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Article updated: 7/21/2012 9:11 PM

How La Russa's brilliance led to bullpen madness

Tigers ace Justin Verlander paces himself so that he’s at his very best in the later innings.

Tigers ace Justin Verlander paces himself so that he's at his very best in the later innings.

 

Associated Press

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By Matt Spiegel

The modern bullpen enrages me.

Tony La Russa was brilliant, but he set a template for utilizing a bullpen that has done more harm than good.

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His late 1980s Oakland Athletics had one of the greatest closers ever in Dennis Eckersley. La Russa and Dave Duncan assembled a four-headed monster to get to Eckersley for the all-powerful ninth-inning save.

Thanks for that havoc-wreaking stat, Jerome Holtzman.

Lefty Greg Cadaret and right-hander Eric Plunk were Oakland's sixth and/or seventh-inning guys. In the eighth, La Russa would go to lefty Rick Honeycutt and/or right-hander Gene Nelson. Then Eck would get a nice, clean slate to start the final inning.

This specific, specialized plan worked for Tony. But every team in baseball slowly tried to match it, and bad trends developed.

Most rosters don't have the personnel to pull this off. The best four arms on a given team will be the top three starters and the closer. The fifth, sixth and seventh best arms probably will comprise the final two starters, and the main setup man.

So when the game reaches, say, the seventh inning, and it's time for a manager to go to his setup for the setup man, fans get to see no better than the eighth-best pitcher on the staff handed the ball for what often is a crucial situation.

Bringing in a relief pitcher simply because it's his time, because it's his job, is a move fraught with danger. More pitchers equals higher risk.

Take Thursday night in Boston for example. Robin Ventura should have either:

a) let lefty starter Jose Quintana face the lefty batters he feared in the Red Sox ninth inning or;

b) brought in closer Addison Reed to start the ninth inning nice and clean.

Bringing in Matt Thornton, simply because his job description says "late-inning lefty reliever," was a needless extra arm to throw into the mix.

For the record, I said this at the time, in the moment, via Twitter at @mattspiegel670. Twitter can be a manager's PR nightmare; all the first guessers are on record.

The more pitching changes you make, the higher the probability that one of them will simply not have it on a given night.

Go ahead and stretch that starter out, and then use your closer for the biggest moment, regardless of which late inning that means.

Big series:

This Tigers-White Sox series is as big as July baseball could possibly be. On Friday night, the ace of aces did what we've now come to expect.

I've long referred to Justin Verlander as this generation's Nolan Ryan. He has that indefatigable arm (6 innings or more in 62 straight starts), a vicious curveball, and is a threat to a throw a no-hitter every time out.

Verlander broke Gordon Beckham's bat, on a check swing, with a 100 mph fastball. This was on his 115th pitch of the game!

The man is able to access an extra gear whenever he needs it. He paces himself, hitting 93 or 94 with his fastest heater in the early innings, preserving power for later moments.

He reminds me of my favorite running back in football history, Earl Campbell. In Campbell's legendary MNF performance against the Dolphins in 1978, Campbell already had been terrific by the fourth quarter, with more than a 100 yards on 27 carries.

The Houston Oilers had run Campbell nine times in 13 plays before giving him the ball for his 28th carry. He reeled off an 82-yard touchdown run. It was breathtaking; impossibly athletic and blindingly fast for that late in a game.

That's what Verlander does, what so many of the great ones across sports do. When they should be exhausted, holding on for dear life, they're at their very best.

It appears the Tigers' slow start is officially over, and the White Sox are in for a major battle.

•Matt Spiegel co-hosts "The McNeil & Spiegel Show" 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday on WSCR 670-AM, and The Score's "Hit and Run" at 9 a.m. Sundays with his Daily Herald colleague, Barry Rozner. Follow him on Twitter @mattspiegel670. Matt thinks a runner trying to score from first on a double into the gap is the most exciting play in baseball.

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