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The Diamondbacks were in a Catch-22 in the NL Wild Card game

Pitching Robbie Ray may have won them the game, but at what cost?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday, showing again why they were the team with the best record in the Major Leagues this season. The Dodgers were just purely better than the Diamondbacks, and they handled them as such.

Arizona, though, wasn’t completely overmatched by the Dodgers — or at least they shouldn’t have been. They still won 93 games in the regular season, winning more games than the NL Central-champion Cubs and as many games as the AL East-champion Red Sox. They were a good team.

Unfortunately for them, the postseason structure gifted them with the first Wild Card spot, meaning that they’d have to play in a one-game playoff against the Colorado Rockies before even getting a chance to set foot in the Chavez Ravine.

The setup

Zack Greinke was pitching well. The Diamondbacks entered the top of the fourth inning with a commanding 6-0 lead. Some questioned whether Arizona should pull Greinke in the interest of saving him for earlier in the NLDS. And that’s when it all went downhill.

A couple of singles, some groundouts and one double made the NL Wild Card Game an actual game. Before we — the spectators — could blink, the Rockies had all but erased the 6-0 deficit, and at 6-4, it seemed as if Greinke, who was pitching so very well just the inning prior, wasn’t going to have an effective outing.

It’s important to remember, too, that this was an elimination game. Diamondbacks’ manager Torey Lovullo had to manage as if this game was the last game of the season because it very well could have been. That idea of no tomorrows, then, led to the pulling of Greinke with this two-run lead.

The conundrum

After Andrew Chafin got the final out of the fourth inning, the Diamondbacks’ bats immediately went silent. Rockies long man Chris Rusin entered the game in the bottom of the inning, and went on to throw 2 13 scoreless innings with three strikeouts. This gave Torey Lovullo a tough choice as the fifth inning began.

In my mind, Lovullo had two options: pitch left-handed, stud starting pitcher Robbie Ray; or go to a true relief guy like Archie Bradley (a personal favorite of mine, as I’ve covered both here and here) from the get-go.

Ray might have been the safer of the two. He’s a starter with huge strikeout potential that could quiet the bats of the Rockies as soon as possible. Robbie Ray is a better pitcher than Archie Bradley, hands down. And, if this was Game 7 of the World Series, I would have loved the move to go to Ray.

But Lovullo also had to be thinking about future consequences. At this point in the game, the Diamondbacks still had a 74.2 percent chance to win, per FanGraphs, meaning that they might have been able to get away with saving Ray for a more dire situation.

That’s why I would have preferred going to Bradley, a pitcher that still might be able to throw two or three innings — something he had done on occasion during the regular season — and with potentially as much effectiveness as Ray.

In the absolute best case scenario, Arizona turns to Bradley, who gives them a solid three innings and takes them through the seventh, giving them the opportunity to turn to shaky-but-decent back-end relief options like David Hernandez and Fernando Rodney. Even in a situation where Bradley can only go two, Arizona could have still turned to Jorge De La Rosa or another similar arm.

And, if Bradley runs into trouble, Lovullo could have had Ray waiting in the wings. The team still had a two-run lead in the fifth inning, giving them a multitude of opportunities to add insurance if needed in the event that Bradley gave up one or two runs. If the score had grown in the Diamondbacks’ favor, the game would have become easier to manage, and it would have saved Ray.

In the moment, too, I didn’t like what Lovullo decided to do.

The result

In the end, Lovullo pitched Ray, who gave them 2 13 innings of good pitching, allowing just one run in the seventh inning.

As for Bradley, he entered the game in the same seventh inning, and immediately hit a two-run triple in the bottom of the inning. I’ll admit, pitching Bradley earlier in the game would have likely prevented us from seeing such an epic play. More importantly, though, Bradley allowed two home runs in the eighth inning that kept the game close. So perhaps he did not have his full effectiveness that night.

However, it’s impossible to write that off so quickly. First off, Bradley was gassed. He had just hit a two-run triple, something no any other relief pitcher in postseason history had ever done. There’s no way that this event could have left Bradley’s pitching unaffected, so it is still possible that he could have given the Diamondbacks some scoreless innings if used earlier in the game.

Hypotheticals aside, what ultimately happened was this: the Diamondbacks won their game, 11-8, and moved on to play the Dodgers in the NLDS.

But, as I predicted, this decision may have ultimately resulted in Arizona’s demise. Having burned both Greinke and Ray in the Wild Card game, they turned to Taijuan Walker to start Game 1 of the NLDS, who gave up four runs in one inning of work. This put them in an 0-1 hole, something that may have been able to be avoided had Ray pitched, considering his historic success against the Dodgers (2.27 ERA, 52 strikeouts in 31 23 innings pitched) this season.

Ray did come back to pitch Game 2; this was just three days after his 34-pitch outing against Colorado.

One follower suggested to me on Twitter that Ray’s outing against Colorado could be compared to a midweek side session, to which I replied:

Ray looked off in Game 2. He threw 88 pitches and just 54 for strikes in what would have been tied for his fourth-shortest outing of the year, at just 4 13 innings pitched. He allowed four hits and walked four more. The damage had been done; Ray had given up four runs, surrendering the Diamondbacks’ early 2-0 lead.

While it’s impossible to truly know that his performance was a direct result of throwing in the Wild Card game, it certainly could be a factor.

The Dodgers went on to win Game 2, 8-5 and cleaned things up in Phoenix on Monday.

Had Robbie Ray not pitched in the Wild Card game, the Diamondbacks might have lost. But, in reality, all the Diamondbacks really did was delay their losing for another three games. Could this have been avoided? We’ll never know.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.