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Other teams’ bold reliever use makes Orioles Wild Card loss hurt more

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Teams that are winning in the 2016 postseason are aggressively using their elite relievers. The Orioles didn’t do so and lost.

Zach Britton celebrates after beating the Blue Jays in the regular season.
We didn’t see this in the Wild Card game, and no, I’m not over it yet.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It turns out that two weeks is not enough time to get over the Orioles losing in the Wild Card game. You’re probably having a hard time of it too if, like me, you’ve been watching the rest of the postseason baseball action. Seemingly on a nightly basis, some other manager in baseball makes a bullpen decision to re-open discussion on The Zach Britton Question.

Sunday night’s game between the Dodgers and Cubs did not prove to be any exception to this. Yet again, a team went with an unorthodox use of a high-leverage reliever and won the game.

The Dodgers, having gotten seven innings out of Clayton Kershaw on short rest, turned to their closer, Kenley Jansen, for a two-inning save. Jansen retired all six Cubs batters he faced as the Dodgers evened up the National League Championship Series at one game apiece.

This was not exactly the first time this postseason that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has gotten bold with his closer. Jansen picked up a five out save in Game 1 of the NLDS against Washington, and then, in the decisive fifth game of that series, Jansen entered in the seventh inning, with the tying run already on base, and proceeded to hold the Nationals scoreless for 2.1 innings.

When Jansen finally ran out of gas in the ninth, having thrown more than 50 pitches, Roberts turned to Kershaw - the Game 4 starter! - with the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run on base in a 4-3 contest. Kershaw then got two outs on seven pitches to punch the Dodgers’ ticket into the NLCS.

No one of these situations was exactly analogous to the Orioles not using Britton in the Wild Card game. After all, for as aggressive as it is to use the closer for multiple innings, Roberts has at least deployed Jansen with a lead in each instance. Would he do it if there was a tie game, in extra innings, on the road? Perhaps we’ll find out as the postseason goes along.

In the meantime, it’s not stopping the baseball chattering class from firing up new jokes about the Orioles not using Britton in the Wild Card game every day. You may even have seen Britton himself weigh in on the joke of his “game-used” jersey being up for auction:

The winning bid ended up being $2,650.00, if you were wondering. You might well have paid that amount just to see Britton come in from the bullpen in the game. Alas, it was not meant to be.

I’ve heard all of the arguments that the Britton non-use almost isn’t even worth talking about because the real problem was the Orioles offense getting only four hits in the game, with no hits after the sixth and no baserunners after the seventh.

People have even asked me, would it really feel so much better if Britton had pitched a scoreless 11th and 12th and then the Orioles ended up still losing if Jimenez pitched in the 13th instead? Well, duh. Of course that would feel better. Not good, because any Orioles season-ending loss wouldn’t feel good. But at least then we wouldn’t all be haunted by the specter of what might have happened in those two innings.

Then we would know: Yes, the Orioles offense was just bad. They certainly looked bad, but how many games did they look bad that they ended up winning? It only took one mistake with that lineup. Maybe Francisco Liriano would have just kept putting up blanks forever, sure. Maybe not. I wish we could have known.

Instead, all Orioles fans can do is sigh wistfully at all of these bullpen shenanigans. You can watch Cleveland manager Terry Francona going wild with Andrew Miller for the same effect. Miller isn’t even the Indians closer! So maybe it’s not a surprise to see him coming in for two innings starting in the fifth inning, like he did in ALDS Game 1, or for two innings starting in the sixth inning, like he did in ALDS Game 3.

The fifth inning! That’s not a joke. Can you imagine if the Orioles had ever used Britton in the fifth inning? Which - sorry for even saying it - you may recall is the inning where the Orioles lost their lead in the Wild Card game.

No, of course the Orioles shouldn’t have used Britton in the fifth inning there. What they needed was for their best starter all season, Chris Tillman, to keep it together against the bottom of the Blue Jays lineup, which he did not do. They needed to have more than three at-bats with runners in scoring position all game, and they needed to get a run-scoring base hit in at least one of those chances.

The Orioles got none of those things and so they lost, as the team that plays the worst in a one-game winner-take-all affair should lose. Would it have been any different if Britton had pitched? Perhaps not, but the fact that we’ll never know will make the loss sting through the whole offseason and, if I’m being honest, long beyond that.

This feeling will not get any better as long as Miller keeps being some kind of Superman for the Indians this postseason. Could the Orioles use Britton like that in the postseason? We’ll have to wait until at least next year to find out.

Miller’s kept it going through the ALCS, if you didn’t know, entering in the seventh inning of both Games 1 and 2 and recording five and six outs, respectively. He has been nothing short of a beast.

During this postseason, Miller has faced 28 batters in four games. Five batters have reached base. Seventeen have struck out. None of the ones that got on base ended up scoring. True, Miller has also only been used in games where his team had a lead already. We’ll have to see if he gets into a crucial spot of a tie game in any of the ALCS games in Toronto.

Miller’s postseason performance has simply been out of this world. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the Orioles had won the Wild Card game or not because they would have just had to run into this Indians team in the ALCS.

Or maybe that’s just what I’ll tell myself so I can stop thinking about Britton for a little while - until tonight, when Miller will probably come into ALCS Game 3, dominate, and continue this trend for at least another day.