Not since Joe Girardi in game 162 last season (and I recognize that’s not long ago) have I seen a manager actively try to lose a game the way Bobby Valentine did this afternoon at Fenway.
In the annual Patriots Day game at 11am in Marathon Monday, James Shields was dealing for the Rays. The Sox were making contact, but Shields kept throwing strikes and nothing was getting through the vaunted Tampa Bay defense. Daniel Bard turned in the best start of his very young career as a starter, matching zeroes with Shields into the seventh. He walked four through six innings, but struck out six and looked nearly unhittable.
In the top of the seventh, Bard retired the first two, then went to a full count and walked Sean Rodriguez on a pitch nowhere near the strike zone. It was clear at this point, after 97 pitches, that Valentine had milked everything he could from the converted reliever, who had never seen the seventh inning as a starter. Nevertheless, Valentine let Bard pitch to Desmond Jennings, who went to another full count and blooped a single into center. Watching on TV, I got the feeling that the pitch Jennings hit would have been strike three a few innings earlier.
You know the rest of the story. Bard walks off to a rousing ovation. Franklin Morales mows down Carlos Pena and the game continues, scoreless, well beyond the ninth inning.
Wait, what? That’s not what happened?
No, no hook. Not even a mound visit. Bard’s used to cleaning up other pitchers’ messes, so Valentine left him in there to clean up his own. Carlos Pena stood in there for four pitches, none of them near the strike zone. Bard was beyond gassed.
Finally, a mound visit. Bard’s ovation was a little more nervous than raucous, but Matt Albers came in and retired Evan Longoria.
He didn’t? You can’t be serious. We’re at 107 pitches and counting, in a scoreless tie against an archival, with the best player in the American League coming up, and Bobby Valentine is going to let the rotting corpse of Daniel Bard try to get him out?
Yup. And nope. I suppose you might argue that Longoria might have blown the game open with a bases-clearing double off Albers, while the outcome against Bard was written in stone.
Four more pitches, four more balls. 1-0.
To no one’s surprise, that’s how it ended. Bard’s seventh walk plated the recipient of his fifth, turning what could have been his best day as a professional into something of an embarrassment, if not for him, then at least for the manager who thought he had something left after a hideous string of three batters.
If Terry Francona had a weakness throughout his legendary tenure with Boston, it was his willingness to stand behind his players in good times and bad, letting them hit or pitch their way out of a slump, even if it cost the team a win or two in the interim. I interpret what we saw today as more of the same. Bard must have told Valentine (through his pitching coach) that he had another hitter in him, and one out away from seven scoreless innings, I’m sure he believed it. But the skipper’s job is to see through that machismo, slap the pitcher on the butt, and let him have his ovation. Sure, Bobby V would look great right now if Pena or Longoria had taken one swing and hit a warning track fly ball. Anyone watching, though, could see that Bard’s relationship with home plate had ended with all Bard’s clothes on the lawn a few batters earlier.
Whether or not Bard hit the showers feeling like his manager believed in him, he certainly couldn’t have felt like a starter who can remain effective for seven innings.
Bard should feel good about his outing today. Shields should feel even better about his. And the Red Sox should feel great about taking three of four from what might be the best team in baseball this weekend.
It’s a shame, though, that Bobby Valentine had no interest in the sweep. At least we know he’s not a bully.