Braves should rethink bullpen strategy after World Series loss



ATLANTA — Sure, I enjoy a pitcher’s complete game as much as the next person … unless the next person is Old Hoss Radbourn. 

You know what else I enjoy, though? When teams challenge the conventional wisdom. When they don’t opt for a particular strategic route just because others relied upon that route to reach baseball nirvana. 

The Braves failed to clinch the World Series on Sunday night when their second straight bullpen game unraveled like Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, five of Atlanta’s ham-and-eggers giving up an early lead and getting knocked around to the tune of a 9-5 Astros victory in Game 5 at Truist Park. With Atlanta’s series lead cut to 3-2, this sucker is headed back to Houston, with Game 6 on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. 

Lefty reliever A.J. Minter, who entered the night with a 0.82 ERA for this postseason in seven appearances totaling 11 innings, saw his standard 24-hour reliability close as he served up three runs in the fifth, including a game-tying, bases-loaded walk to the normally light-hitting Martin Maldonado and then a game-winning, two-run single to pinch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez. His failure brought to mind words that the Yankees’ Zack Britton uttered moments after Jose Altuve’s infamous 2019 American League Championship Series walk-off homer: “The more times you face guys as relievers, you get overexposed.” 

Nevertheless, the Braves won two out of three here at home, and they’re set up with their two traditional starters Max Fried and Ian Anderson to go in Games 6 and 7. 

If the powers that be want to rejigger the game’s rules this winter to try to restore the starting pitcher’s preeminence — be it via the double hook, my colleague Joel Sherman’s “FourPlay” or some other measure — they should go for it. Because I’m confident that the industry’s big thinkers will develop ways to capitalize on whatever system emerges. 

Consider this not a defense of bullpenning, or of exhibiting a short hook, as much as a defense of innovation and intellectualism in the national pastime. 

As Braves closer Will Smith said Sunday afternoon before Game 5, “As long as we win, we don’t really care.” 

Braves reliever A.J. Minter (left) struggled as part of manager Brian Snitker's (right) bullpen game strategy in the Braves' 9-5 loss to the Astros Sunday.
Braves reliever A.J. Minter (left) struggled as part of manager Brian Snitker’s (right) bullpen game strategy in the Braves’ 9-5 loss to the Astros Sunday.
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Smith picked up the save in Games 3 and 4, the former tilt seeing Anderson get lifted after five innings despite the fact that he was throwing a no-hitter. 

The narratives for both Game 3 and Game 4 sent traditionalists aflutter. What intrigued me the most was the explanation of Braves manager Brian Snitker, who at 66 hardly fits the profile of a new-age skipper, of why he removed Anderson when he did. The highlights: 

“One of the things was he was throwing a lot of pitches in the top half of that lineup, getting ready to go back out when he did.” Anderson had gone through the Astros’ lineup exactly twice, with Houston’s leadoff man Jose Altuve set to lead off the sixth to start the proverbial “third time through the order.” 

Marwin Gonzalez hit a two-run, game-tying double in the fifth inning.
Marwin Gonzalez hit a two-run, game-tying double in the fifth inning.
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“I thought the fourth inning, he really had to work to get through that.” The Astros put men on first and second with two outs courtesy of a walk and hit batter. 

“Our guys were rested that we like.” The quartet that finished the shutout, if not the no-hitter — Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Smith — all went on two days’ rest. 

Sensible thinking, in other words, and tellingly, when a reporter asked Astros manager Dusty Baker whether his guys were relieved to see Anderson — who had allowed four base runners and thrown 37 of his 76 pitches for balls — depart, Baker said, “Not really.” 

It struck a contrast to the Great Quick Hook of the 2020 Fall Classic, when Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash removed his starter Blake Snell in the sixth inning although the lefty had permitted only two base runners and the guy who relieved him, Nick Anderson, was fried to a crisp (and proceeded to lose the clincher to the Dodgers, giddy over the switch). 

The Braves now face the risk that they could work their relievers too hard, overexpose them. Snitker must walk the tightrope, a high-wire act that every modern manager accepts. 

I’m glad that tightrope exists, no matter the dangers. I’m glad baseball keeps trying new tricks.


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