Would another manager, a fiery, relaxed guy, who could actually manage the National League game and manage a bullpen, have been able to save the Phillies season?
Today, in Houston, the Astros clinched a wild card berth. They did it with a midseason replacement manager, Phil Garner, who is described as both “fiery” and “relaxed.” Imagine that.
And then imagine for a moment that Ed Wade had grown the balls to fire Larry Bowa on August 2 after the Phils began a key road trip one and six. Would another manager, a fiery, relaxed guy, who could actually manage the National League game and manage a bullpen, have been able to save the Phillies season?
You see, for me, it isn’t about personality. It isn’t good guy versus bad guy, gentle guy versus tough guy, tight guy versus loose guy. For me, it’s can the guy manage all the little things in a ballgame that make a team win or lose that game? It’s can the guy manage each game within the context of the bigger picture, knowing there is another game tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, all needing a full complement of resources to make it possible for a team to win more games than it loses? It’s can he keep guys physically and mentally healthy by knowing his players well enough to know when a guy needs a blow? Does he know when to push and when to lay off? Does he know how to stretch pitchers early so they can be counted on to go deeper and deeper into games late in the year? Does he know how to get the most out of his bullpen resources, without tiring out the effective guys and demoralizing the struggling guys? Does he know how to keep a guy or two fresh at any time by carefully husbanding the resources game by game?
And this, you see, is where Larry Bowa failed. It isn’t because he’s fiery. There are fiercely competitive guys out there managing effectively without burning bridges. It’s because he can’t do those things in paragraph three. He manages each game as though it is game seven of the World Series. Tomorrow be damned. But then, even if it were game seven, I’d disagree with the way he does it.
There are those in the Phils organization and in the fan base who point to injuries. Well, Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched for Houston in months, and they’re going to the post season. And I have had this niggling question in the back of my mind since the bullpen fell apart in the second half last year. (you remember, the bullpen that was tops in baseball in the first half of 2003). Didn’t the way Bowa used the pitchers predispose the group to injury?
The injuries in the pen have been primarily injuries of periodic overuse–tendonitis and tired arm–not the tears of poor mechanics and long-term wear and tear. When did Larry Bowa decide that he had a staff of Dan Plesacs who could really be expected to pitch no more than an inning at a time? Because, he had only one Dan Plesac, and that was last year. The rest of the crew could go a couple or three innings as long as they had a day or two of rest between appearances. But that isn’t the way Larry manages the bullpen. Everyone seems to pitch or warm up almost every night. No one but Madson regularly pitched more than an inning at a time in relief for much of the year. That led to the bullpen falling apart again in the second half of 2004. It was self-inflicted déjà vu.
I have many Bowa pet peeves. But the quick hook from day one is the major one. The Phils starters, when they are having an effective start, are almost never stretched. When Bowa may pinch hit for one in a tight game, but ends up not getting to the pitcher’s spot, he never brings the pitcher back, no matter how well he was pitching. Are you telling me there’s no one on the staff with the maturity to stay in the game mentally when there is only the possibility he might be pinch hit for?
There is also almost never a double switch. You can save the bullpen wear and tear if you can plan to let a guy go two or three every few nights, instead of one every night. It isn’t only the pitching in the game, it’s the warming up (whether the reliever is used or not) and not letting a guy rest his arm for days at a time. This is especially tough on the smaller harder throwing types like Billy Wagner, whom Bowa wasn’t going to use for more than three nights in a row, until he did April 15 through 18, and wasn’t going to use for two innings, until he did April 21–the best laid plans and all that. I was surprised it took as long as it did for Wagner to break down.
My other issue with Bowa is day to day management of the game. I’ll give one example, the most glaring, which sticks most in my craw because it cost the Phils a chance at a home win (against, ironically, the Astros) when they were still, barely, alive. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two out, Phillies down 9-8 at home. Jim Thome, hobbled by a wonky hamstring, is at first with David Bell coming to the plate. I actually wrote in my scorecard a little PR in the four hole, fully expecting there’d be a pinch runner for Thome. To my dismay, there was no pinch runner. To perfect the horror, Bell hit a double. If Bowa had put in a runner for Thome, the Phils would have at least gone to extra innings. Instead, the Phils ended the game with the bases loaded (Lieberthal was hit by a pitch).
In the end, the Phils needed a manager who could take the 20-30 games a year that a manager can win by guts and guile. They needed the guy to massage, mesmerize, and mallet his team into winning those games that meant the difference between playing in the postseason and going home after 162 games. They needed a manager who would find a way to put the right guys in the right positions to win those games. Larry Bowa wasn’t that guy. Sadly for the Phils, he was fired at least two months too late.