is not one rooted in baseball analysis. It’s about aesthetics and personal enjoyment, so in no way should my complaining about it be taken as an objective criticism. Indeed, for a lot of the reasons so many who are smarter than me have stated, there is a lot to recommend heavy bullpen use, particularly in the postseason.

Though I didn’t write about it before last night’s game, I am a bit more skeptical — objectively skeptical — of the use of an opener in a postseason game, however. I’m skeptical of it because my understanding of the use of an opener is that it’s a strategy employed to mitigate a lack of pitching depth that could harm a team over the long haul of the baseball season with its deployment covering for the fact that, once or twice a week, there aren’t many better options. That by using an opener and a parade of arms on a Monday or Tuesday, it may work to keep the entire pitching herd a bit more fresh come the weekend.

That’s not necessarily the same calculus as the use of an opener in a postseason game, let a lone a one-and-done postseason game like last night’s Wild Card game. To be sure, there could still be a benefit by having a dominant, shutdown reliever starting for one inning in a postseason game. If it works it clears the top and, presumably, the most dangerous part of the order at least one time around and that matters when every at bat matters. But if you aren’t using a dominant, shutdown reliever in that spot, you’re really just using a sub-optimal pitcher in a high leverage situation. And yes, “tied in an elimination game” is high leverage whether that occurs in the first inning or the eighth.

By using someone other than one of your best relievers in that spot in the playoffs, you’re using the opener like you might do in June which, as noted above, is a multi-game strategy. I can’t say that I know a ton about modern pitching philosophy, but I do know that you should not use strategies that might pay off tomorrow when there may not BE a tomorrow.

I think Liam Hendriks is a pretty nifty guy, but I don’t think he’s one of the A’s top relievers. If the A’s were using a traditional approach and starting a traditional starter, Hendriks is not getting called on to get them out of a late inning jam or to close things out in the ninth. That’d be Blake Treinen or Jeurys Familia. Indeed, the last time Hendriks was used in a traditional relief pitching, non-opener role was over the weekend when he entered in the sixth inning with a five run lead. That sort of tells you where he stands on the pecking order.

That he was used as an opener in the highest leverage of games last night was a function of his familiarity with the role of opener — he was used as one eight times in games that didn’t matter all that much in September — not because he was the best chance to shut the top of the Yankees order. Which, when you think about it, is allowing the allegedly least important part of traditional pitcher usage — a guy’s comfort level in a set role — to dictate your deployment of non-traditional strategy. Imagine how much we’d jump all over some old school manager who put a relief pitcher in a sub-optimal situation at the end of a game simply because “that’s where he’s most comfortable.” I think many of the same people who cheer on the crazy disruption of pitcher usage we see these days would be carrying the torches and decrying such backwards thinking.

All of which is to say that, sure, you can use an opener in an elimination game, but the same rules that apply to all elimination games should apply there too: use everything you’ve got and do whatever you can to win. Use your best pitchers in high leverage situations, no matter their traditional role. I think that by having Liam Hendriks pitching to Aaron Judge with a man on in a tied elimination game was a violation of that principle. It was a situation that was pretty likely to come up too. You knew he was batting second and all it took for him to make it a multi-run game was for Andrew McCutchen to reach. Which he does at a really good clip. One home run later and the A’s were in a hole they’d never climb out of.

Again, I want to be clear: Liam Hendriks didn’t cost Oakland the game. Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and some good Yankees hitters did. What’s more, given that the A’s best relievers got lit up themselves later, there were no guarantees that using them as openers would’ve led to a better outcome.

But I do believe that using a regular season strategy and having your, what, fourth? fifth? best reliever taking on the top of the New York Yankees order in a tied elimination game is not something anyone would every recommend. Yet the A’s did it.

Marlins clinch 1st playoff berth since 2003, beat Yanks 4-3

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NEW YORK (AP) Forced from the field by COVID-19, the Miami Marlins returned with enough force to reach the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 championship.

An NL-worst 57-105 a year ago, they sealed the improbable berth on the field of the team that Miami CEO Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly once captained.

“I think this is a good lesson for everyone. It really goes back to the players believing,” Mattingly said Friday night after a 4-3, 10-inning win over the New York Yankees.

Miami will start the playoffs on the road Wednesday, its first postseason game since winning the 2003 World Series as the Florida Marlins, capped by a Game 6 victory in the Bronx over Jeter and his New York teammates at the previous version of Yankee Stadium.

