When Terry Francona managed the Red Sox to the 2007 World Series, his greatest contribution came two years ago this Friday. Down two games to one to the Indians in the ALCS and facing a fifth game in Cleveland, Francona resisted the temptation to start Josh Beckett on three days’ rest and instead stuck to his plan, and Game Four starter Tim Wakefield. Wakefield got lit up like Christmas, and much of Boston was ready for a new manager for their Nine. And then the Sox, buoyed by Beckett’s five-hitter over eight (with eleven strikeouts), won Game Five, and ran the table right through the World Series sweep of Colorado.
And yet Joe Girardi is mulling starting CC Sabathia on short rest in Game Four in Anaheim, then coming back with him on full rest for Game Seven. It is mighty tempting with a horse like Sabathia – as it was tempting for Francona two years ago. And the record book warns Girardi to dismiss the idea despite its obvious siren-like call, and its additional charms (like being able to keep Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen, and Chad Gaudin off the line-up card).
Like all men, Bobby Cox, who by rights should be elected to the Hall of Fame next winter if he goes through with his plan to retire after next season, has had one Achilles Heel that he’s never overcome. Coxy has always been convinced that when all the chips were on the table his starters could do the job on three days’ rest, even as the statistics accumulated, proving they could not.
During Atlanta’s unprecedented, probably unmatchable playoff run of 1991 through 2005, Cox tried the short-rest thing nineteen times. The Braves lost thirteen of those games.
Every defeat has a thousand parents, but at minimum, starting a pitcher prematurely is a very heavy straw meeting a very weak camel. More over, all Cox’s successes came before 1995, when Steve Avery and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were all young and elastic. Cox would go on to try it six more times between 1996 and 2005, and the Braves didn’t win even one of the games. Tim Hudson couldn’t do it, nor Kevin Millwood, nor Greg Maddux, nor Smoltz, nor Glavine – and Glavine tried, twice.
If those stats aren’t a bright enough white line, there’s one more. Cox did it nine times in the World Series, and the Braves won only three of those games. You might get away with it – Beckett did once – but eventually the odds start mounting, and sooner or later it will cost you the playoff series, or the whole ball of wax.
Girardi can point, seemingly with confidence, to Sabathia and say that his personal track record is far more relevant than what Steve Avery did or didn’t do a generation ago. CC’s last three regular season starts of 2008 were each on short rest and all he did was go 2-1 (and give up just one earned run in the loss) and pitch the Brewers into the playoffs. The snag, of course, was that they decided to go to the well again in Game Two of those playoffs against Phillies – Sabathia’s fourth consecutive start on three days’ rest. And by the time Dale Sveum had to come get him with two outs in the fourth, he was out of gas, and the Brewers were essentially out of the post-season. His line was as bad as imaginable:
Milwaukee Brewers IP H R ER BB SO HR BFP
Sabathia L(0-1) 3.2 6 5 5 4 5 1 21
Would he necessarily repeat that in Game Four against the Angels? Nope, not necessarily. But what might the impact be on his Game Seven start? And what if there was no need for one, and Girardi was then faced with the scenario of opening the World Series with him, again bringing him back in Game Four on short rest, with the dream of having him ready for Game Seven?
The more often you try it, the less likely it is to keep working. The last month of 2008 might as well have been the post-season for the Brewers and Sabathia. The first three times, he either won, or pitched well enough to win. Then the fourth time, everything ended. Game Four of the ALCS will effectively be attempt Number Five. There could be a sixth in the Series.
The Braves’ fifteen-year record was six wins and thirteen losses. At one point, it was six wins and seven losses. The time of Lew Burdette shutting out the Yankees twice in four days is more than half a century ago. It might as well have happened before the invention of electricity. CC Sabathia on three days’ rest – a dramatic, romantic concept. And a recipe for dramatic, decisive failure.