When the Houston Astros won it all in 2017, they owed a great deal to manager A.J. Hinch, who not only helped mold Houston’s young core into the best team in baseball but performed exceptional feats of tactical derring-do in the playoffs. He scrubbed Justin Verlander from a start in a hypothetical Game 5 of the ALDS in an attempt to smother a burgeoning Game 4 comeback at Fenway Park. He responded to the implosion of his trusted relief arms by making erstwhile starters Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers Jr., and Collin McHugh available out of the bullpen.
That approach to postseason bullpen management presaged the constant sense of emergency that dictated the pitcher usage of the past two world champions: last year’s Red Sox, led by Hinch’s former bench coach Alex Cora, and Dave Martinez’s Nationals, who beat Hinch’s Astros in this World Series.
And yet in the decisive moments of Game 7, Hinch faltered. Zack Greinke had allowed just one hit over 6 1/3 scoreless innings when Anthony Rendon took him deep to cut Houston’s two-run lead in half. Greinke walked Juan Soto, and Hinch called for reliever Will Harris, even though Greinke had looked indomitable and had thrown just 80 pitches. Harris allowed the championship-winning home run to Howie Kendrick on the second pitch he threw.
Four other Houston relievers allowed the Nats to tack on three insurance runs over the final 2 2/3 innings, while Gerrit Cole, who’s pitching as well as anyone on the planet right now, stood idle in the bullpen. Cole hasn’t pitched in relief at any point in his nine-year professional career, but this being Game 7 of the World Series, he was available. But while Cole did warm up, he ended his season seated in a folding chair, cap pulled low over his face, staring laser beams through the ground in front of him.
A high-leverage tactical fuck-up can follow a manager around forever; given that after 2017 Hinch will probably never have to pay for a plate of crawfish in Houston as long as he lives, he’s probably not doomed to suffer the fate of a Grady Little or a John McNamara. But he pulled one red-hot ace from the game and declined to bring in a second to keep it close, while lesser pitchers not only blew the Astros’ lead but let the game slip out of reach.
This game contradicts the old axiom that while success has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. There’s plenty of blame to go around. One place to start is Houston’s 1-for-8 record with runners in scoring position and 10 runners left on base, which led to the Astros scoring just two runs in five innings against Max Scherzer, who could barely find the plate at times. A combination of bad batted-ball luck and exceptional range by Nats center fielder Víctor Robles contributed to those dispiriting numbers.
But Hinch is going to get second-guessed over three discrete decisions: taking Greinke out, bringing in Harris instead of Cole or perhaps Roberto Osuna to face Kendrick, and declining to use Cole at all later in the game.
The first two of those decisions, taken in combination, led directly to the home run that lost the Astros the series, but after taking a step back to look at the context, they’re eminently defensible, even if they didn’t work. When Hinch took Greinke out, he had the lead, a rested bullpen plus Cole and José Urquidy available in relief, and just eight outs left between his club and a championship. Given those circumstances, it’s defensible to err on the side of taking Greinke out too early rather than too late. At age 36, Greinke relies mostly on deception and intelligence to get hitters out, and while his performance in Game 7 was his best of the postseason by far, the Nationals were more likely to figure Greinke out the more looks they got at him; for example, Greinke set Rendon down quite easily the first two times they faced each other, but the third time through the order, the former Rice third baseman took Greinke deep. Perhaps Hinch’s hook was a little premature, but he came much closer to timing his call to the pen correctly than Martinez, who was somehow not punished for allowing an ailing Scherzer to white-knuckle it through five whole innings, despite having Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez available out of the pen.
And if Hinch was going to take Greinke out after he walked Soto, Harris was the most obvious candidate to shut down the Nationals’ nascent rally. The conventional wisdom is that it’s unwise to bring a starter in for a relief appearance with men already on base; starting pitchers take longer to warm up than relievers and tend to be most comfortable when coming in at the start of an inning with the bases empty. And since Cole has made one competitive relief appearance since high school, it was probably wise to call on a more suitable pitcher for the situation.
And Harris was the most suitable man for the job. In 68 regular-season appearances this year, Harris allowed just a 1.50 ERA, and in the playoffs, he’d been even better. In his first 10 postseason appearances this year, Harris allowed five hits, a walk, and no runs against 11 strikeouts, and just one of the 12 runners he inherited came around to score. He smothered a nerve-racking Rays rally in Game 2 of the ALDS, recorded three holds in the ALCS, and held leads against the Nats in games 3 and 4 of the World Series after entering the action under circumstances similar to the ones he found himself in on Wednesday night.
It wasn’t until Game 6—when Rendon took Harris deep for his first earned run of the playoffs—that the right-hander gave any indication that he was there for the taking. If there’s an argument against bringing in Harris, it’s that his Game 7 loss was his 12th appearance in 27 days. Not only do relievers wear down—it wasn’t too long ago that both Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller went from untouchable to pedestrian in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series—but this was Washington’s fifth look at Harris, and perhaps he, like Greinke, was running out of tricks.
The first two decisions demonstrated at least an understandable and defensible thought process, but leaving Cole out of the game entirely was inexplicable. Osuna cleaned up after Harris but didn’t pitch all that well himself, allowing two walks, two hits, and a run in 1 1/3 innings. If Cole was available and warm, there was no reason for him not to pitch the ninth.
Hinch explained after the game that he’d planned to use Cole only with the lead, to close out a victory like Chris Sale did in last year’s World Series or Clayton Kershaw in last year’s NLCS. But with the Astros trailing 4-2 in the top of the ninth, there would be no save for Cole to get; any Astros comeback win in the ninth inning or later would’ve been a walkoff. And while being down two in the ninth isn’t a good position, it’s a hell of a lot better than being down four, which is where the Astros stood after Joe Smith and Urquidy coughed up two more runs in that frame.
A two-run deficit means that any Houston baserunner would bring the tying run to the plate in a park where home runs come thick and fast, and even on two days’ rest in an unfamiliar situation, Cole was the best pitcher Hinch had to keep the lead manageable, and there was nothing else to save him for.
Even though he’d never pitched in relief before, Cole clearly looked like he wanted to pitch, and he seemed upset after the game that he played no part in the outcome. It’s likely that the last image of Cole as an Astro will be of him glowering in the bullpen while his team coughs up the lead. That’s a stark contrast to Stephen Strasburg, who will be Cole’s major competition in free agency if he opts out of his deal, and who went out by saving his team’s season. It’s hard not to feel for the big Californian in this moment, because while most of Hinch’s decisions follow a clear logic, it’s hard to understand why Cole ended his season as an unused substitute.
Over five seasons in charge of the Astros, Hinch has built a reputation for well-thought-out, empirically based decision-making. While plenty of managers make puzzling and self-defeating decisions with their pitchers as a matter of habit, Hinch usually isn’t one of them. But he did make the pitching changes that led directly to the Astros losing the World Series, and whatever the process, the outcome demands investigation.