Although they couldn't keep up with Detroit overall in this year's World Series, the San Diego Padres did demonstrate the importance of one key area that seldom gets much recognition: middle-inning relief pitching.
With his starters failing repeatedly - sometimes as early as the first inning - Manager Dick Williams was forced to go to his bullpen quickly in every one of the five games. And the way his middle relievers held the Tigers at bay so their team had a chance to get back into contention put this aspect of the game in a national spotlight it has seldom enjoyed before.
This isn't to say that individual late-inning relief pitchers haven't been headliners in the Fall Classic before. Who could ever forget the October exploits of Joe Page, Tug McGraw, Kent Tekulve, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter? And they are by no means without company, those five simply coming readily to mind.
But Williams by his judicious and frequent use of his middle-inning relievers once the Padres fell behind, turned that phase of the game into a production number - perhaps for the first time in World Series history.
Dick's starters (14.40 ERA in the first inning, 13.94 overall) would have been better off working from bombproof shelters. As things turned out, such ineffectiveness was too much for the Padres to overcome - but they had chances to do so in every game thanks to their middle relievers. Yet most members of San Diego's bullpen coming into this Series were about as well known as the sailor who first dropped anchor in the New World for Christopher Columbus.
What the Detroit-San Diego encounter demonstrated rather dramatically was the tremendous importance middle-inning relievers can have in a short series. That is, the pitcher who takes over for his team's starter early in the game with men already on base and his club trailing by two or three runs.
If the middle reliever does his job, meaning holding the opposition from scoring again until the manager can go to his bullpen stopper in the seventh or eighth inning, his team may still have a chance to win. Against Detroit, Williams got this help repeatedly from a variety of pitchers, including Andy Hawkins, Dave Dravecky, Greg Harris, and Greg Booker.
Harris and Dravecky worked a combined total of 10 innings of World Series relief without giving up a run, while Hawkins allowed only one run during the 12 innings he pitched and got credit for San Diego's lone victory. The only one of the quartet to falter, in fact, was Booker, whose four bases on balls against the Tigers in one inning gave him an ERA of 9.00.
Also highly effective at later stages of several games was left-hander Craig Lefferts, who nailed down Game 2 with three innings of one-hit relief and who held the fort for a while in two other contests for a total of six scoreless innings.
Of course what the trailing manager is hoping for in any situation where he is down by a few runs and has gone to his bullpen, is that eventually his team can cut that deficit to maybe one run by the eighth inning.
Then, if he gets some late-game heroics from one of his power hitters or possibly a pinch-hitter (3-run homers are always nice), he has indeed snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And this happens frequently enough in baseball so that this possibiity should never be taken lightly.
This is assuming, as previously mentioned, that his bullpen ace shuts out the opposition the rest of the way - a not uncommon occurrence, either.
Anyway, the Padres were successful this way several times in the National League playoffs against the Chicago Cubs and made the first part of it work regularly against the Tigers in the World Series.
The problem was that, except in Game 2, Dick's hitters never gave him quite enough runs. Also, there weren't many good spots for Rich Gossage, the fireballer he likes to use to protect a lead late in the game. And when the Goose finally did get in there in a key phase of the decisive Game 5, he had one of his rare bad outings and gave up a pair of home runs.
If the Padres are to repeat as the National League champion in 1985, they are probably going to have to strengthen themselves in at least two places. Williams must somehow come up with a power pitcher like Detroit's Jack Morris, who completed both games he won against the Padres and might have won a third had the Series gone seven games.
Although San Diego is set in center field with Kevin McReynolds (who missed the Series because of a hand injury) and in right with NL batting champion Tony Gwynn, Dick must be doing some serious thinking about the limitations of Carmelo Martinez in left. Martinez, who hit just .176 in the Series and didn't drive in a single run, also showed a lack of range in the field.
Williams must also be wondering how long he can afford to stay with Graig Nettles as his regular third baseman and cleanup hitter. Nettles had some balls skid off his glove in the World Series that would have been routine plays for him just a couple of years ago, and his failure to hit in the clutch is another reason he might now be considered expendable.
Although the second-guessers are saying that Williams didn't juggle his lineup enough and made mistakes by not playing Luis Salazar in center field and by not benching Martinez, the choice of his middle-inning relievers was practically flawless.
Dick also gambled successfully with journeyman Kurt Bevacqua, a man who had only 16 hits all season, as his designated hitter. But as almost any rival general manager will confirm, the Tigers simply had too many offensive and defensive weapons not to make former Cincinnati Reds pilot Sparky Anderson the first manager in baseball history ever to win a world championship in both leagues.