Oates' unorthodox gamble works and fails

INSIDE PITCH

July 16, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

At the very least, the strategy was unorthodox for such an early stage in the game. The fourth inning is not normally the time to take the risk, and even in the sixth, an intentional walk often takes on the appearance of a crap shoot.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates took the plunge in both situations two nights ago and broke even, which is about as good as the odds allow. At neither time could the conditions be considered normal -- because of the pitchers involved.

In a tie game, even a scoreless one, it is uncommon to put another runner on base with a man on third and one out in the fourth inning. If the home team were batting in the last inning, in almost any instance it would be routine to put two runners on to load the bases.

But in the fourth, the most common strategy is to make sure the damage is restricted to no more than one run. Pitch around a hitter if you have to, but give him a chance to get himself out on a bad pitch.

However, Thursday night in California, it wasn't difficult to read Oates' mind. The last time he'd watched Ben McDonald duel Mark Langston, his club finished on the short end of a 1-0 score.

Based on the first three innings, it was easy to envision a repeat. Langston and McDonald were on top of their games, and runs figured to be as scarce as they had been the last time they met.

Two left-handers, switch-hitting Chili Davis and Jim Edmonds, were scheduled to face McDonald. The path of least resistance, the one most likely to enable the Orioles to escape the inning without allowing a run, was to avoid both left-handers, a theory supported by subsequent events.

But such strategy would also improve the chances of the Angels' scoring more than the one run the Orioles were trying to avoid. So the decision became academic -- set up a possible double play by walking one of the left-handed hitters (Davis) and pitching to the other.

McDonald escaped the threat by making great pitches to strike out Edmonds -- perhaps the most important at-bat he faced all night -- and retire Damion Easley routinely. The strategy didn't work as impeccably two innings later, but with a man on third, two outs and the game still scoreless, it was almost a no-brainer to walk Davis. And had it not worked the first time, chances are strong that a different pitcher would have entered the equation.

That time, McDonald didn't get the pitch close enough to Edmonds, and his single produced the game's first run. It was a case of the strategy working in the toughest, and probably more important of the two situations, and failing when the odds were more in the Orioles' favor.

Like the sacrifice bunt, the intentional walk giveth and taketh away. The trick is to keep the ledger balanced in your favor.

It worked that way for the Orioles in this instance because they stayed away from a multiple-run inning, which resulted in a 3-2 win.

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