PHOENIX – In football, this kind of contest is likely “a trap game.” On the surface, these appear winnable but the slightest deviation from a game plan or failure of execution and the outcome is usually disastrous.
Fast forward to the decision by Arizona manager Torey Lovullo to utilize that “bullpen game” in the critical fourth contest of the 2023 World Series. Lovullo hoped to avoid that “trap game” syndrome and beat such odds with a series of favorable matchups.
Lacking a creditable starter and hoping pitchers selected could compete against streaky Texas Rangers hitters, Lovella’s best plan explored like a barrage of fireworks on a Fourth of July night.
Selecting middle reliever Joe Mantiply to open, the veteran lefty gave Lovullo 29 quality pitches into the second inning and that’s when potential matchups turned catastrophic. Going to reliever Miguel Castro, that plan turned out to be terribly ineffective.
In the process, Castro tossed a wild pitch that scored one and then surrendered a two-run triple to Marcus Semien. Lovullo then went for another match-up and brought in Kyle Nelson to pitch to Corey Seager, a left-handed hitter. Seager promptly greeted the left-hander with a two-run bomb over the right field fence.
That solidified an early Texas lead and powered the Rangers to an eventual 11-7 victory before 48,388 in game four at Chase Field. With the win, the Rangers now hold a commanding 3-1 advantage in games and can wrap up the 2023 World Series with a win Wednesday night in the desert.
“In a bullpen game, you may find one or two arms that don’t have their best stuff,” said Semien, after going 2-for-5 with five RBIs. “So, we definitely pounced on that opportunity in the second and third innings (scored five runs in each inning). I think Mantiply did a good job in there and attacked us. But once they took him out, there’s a chance that a couple of guys did not have the best stuff. And, that’s what happened.”
Because of the uncertainty of the Diamondbacks starting rotation for most of the season, Lovullo was forced to go with essential three starters during the post-season. Finding a fourth starter became a near impossibility and he relied on a great regard toward a bullpen game.
Effectively, Lovullo was able to dodge a bullet in game four of the National League championship series. That’s when he turned to Mantiply to start against the Phillies and Arizona, like in game four of the World Series, could not match up. The Diamondbacks fell behind 5-2 and if not for a pinch two-run homer from Alek Thomas and a game-winning single in the eighth from Gabriel Moreno, that series would have been in serious jeopardy.
Through the stretch run and in the post-season, Lovullo has not had the luxury of at least four starters and was forced to seek other ways. That would be the bullpen game and Lovullo, in game four, did not match up well.
“Starting pitching is at a premium,” Lovullo said before game four. “We know that. If you have quality arms, you will use them. It’s not traditional at all if you’re looking at baseball through the 2005 lens or through the 1995 lens. I think when you have to make adjustments and you have to be creative, this is one of those situations.”
After Josh Jung opened the second with a double and Mantiply fanned Nate Lowe, Lovullo went to the bullpen. This time, he called upon Castro, who retired Johan Heim on a grounder to second but then could not retire the next three hitters. Including a wild pitch that scored Jung, a walk, a single and a triple finished Castro’s night.
Lefty Kyle Nelson was brought in for one of those matchup situations, and Seager, hitting left-handed against the lefty Nelson, unloaded for a two-run bomb. The Rangers added a second, five-run inning in the third and manufactured, at one point, an 11-1 lead.
On the brink … With a victory in game five, the Rangers would clinch their first championship. Texas lefty Andrew Heaney, who was credited with the win in game four, told reporters this is the ultimate goal.
“I’ve had many ups and downs throughout my career,” Heaney said, who has played 10 years with five different clubs. “I’ve been on a bunch of teams and never had this opportunity. Now, we’re in a great position and need to finish it off.”
Game five … Starters in game one return. Arizona will rely on Zac Gallen (2-2, 5.27 ERA in five post-season stars). He will be opposed by right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who is 4-0, 3.52 for five post-season starts. Should the Diamondbacks capture game five, the series moves back to Arlington, Texas for game six, and if necessary, game seven.
To the victors … With the win in game four, the Rangers have won 10 straight road games. That is the most ever to begin a post-season in MLB history. … the Rangers’ 22-15 all-time road record is the highest away in percentage in MLB history with 25 or more games.