A little over a week after Ron Gardenhire made the controversial decision to pull Kevin Slowey in the midst of a no-hitter, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington was faced with a similar dilemma. Rich Harden had held the Twins hitless through 6 2/3 innings, but he was coming off of a DL stint and had already thrown 111 pitches. Harden was dealing, though he did appear to labor a bit: walking five batters while striking out six.* He had just walked Michael Cuddyer, and the ever-dangerous Jim Thome was coming to the plate. In the end, Washington opted to pull his starter rather than risk further injury or losing the lead. The Rangers’ bullpen shut down the Twins the rest of the way, save for a single by Joe Mauer (breaking up your no-hitters: he does that), and Texas has now all but sewn up its first postseason berth in eleven years. More importantly, they trail the Twins for the second-best record of all the division leaders by just a game and a half, and that could determine whether they face the Yankees at Yankee Stadium or the Rays in Arlington in the ALDS. (Continue reading after the jump)
*It would be nice to dissect both Harden and Nick Blackburn’s performances, but apparently pitch f/x wasn’t working in Arlington last night. Blackburn had a pretty good outing, but it looked like Jim Joyce had a pretty wide strike zone. Given how awful Blackburn has been this season, it would be good to know if he is really back.
I really hope Washington’s decision to pull Harden erases any lingering doubt that Gardy did the right thing in pulling Slowey (although, if Slowey’s recent trip to the DL hasn’t done that, I suspect nothing will). The Texas Rangers are not an organization that believes in pitch counts and Washington himself said that, if Harden weren’t coming off an arm injury, he would have been left in the game. Team president and part-owner Nolan Ryan, who is notoriously critical of pitch counts and has worked to eliminate them in his organization, was supportive of his manager’s decision:
“Ron didn’t have a choice but to go out and take him out. You have to protect the player and look at what’s best for the overall team. Ron did what he had to do, and I knew obviously it wasn’t going to be a fan pleaser, but that’s what you have to do. Ron did the right thing, and Rich knew that.”
While there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that limiting a pitcher to about 100 pitches per start actually helps prevent injury in the long run, it probably isn’t wise to let a pitcher experiencing arm problems throw more than 110 pitches in an outing. Rich Harden has a long history of health issues, and this season is certainly no exception. He was out for six weeks after straining a back muscle earlier in the season, and was just coming off another DL stint, this time for shoulder inflammation. Heck, like Slowey, Harden himself understood that he needed to come out of the game:
“You could tell in the fifth inning. I just wanted to go out there and go as deep into the game as I could. I thought about it, but I knew my pitch count was up unless I started getting five-, six-pitch innings.”
Of course, the two situations are a little different. The Rangers have more pitching depth than the Twins, and Harden is only signed to a one-year deal. They certainly don’t have to bring him back, and if he gets hurt again, they could just call up Derek Holland. Though, with Scott Feldman on the DL, a healthy and effective Harden might mean the difference between getting swept out of the ALDS and clinching their first postseason series in franchise history, losing him to injury won’t hurt the Rangers in the long-term. Kevin Slowey, on the other hand, is only 26 years old and under team control until 2014. With Carl Pavano likely leaving as a free agent after this season, the rotation is about to get a lot thinner in the near future. It doesn’t make sense to risk permanent injury to a cheap, productive (Fangraphs pegs him at 2+ WAR in each of his three major league seasons) starter just so he could pursue a moment of personal glory, and it’s a good thing Gardy recognized that.