You know, Dusty Baker is probably one of the most famous baseball people of the past 25 years. After an excellent playing career, he managed the San Francisco Giants in 1993 and has been a constant presence in our baseball lives ever since. He has managed four different clubs to the postseason and is 14th on the all-time wins list. He owns a higher win percentage than Bruce Bochy, Lou Piniella, Tommy Lasorda, Buck Showalter, Jim Leyland and Dick Williams.
Who has been more famous? Think of all that time we’ve spent discussing, debating, critiquing and digesting Dusty’s moves. This is the ninth time he has been on our TV screens in October, chewing on the ever-present toothpick or trudging out to the mound to make a pitching change that probably won’t work — even if it’s the right move.
Dusty has to be in the top 10, right? He’s famous enough that we usually refer to him as “Dusty” — not by his last name. At 68, he’s still a focal point of the baseball scene, still wearing those wristbands with his caricature on them.
I was thinking of all this as Tuesday’s game was rained out. It seemed like a fortunate set of circumstances for the Washington Nationals. It would mean Stephen Strasburg could start Wednesday on regular rest, and Gio Gonzalez could then start Game 5. The Nats need to win two games, so the rainout meant substituting a Gonzalez start for a Tanner Roark start, a guy with a 2.96 ERA instead of one with a 4.67 ERA.
Instead, news broke that Strasburg couldn’t pitch because he had thrown a bullpen session earlier in the day in anticipation of a Thursday start. That’s what Baker said at first. Then everyone backtracked, and no, Strasburg had thrown his session on Monday, but he wasn’t feeling well. Baker said Strasburg was “under the weather” and added that “It’s just that time of year for mold around Chicago. I think it’s mold. I mean, I have it, too.”
Yes, this is the guy who once infamously quipped that big, slow sluggers who take walks just “clog up the bases.” That’s the thing about Dusty: The man has won a lot of baseball games and yet has often — and often unfairly — been a punching bag along the way. Of course, some of that is because Baker hasn’t won the big one, which is why Chicago mold sounds like another case of that bad October karma that always pops up around Baker’s teams. Witness:
1997: Baker’s Giants get swept in the Division Series by the Marlins. The first two games are both walk-off wins by the Marlins in the bottom of the ninth. Barry Bonds bats .250/.231/.417 in the series.
2000: In the Division Series against the Mets, the Giants tie Game 2 with three runs in the bottom of the ninth, but the Mets win it in the 10th. The Mets then win Game 3 on Benny Agbayani’s walk-off home run in the 13th (after Robb Nen blows a save in the eighth). Bonds goes 3-for-17 with one RBI.
2002: Bonds finally has a monster postseason, and the Giants lead Game 6 of the World Series 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh, nine outs from clinching. Baker removes Russ Ortiz at the right time but then sees his bullpen implode, and the Angels come back to win 6-5. The Angels take Game 7.
2003: The Cubs are five outs from reaching their first World Series since 1945 and … well, you know what happened, something about a fan interfering with a foul ball and an error and some other bad stuff. The Cubs also lead 5-3 in Game 7 entering the fifth inning, but Kerry Wood is left in to give up seven runs. Who is left in to give up seven runs in a do-or-die game?
2010: Baker’s Reds get no-hit by Roy Halladay. Three and out.
2012: Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto gets injured in the first inning of Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants. The Reds still take the first two games on the road. They then lose three straight at home.
In Game 5, it’s 0-0 in the fifth. Normally sure-handed Zack Cozart makes a crucial error, and Dusty leaves Mat Latos in too long, as Buster Posey hits a grand slam for a 6-0 lead. It’s 6-3 in the sixth when the Reds have two runners on with no outs, but a curious hit-and-run play turns into a double play as Ryan Hanigan strikes out and Jay Bruce is out stealing at third.
2013: The Reds lose the wild-card game to the Pirates as Cueto gives up four runs in 3 frac13; innings.
2016: The Nationals lose in five games to the Dodgers, with all their losses coming by one run. The top of the seventh of Game 5 is the most painful: Baker churns through six pitchers as the Dodgers score four runs.
2017: Baker removes Max Scherzer with a 1-0 lead in Game 3 of the NLDS, but the bullpen gets beaten on a soft line and a blooper.
Is there something going on here? Baker’s teams are now 5-13 in one-run games in the postseason. Is he a reason for that? I tweeted something on Tuesday that almost every manager so far is managing the postseason with his pants on fire, while Baker is managing like it’s a series against the Padres in the middle of June.
Baker’s moves in Game 3 weren’t necessarily bad ones — Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez were good options in those situations, and there was some bad luck on the two hits — but were they the best options, with Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, his two best relievers, available?
That seems to be Baker’s October fate. Leave Latos in too long, and he gets burned. Pull Scherzer too early, and he gets burned. Breathe in too much mold, and your hottest pitcher gets sick.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in Game 4. But, man, it’s about time Dusty Baker has a little good luck.