“We play loose. We got nothing to lose. We’re playing with house money.,” said Brandon Kintzler, who got DJ LeMahieu to ground into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded after Jesus Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th. “We are a dangerous team. And we really don’t care if anyone says we’re overachievers.”

Miami (30-28), second behind Atlanta in the NL East, became the first team to make the playoffs in the year following a 100-loss season. The Marlins achieved the feat despite being beset by a virus outbreak early this season that prevented them from playing for more than a week.

After the final out, Marlins players ran onto the field, formed a line and exchanged non socially-distant hugs, then posed for photos across the mound.

“I can’t contain the tears, because it’s a lot of grind, a lot of passion,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It wasn’t just the virus. Last year we lost 100 games. But we came out this year with the hope everything was going to be better. When we had the outbreak, the guys who got an opportunity to help the organization, thank you for everything you did.”

Miami was one of baseball’s great doubts at the start of the most shortened season since 1878, forced off the field when 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 following the opening series in Philadelphia.

“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot. Other teams have been through a lot, too,” Mattingly said “This just not a been a great situation. It’s just good to be able to put the game back on the map.”

New York (32-26) had already wrapped up a playoff spot but has lost four of five following a 10-game winning streak and is assured of starting the playoffs on the road. Toronto clinched a berth by beating the Yankees on Thursday.

“I don’t like any time somebody celebrates on our field or if we’re at somebody else’s place and they celebrate on their field,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said. “I’m seeing that too much.”

Mattingly captained the Yankees from 1991-95 and is in his fifth season managing the Marlins, Jeter captained the Yankees from 2003-14 as part of a career that included five World Series titles in 20 seasons and is part of the group headed by Bruce Sherman that bought the Marlins in October 2017.

Garrett Cooper, traded to the Marlins by the Yankees after the 2017 season, hit a three-run homer in the first inning off J.A. Happ.

After the Yankees tied it on Aaron Hicks‘ two-run double off Sandy Alcantara in the third and Judge’s RBI single off Yimi Garcia in the eighth following an error by the pitcher on a pickoff throw, the Marlins regained the lead with an unearned run in the 10th against Chad Green (3-3).

Jon Berti sacrificed pinch-runner Monte Harrison to third and, with the infield in, Starling Marte grounded to shortstop. Gleyber Torres ran at Harrison and threw to the plate, and catcher Kyle Higashioka‘s throw to third hit Harrison in the back, giving the Yankees a four-error night for the second time in three games.

With runners at second and third, Aguilar hit a sacrifice fly.

Brad Boxberger (1-0) walked his leadoff batter in the ninth but got Luke Voit to ground into a double play, and Kintzler held on for his 12th save in 14 chances.

Miami ended the second-longest postseason drought in the majors – the Seattle Mariners have been absent since 2001.

Miami returned Aug. 4 following an eight-day layoff with reinforcements from its alternate training site, the trade market and the waiver wire to replace the 18 players on the injured list and won its first five games.

“We’re just starting,” said Alcantara, who handed a 3-2 lead to his bullpen in the eighth. “We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”

TOSSED

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was ejected for arguing from the dugout in the first inning. Plate umpire John Tumpane called out Judge on a full-count slider that appeared to drop well below the knees and Boone argued during the next pitch, to Hicks, then was ejected. Television microphones caught several of Boone’s profane shouts.

“Reacting to a terrible call and then following it up,” Boone said. “Obviously, we see Aaron get called a lot on some bad ones down.”

ODD

Pinch-runner Michael Tauchman stole second base in the eighth following a leadoff single by Gary Sanchez but was sent back to first because Tumpane interfered with the throw by catcher Chad Wallach. Clint Frazier struck out on the next pitch and snapped his bat over a leg.

SLOPPY

New York took the major league lead with 47 errors. Sanchez was called for catcher’s interference for the third time in five days and fourth time this month.

REMEMBERING

Mattingly thought of Jose Fernandez, the former Marlins All-Star pitcher who died four years earlier to the night at age 24 while piloting a boat that crashed. An investigation found he was legally drunk and had cocaine in his system. The night also marked the sixth anniversary of Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium.

UP NEXT

RHP Deivi Garcia (2-2, 4.88) starts Saturday for the Yankees and LHP Trevor Rogers (1-2, 6.84) for the Marlins. Garcia will be making the sixth start of his rookie season.