Throughout the first five months of Robin Ventura's managerial career, observers often praised him for his even-keeled approach. He never allowed himself to get too high or too low, he understood that players would encounter slumps, and you know the rest.
I want that version of Ventura back. At the moment, the on-field version of Ventura is the guy who turned the first Chris Sale blip into a confusing, jarring and ultimately upsetting PR crisis. He's making changes at an increased rate, but they're less frequently changes for the better, and often result in players ending up in places they can't help.
In his defense, let's get this out of the way -- managing this team at this time can't be easy. He faces a unique set of challenges on a day-to-day basis:
- Three key hitters are not 100 percent -- Adam Dunn is 0 percent right now, Paul Konerko is playing but "injured" (according to Hawk Harrelson), and Kevin Youkilis isn't moving well.
- Jake Peavy is the only tried-and-true veteran starter. Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, (now) Gavin Floyd and (again) Francisco Liriano all need to be watched closely. The fifth starter changes turn to turn.
- The bullpen is OK, but it never achieved "lockdown" status at any point.
Ventura's roster is compromised, so much so that Wednesday's lineup featured three players that could not find major-league work at some or multiple points this season (Dewayne Wise, Dan Johnson and Orlando Hudson), and you could still call it sensible due to handedness demands.
That said, when there is a shortage of major-league talent on one side of the roster, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to compound the problem by throwing fringe talent into the fire on the pitching side, too.
Ventura has definitely explored the studio space with the expanded rosters. Look no further than the number of trips he takes to the mound:
- August: 2.82 relievers per game.
- September: 5.00 relievers a game.
That is a massive departure. I don't think it's for the better, and it may be symbolic of a larger loss of perspective. Watching Ventura deploy a half-dozen pitchers for nine innings over the last two weeks, it seems like he's overwhelmed by options and can't quite compartmentalize them.
"Yeah, there just becomes a time you’re using Donnie every night and you end up using him later," Ventura said of Veal, who retired Fielder on a fly to center to start the ninth. "Prince has seen him a few times now. You’re looking for a different look."
"He certainly got one, derisive snort!" is the ready retort. But the switch from Hector Santiago to Brian Omogrosso that preceded Septimo's appearance was equally questionable, because if you had to whittle down the bullpen to the best seven guys, neither Omogrosso nor Septimo would make the cut. Usually, the September call-ups in the bullpen are around to consume garbage time, not pitch at crucial junctures in games that have a direct impact on pennant races.
If this were the first time Ventura had placed unqualified players in tight spots, one could write it off as an unfortunately timed slip and nothing more. But it's not an isolated incident, for this comes on the heels of Tuesday's game, in which Ventura used Liriano out of the bullpen for the first time with a one-run deficit.
It's also quite similar to what's happening in the late innings on the offensive side. Wednesday night's loss ended with Orlando Hudson striking out looking. He represented the tying run, and Ventura had home-run hitters in Dayan Viciedo and Tyler Flowers, along with the recent muscle of Gordon Beckham. Still, Hudson hit. Or didn't.
That's four times that a vastly underqualified hitter has Hudson is just one of many players who have hit for himself with the game on the line. Other recent examples since rosters expanded:
- Sept. 9: Rey Olmedo strikes out on three pitches with the tying run on third in the 10th inning, ending the game.
- Sept. 7: Jose Lopez pops out with the bases loaded and two outs in a 5-5 game in the eighth inning.
- Sept. 2: Hudson hits for himself again against Jose Valverde with the tying runs on base, and lines out to deepish center to end the game.
Sometimes there were vastly superior options on the bench. Other times, Ventura might have over-substituted early on for minimal gains, leaving him shorthanded when a pinch hitter could have made an impact. This is the same guy who lifted Alex Rios for Adam Dunn back in April. The Sox needed a home run, and Dunn was the better bet. It didn't work, but it made sense, and obviously it had no ill effect on Rios.
Now, when a home run is needed in the ninth inning of a key divisional game, Ventura isn't inspired to pull a guy who has five whole hits to his name since the start of July.
From this distance, it's hard to know if anything has changed with Ventura's mindset. But I do know this is still his first year as a manager, which means it's his first pennant race, and his first time handling an expanded roster (it's the first time for Mark Parent, too). Now he's suddenly awash in inadequate options, and it looks like he's struggling to keep his head above water.
For tonight's game, and maybe through the weekend, it might behoove the brain trust to make a list of the 25 guys they would choose if it were Aug. 22, and ignore all the other options unless the game was truly out of hand -- like, "Dewayne Wise might pitch" bad. That's assuming he wouldn't want Wise to face Fielder with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, anyway.