And so this is how it ended for the Baltimore Orioles: in the extra innings of a winner-take-all game with arguably their 2016 Most Valuable Player standing by, waiting for the chance that never came, relegated to spectator status in what amounted to a DNP-CD.
But remember: Buck Showalter is a managerial genius.
I know, I know. What if the Orioles had gone ahead? Who would have closed? As it turns out, we’ll never know. But it is worth noting that on July 31 of this year, the Orioles were tied at 2 with the Jays in the late innings and eventually won, 6-2, in the 12th. Zach Britton pitched two innings in that game — the ninth and 10th — before passing the ball to Mychal Givens. The Orioles then erupted for four runs in the 12th — three on a home run by Adam Jones — to claim a 6-2 victory.
Up four runs, on the road, they didn’t need a closer.
Here’s the simplest question possible: with the season on the line, how could Showalter possibly go to Brian Duensing and Ubaldo Jimenez before he turned to Britton, who had the kind of season that was downright Riverian (as in Mariano). In 63 appearances covering 67 innings, Britton had a 0.54 ERA and allowed four runs. Four. Opponents batted a measly .162 against him with a .430 OPS. Britton has been mentioned as candidate for both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards, and it is difficult to find a more consistent, dominating weapon in the late innings on any major league roster this season.
And Showalter, facing elimination, did not use him.
Traditional baseball folks are undoubtedly lining up in Showalter’s defense today, but here’s the truth: he screwed up. Following the game, Britton told the MLB Network that he was available for any situation, specifically mentioning that he thought he might have been brought in to induce a double play. (He has a devastating hard, sinking fastball.) When Edwin Encarnacion delivered the decisive blow — a three-run home run against Jimenez — the Blue Jays had first and third with one out, a situation that screamed for a double play if ever there was one.
And yet, Showalter stuck with Jimenez, who threw one pitch to Encarnacion — a beefy fastball that the Blue Jays first baseman hit all the way to Texas.
Of course, the Orioles failed at a million pressure points. In a 2-2 game in the fifth, Showalter lifted starter Chris Tillman (just 13 outs) for Givens, who induced a huge, inning-ending double play. Meanwhile, Jays starter Marcus Stroman pitched through the sixth, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that Stroman recorded five more outs than Tillman.
Five outs. Is that one reliever? Two? Whatever the case, Showalter opted to burn Givens early and got results. But that left him without both Givens and, as it turned out, Britton, late in the game.
Again, Showalter was holding out Britton for a potential save situation, on the road, which is typically what managers do — in the regular season. But in the playoffs? In 2003, albeit at home, Joe Torre used Rivera for three innings of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. That same night, on the road, Red Sox manager Grady Little bypassed closer Scott Williamson in favor of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who subsequently allowed a series-deciding home run to Aaron Boone, the last walk-off winner in a winner-take-all postseason game.
Until last night.
Showalter now has yet another blemish on a record that makes him look like baseball’s version of Greg Norman. Following the 1995 season, after all, Showalter was fired by the New York Yankees, who won the World Series the next year. Following the 2000 season, Showalter was fired by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the World Series the next year. He is now 9-14 in his postseason career and has won just one postseason series. Showalter has never taken a team to the World Series.
Well, that was genius.
Pure, unfiltered genius.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.