Because there is no further opportunity to come back if a team is losing at the close of the 9th inning, that is potentially the most important inning to be pitched. Therefore a team must save its best relief pitcher for that inning.
Of course the biggest flaw in that theory is that the 9th is only POTENTIALLY the most important inning to be pitched. Based on situation, opponents line-up, and other considerations, it is often the case that another inning holds the most important situation in a given game. Simple example - 1 out in the 8th, up 2, with the bases loaded and the 3-4 hitters coming up; is far more important than the likely scenario to be faced in the 9th (up 2, 5-6-7 hitters due up) if the 8th inning pitcher is successful. But because the potential is always there the default for the last 20+ years is to save that pitcher. What ends up happening then is teams will lose games before they get a chance to save them.
Last night Fredi Gonzalez used Chad Durbin (career relief ERA of 4.14), Luis Avilan (a rookie with 15 games under his belt), and Cristhian Martinez (ERA entering game of 4.10, just gave up 3 runs in his last appearance) instead of Craig Kimbrel (ERA 1.20 - arguably the best relief pitcher in the game) in order to get the game to Kimbrel. It never got there.
Some may try to convince you it was the right move because the Braves pitchers kept the Nats scoreless over most of that time. That's crap. Running up the gut on 4th and 15 is not the right move. Taking a 50 footer with 10 seconds left on the clock is not the right move. Pulling the goalie with two minutes left and a face-off on your side of the ice is not the right move. They might all work, but it wasn't by design, it was by luck. Results can't make bad choices into good ones, they can only make bad choices into irrelevant ones. Fredi walked a tighrope for 4+ innings asking to get burned and eventually he was.
Contrast that with Davey who used Clippard, although reluctantly, during last nights game. It wasn't the best use of Clippard, to face Janish, a PH, and Bourn, I can think of several better places to have used him, but at least Davey realized he should be used. It's the difference between a winning manager and a losing one, and thus a winning team and a losing one.
You'll probably hear this argument for years to come. The closer has been given a special place in the fans psyche and thus the manager's one, too. But eventually someone will change it and be successful and others will follow. They'll realize that guys like H-Rod don't fail at closing because of the pressure. Relievers face pressure all the time. They fail at closing because they aren't very good. Let Fredi never realize this.
A quick shot of praise for the Nats relievers here - not the prettiest relief effort to start, but effective.
Paul Maholm has been very good for the Braves. But like I mentioned yesterday, the Braves haven't played anyone so his good start vs the Astros and shutdowns of the Mets and Padres aren't necessarily worrying. What could be is Maholm's general pitching skill. In the last two years Maholm has put things together. His walks are trending down, the strikeouts up, and when combined with a tendency to give up GBs and not HRs he has become a decidedly effective pitcher. He's not really any better than Edwin Jackson, or Ross Detwiler, but he's not any worse either. He's an effective #3 on most teams. His biggest weakness this season is probably a tendency to still get wild here and there.
Maholm has not faced the Nats this year.
Hey it's Mr. Shutdown himself! Strasburg has been very unhittable recently (8 hits in his last 18 innings), but also very wild (4 walks a piece in his last two games). The wildness would be a problem but his K's are still up and he's seemingly over a little problem he had with the long ball in July. So the end result is those guys get on and go nowhere and Strasburg has a very good game. Strasburg, though, is usually dominant because he does everything well and eventually you'd expect those walks to return to a more normal level for him and the dominance to return.
Strasburg has faced the Braves 4 times this year and has been underwhelming. The Braves work him hard; Game 1 features 6 hits, 4 walks, and 95 pitches through 5 innings. Game 3 - 2 hits, 4 walks, 67 pitches, through 3 innings (the "heat" game). Game 4 - 8 hits, 3 walks and 103 pitches through 5 1/3. The Braves never were able to finish Strasburg off but you can't be enthused by these results. If you are looking for a silver lining, Strasburg at his best will dominate anyone. In Game 2 he gave up 4 hits, no walks, and struck out 9 in 7 innings and at 90 pitches he could have easily gone another inning but he had to get PH for. It was arguably his best game of the year.
The Braves are the NLs most patient team and against a Strasburg that has been wild and a pen that was taxed to its near limit, that's a dangerous combination. Still the Braves haven't been able to ever put Strasburg away so why should tonight be any different? A short outing for Strasburg, 5 innings or so, and not very effective, 3-4 runs, but he leaves the Nats in the game. Maholm on the other hand pitches like Hudson and gets results like a post first inning Hudson keeping the Nats down through 7 and the Braves with a slight lead going into the final few innings. It looks like it'll be heading to a Kimbrel save situation but down by a couple, Davey chooses to
Game Guess #1 Self-Grade : B+. I nailed the Hudson/Nats side of the equation, and also totally called Fredi not using his best pitchers, though for a different reason. Didn't see ZNN being as ineffective as he was though.