Anyone watching the game knew this was the key moment. On a night when the Rockies were struggling to get anything going offensively in San Francisco, a place where they historically sputter at the plate, this was an opportunity to scrape together a run or two.
Trailing 3-1 in the top of the fifth inning, Colorado had runners on first and third with two outs. Chris Iannetta and Mark Reynolds had drawn walks, putting rare traffic on the bases against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, who had surrendered just one run off of one hit – a solo home run by Ian Desmond – up until that point.
It was the type of night where a two-run deficit felt almost insurmountable; that’s how stymied the Rockies had been at the plate. So the chance to manufacture a run to get within one was huge.
The bottom of the order was due up, however. Garrett Hampson had just grounded into a fielder’s choice, bringing Chi Chi Gonzalez to the plate. Colorado’s starting pitcher was 0-for-1 on the night, having struck on out three pitches in the third inning.
As much as Bud Black might not have wanted to go to his bullpen in the fifth inning, he didn’t have much of a choice. His team had a chance to put some runs on the board, on a night when it was obvious that they were going to be hard to come by, and he had a pitcher with one career at-bat coming to the plate to face one of the game’s best hurlers.
It was time to go to the bench to find a better stick. A pinch hitter was the only logical call.
Yet, that’s not what Black did. Instead, he let Gonzalez hit, sending him to the plate to helplessly try to keep the inning going. Three pitches later, Gonzalez was out again, having flailed at strike three.
Inning over. Rally snuffed. And for all intents and purposes, goodnight from San Francisco.
In the blink of an eye, the Rockies opportunity to get back in the game was over. And it begged one question: What on earth was Bud Black thinking?
It was an inexcusable decision. But no one said a word, at least not on social media.
The press who cover the team on a daily basis weren’t questioning the move. Fans weren’t outraged by the choice to let Gonzalez swing away. Even the trolls didn’t bother mocking the move.
Perhaps everyone was asleep, not bothering to stay up to watch a late start on the West Coast.
It certainly felt like Black was snoozing in the dugout. That’d be about the only explanation for completely whiffing at the game’s decisive moment.
Most criticism of Black is met with the same chorus of excuses. When his bullpen blows another lead late in a game, his defenders will ask, “How many pitches did Buddy throw tonight?” And when his watered-down Sunday lineup fails to produce much offense, they’ll simply state, “Bud can’t swing the bat for them.”
Of course, both of those points are accurate. The manager can only do so much. Yes, he’s in uniform, but he’s not actually playing the game.
But that also completely dismisses Black from any responsibility for what’s happening on the field. If the skipper has that little impact on what’s transpiring, why is he even there?
The Rockies pay him $1.5 million per season to do something, right? Surely, he’s good for more than simply filling out a lineup card and deciding when to ask for a replay review of a blown call.
Every game, there are a few critical moments when the right decision has to be made. Momentum hangs in the balance, teetering on going either direction, based on what button the manager pushes.
That’s why he has to have a feel for the game. He has to have a sense for how things are going, so he can make judgment calls in real time.
Far too often, however, Black simply goes by the book. He manages like a robot, doing whatever the percentages dictate or history suggest.
That’s what happened again last night. He wanted to get one more inning out of Gonzalez on the mound, despite the fact that the pitcher had surrendered a pair of runs in the fourth and was getting hit hard most of the night, so he squandered an opportunity to generate some offense.
The right decision was to send anyone to the plate other than Gonzalez. Admittedly, Black’s options were limited, with Pat Valaika and his .050 batting average the only right-handed bat available. But the light-hitting infielder was a better option than a pitcher making his second career plate appearance. So were Daniel Murphy, Raimel Tapia or Tony Wolters, even as good as Bumgarner is against left-handed hitters.
Instead, Black saved Tapia for two innings later, when he pinch-hit for Carlos Estevez with two outs and nobody on base. The outfielder grounded out in what amounted to a completely wasted at-bat. Meanwhile, Estevez was replaced after one perfect inning by Bryan Shaw, who surrendered a home run on his third pitch in the bottom of the seventh.
Just like clockwork.
Last night, the Rockies manager once again was painting by numbers. He didn’t make decisions based on the situation. He didn’t have a gut feeling and go with it. He simply followed the book, spitting out emotionless decisions with all the aplomb of an IBM computer.
If Colorado is going to scratch and claw their way to a third-straight playoff appearance this year, they’re going to need more from their manager. Bud Black has to steal them a game or two along the way with some savvy decisions.
At the very least, he has to make up for the one he gave away in San Francisco on a sleepy Tuesday night in late June.