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13 innings, six pitchers, no David Robertson

Robin Ventura keeps best reliever in bullpen during White Sox' drawn-out loss to Royals

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the White Sox ended up on the wrong end of a 13-inning game in which their best reliever (David Robertson) never pitched and their worst reliever (Dan Jennings) took the loss after a valiant career-long appearance.

If you handed that kind of case to baseball's version of a public defender, he would immediately stump for a plea bargain. Robin Ventura showed after the game that it's a difficult decision to justify:

With that idea in mind, questions will arise as to why Ventura stayed with Jennings when closer David Robertson was available. Jennings, who worked a career-high 3 2/3 innings and threw 49 pitches, admitted to being a bit out of gas by the 13th. But Ventura didn't want to go to Robertson for one inning as the last reliever, possibly calling Tuesday starter Carlos Rodon into action. [...]

"Robby was there if you needed one," Ventura said. "Danny again, he did a great job, but the one guy got him, and it ends up you lose the game. A lot of stuff could have happened if Robby is in there and you go to Carlos."

Given that he's backed into a corner, "a lot of stuff could have happened" is a pretty canny parry, since it prompts the reader to pause and say, "Truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue...".  Even if the next word is "but," he made you agree with him even briefly, so well met!

Now, "the one guy got him," not so much, since "the one guy" was their best hitter (Lorenzo Cain), and it happened during an appearance in which Jennings -- who entered the game with a 7.20 ERA -- set career highs for:

  • Innings: 3⅔ (previous high: 2⅓ on June 14, 2014).
  • Batters faced: 13 (previous high: 11)

A testament to his relative efficiency on Saturday, Jennings managed to come up one pitch short of his highest-ever count (50, back in 2012). Unfortunately, the reasonable pitch count did more harm than good, as it probably allowed Ventura to underestimate the amount of danger he was courting with every batter beyond the 11th.

It's easy to understand why Ventura would be reluctant to use his last reliever, because it's not like managers are used to empty bullpens. Yet it's odd to treat that alternative (Robertson for an inning, then Rodon for whatever) as something to avoid, because that actually sounds kind of awesome.

The opportunity was there. Rodon hadn't pitched in more than a week, and he wasn't scheduled to start until Tuesday, which would have given the Sox ample time to set up a spot starter. He also made the Royals look like amateurs the one time he faced them. If you ever have to use a starter in extra innings, that's pretty much the most favorable set of conditions for doing so.

When Ventura says "stuff could have happened" with regards to emptying the bullpen, it sounds like he's imagining a worse outcome than the loss that actually happened. The idea of a supermegaloss is a difficult concept to grasp, especially when it's easier to imagine the Robertson-Rodon combo being effective, and maybe even fun to watch.

In the event that Ventura's "stuff" includes the imagine of somebody like Conor Gillaspie pitching the 19th ... well, that's also something I'd rather see than Jennings in the 13th. Now I'm even more dissatisfied!


Postscript: Saturday's game reminded me of that weird afternoon against Seatle last July, when Ronald Belisario threw the last three innings and 57 pitches of a 14-inning loss even with Daniel Webb and Andre Rienzo in the bullpen.

The situations are kind of a wash. While Ventura had two pitchers available instead of a third inning of Belisario, all of them were lousy in 2014. Webb and Rienzo could have theoretically pitched seven innings between them without being taxed, but it's easy to imagine either getting rocked in the first inning of work. That's basically in the inverse of Saturday's scenario, so perhaps the through-line is that Ventura becomes nihilistic about his offense's chances as the game wears on.

Speaking of nihilism, their records are also a wash, which is more problematic. That Seattle game was the Sox' 88th of the 2014 season, after which they had a record of 41-47. Saturday's game was their 89th, and they're 42-47 this time around, and in a worse league to boot.