Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mo and Boch

My favorite Mariano Rivera story is really a Bruce Bochy story. I've told it many times, perhaps once here, and apologize for retelling it, but it came to mind on Monday when Rivera, the greatest reliever of them all, supplanted Trevor Hoffman as the save king.

Scene: Jack Murphy Stadium, Game 3 of the World Series in 1998.

Rivera is trying to close out a 5-4 victory for the Yankees. Due to bat is Hoffman. Bochy sends up Mark Sweeney. Here's the interesting part: Bochy has another lefty hitter, John Vander Wal, run for Carlos Hernandez at first base, and, after Sweeney pulls a single, allows righty Andy Sheets to bat against Rivera with two outs.

Critics in the pressbox go nuts. Vander Wal is one of the better lefty pinch-hitters in the game, yet, see, Bochy "took the bat out of his hands" by using him to run.

Rivera strikes out Sheets. Ballgame. Critics again go nuts. Padres fans vent, too. One of them fires a cup of beer into the netting behind home plate.

To this day, some Padres fans gripe that Vander Wal wasn't allowed to face the great Rivera with two Padres on base in the 5-4 ballgame. I appreciate their sense of loss. Vander Wal, who came to the Padres in August 1998, was a fearless hitter who could turn around a good fastball. He would sting many of baseball's best relievers across his 15-year career. In a pinch, he hit 17 home runs and had 95 RBI for his career, batting .236 in those 533 at-bats. For the Padres that year, he on-based at a .387 rate. "Vandy" is now a Padres scout, and his sharp judgment led the Gunslinger to pick Luke Gregerson out of a group of Cardinals minor leaguers offered for Khalil Greene.

So, did Bochy screw up when he opted for Andy Sheets over Vander Wal?

Here, I think of a comment made two years earlier by the man who would hire Bochy to work for the San Francisco Giants after the 2006 season. The comment: "I am not an idiot." That's what Brian Sabean said after the critics attacked his trade that brought a young second baseman named Jeff Kent and sent Giants star Matt Williams to Cleveland.

Bochy could've played it safe and had the lefty Vander Wal bat against the righty Rivera. No one would've criticized him for it. Bochy thought Sheets the better matchup. Sheets, for all his vulnerabilities, had a fast bat. Sheets could catch up with fastballs in the mid-90s, where Rivera lived.

Conversations with two hitting gurus played into Bochy's decision. Expos manager Felipe Alou had noodled on what he would do against Rivera. He had told Bochy that maybe a righty would have a better chance against Rivera's cut fastball, because the pitch darted toward the fatter part of a righty's bat, whereas it moved toward the handle of a lefty's bat. In agreement was Bochy's hitting coach, Merv Rettenmund. With all of the lefty bats cracked by Rivera's cutter over the years to come, one could stock a lumberyard.

It took guts use Vander Wal as a pinch-runner and Sheets as a pinch-hitter, but good managers are willing to make moves that will bring them scorn if they don't work out. Bochy, four seasons into his managerial career, was willing to look like a dummy with the entire baseball world watching him. I thought that reflected well on him. Scared money doesn't win a World Series, especially against the Yankees.

This isn't to endorse zaniness. Bochy, a former catcher, had done his homework. He had thought it through. Informing his decision were years spent behind the plate.

 He had acted on what he believed, but it was more than a hunch.

When Bochy and Sabean won the World Series together last October, two baseball lifers rewarded at last, I thought of Mariano Rivera and 1998, of John Vander Wal and Andy Sheets. And of the beer flying onto the field at the Murph.

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