Commentary

Manuel definitely made the right call

Manager will be second-guessed for not starting Lee, but he made the proper choice

Originally Published: November 1, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- In this situation, someone must always be singled out for blame because, after all, it must be someone's fault when a team loses a big game in the postseason. I mean, it can't be as simple a matter as one team having to win and one team having to lose. Someone must have screwed up. Blame must be fixed.

And in this case, the most likely scapegoat in the non-Brad Lidge category is Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Manuel
Al Bello/Getty ImagesCharlie Manuel decided the World Series was not the place to experiment with pitching Cliff Lee on three days' rest for the first time.

After all, Manuel is the one who decided not to pitch his ace, Cliff Lee, on short rest. And his team lost Game 4. Meanwhile, Yankees manager Joe Girardi chose to pitch his ace, CC Sabathia, on short rest. And his team won. So even though the game was decided after the Game 4 starters were out of the game, Girardi is a genius and Manuel is a moron, right?

Wrong.

Phillies fans, Manuel may have saved your season by holding Lee back another day. His reasoning for doing so was logical. Lee has never started a major league game on three days' rest and the World Series is not the place you necessarily want to give it a test run.

"You're asking Cliff Lee to do something that he has never did before," Manuel said. "And you're also asking him to do it in a very big, important place, and that's in the World Series. I didn't have to think very long at all about that."

We'll never know what Lee would have done in Game 4, but it's not unreasonable to imagine that he wouldn't have been as sharp on three days' rest as he was on nine days' rest in Game 1. And so the Phillies could very easily have lost the game anyway. Only then, they not only would be trailing the Yankees 3-1 in the series, they would not be sending their best pitcher to the mound for Game 5.

In which case, everyone currently ripping Manuel for not starting Lee on three days' rest would now be ripping him for starting him on three days' rest. Because, you know, someone must always be to blame.

You can search for reasons to second-guess Manuel's moves in Game 4 -- maintaining an extreme shift on Mark Teixeira after Johnny Damon singled, for instance -- but really, it's hard to see what he could have done differently apart from working on how to defend the old "steal two bases on one pitch" play during spring training fundamental drills.

"You may work on this one day in spring training where it's 'Hey, be aware of this' or it may be a verbal thing, something you just bring up," Phillies reliever Chad Durbin said. "But it was just good instincts [by Damon]. The play was in front of him, and for everyone else, it was behind them."

And at some point, isn't it the players' responsibility to perform (and cover third on the Damon steal)? Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard (10 strikeouts!) and Raul Ibanez are all at, or below, the Mendoza Line. They need to get going because Chase Utley can't do it alone. And even Utley, as productive as he's been (another home run and an RBI double Sunday), will need to break out against a pitcher not named Sabathia. He is 4-for-6 with three homers and a double against CC but 0-for-9 against everyone else.

[+] EnlargeJoe Blanton
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesJoe Blanton gave up four runs, but did not factor into the decision in Game 4 of the World Series.

But while the Phillies are in a must-win situation, at least they have their best starter pitching on full rest. Meanwhile, the Yankees will be relying on starters who are all pitching on three days' rest the rest of the season. Granted, Sabathia (two good starts this postseason), A.J. Burnett (4-0, 2.33 in his career on three days), Andy Pettitte (4-6, 4.15) have had varying degrees of success pitching on three days' rest. And granted, trailing 3-1 with only one more home game is an imposing position -- only two of 22 teams have ever overcome that in World Series history.

But strange things happen in baseball. Like a runner stealing two bases on the same pitch. Or the Red Sox rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS.

"We're in way better shape than we were in '04," Pedro Martinez said. "This is just one of the battles we have to overcome."

Martinez is the possible starter in Game 6 if the Phillies can get that far. But first they have to win Game 5 on Monday night. As suddenly as the momentum shifted in the ninth inning Sunday, it can switch again if Lee pitches a great game and Burnett struggles.

"I think we take a lot of pride on being resilient and the way we bounce back," Manuel said. "I know we're going to come out and play [Game 5] to win. I know that. I've seen us go through it before. We've blown 22 games from the seventh inning on or something this year. That's got to tell you something about the resilience of this team.

"[Game 4] is tough. We're in the World Series now. But at the same time, we're down. But you know what, we're still breathing."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com