It is a decision they are toasting today in Kansas City and roasting in Anaheim. Call it The Second Guess Heard ‘Round the American League West.
In the eighth inning of Saturday afternoon’s game against the Cleveland Indians, Angel Manager Gene Mauch decided to pull starting pitcher Don Sutton, who was working on a three-hit, 5-0 shutout, and replace him with Donnie Moore.
In Mauch’s mind, it made sense. Sutton had thrown 89 pitches through seven innings, approaching the limit upon which the 40-year-old pitcher and the Angel coaches have agreed. In the bullpen was Fireman of the Year contender Moore, savior of 29 games, complete with two days’ rest.
“It looked like a laugher to me,” Mauch said. “Donnie Moore in the ballgame with a five-run lead. We already had it counted up.”
Well, California Victory No. 87 never made it to the ledger. Neither did the one-game lead in the AL West standings that would have come with it, since Kansas City had lost earlier in the day to Minnesota, 5-3.
The 5-0 Angel lead got swept away in a whirlwind of an eighth inning, with Moore temporarily turning home plate at Cleveland Municipal Stadium into a NASA launching pad. Eight batters faced, five hits, two home runs, five runs.
An inning later, it became untied as another Angel reliever became unglued. Stewart Cliburn’s first pitch to Jerry Willard in the bottom of the ninth wound up in the right-field seats, good for a two-run home run and a 7-5 Indians’ victory.
It was an earthquake of a finish--and for the Angels, the aftershocks could be felt for some time. Teams don’t win division championships by throwing away 5-0 leads against teams one step away from their 100th defeat of 1985. Not with eight games left on your schedule, including four in hostile Kansas City.
Facing a chance to move a game up on the Royals, the Angels, instead of coming in high and tight with the heater, served up a gopher ball.
And courtesy, of all people, Donnie Moore.
“We’d be nowhere without Donnie Moore,” Mauch said.
“He’s been our closer, our stopper all year,” Cliburn said. “It was a Donnie Moore situation all the way.”
Moore wasn’t so sure about that. He said he was surprised to get Mauch’s call in the bullpen, with Sutton having allowed just three singles through seven innings.
“Yeah, I kinda was,” Moore said. “I thought (Sutton) was breezing. I thought he might go all the way.”
Moore said he got the call after the last out in the bottom of the seventh. That gave him a half-inning to warm up.
“I had to get loose a little quick,” Moore said. “But by the time I got in (the game), I was loose. I can’t blame it on that. I had great stuff in the bullpen.”
Moore had a different summation for the stuff he exhibited outside the bullpen.
“I was horsebleep,” he said. “There’s no excuse. You can’t make pitches like that against major league hitters and expect to win. There’s no excuse.”
Moore said he had trouble adjusting from the low mound in the visitors’ bullpen to the standard-sized slope on the playing field. “The one in the bullpen is flat, lower than the other,” Moore said. “I couldn’t get any rhythm. All my pitches came in waist-high.”
But, again, he added: There was no excuse.
“It looked like an easy job,” he said. “A five-run lead? On a normal day, I’d never let that get away. No way. I don’t think I’ve done that this year.”
From the outset, this did not resemble a normal day for Donnie Moore. Already named the Angels’ 1985 most valuable player by a vote of his teammates, Moore surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced in the eighth inning, George Vukovich.
Then, he sandwiched two outs around a single by Carmen Castillo. Tony Bernazard and Julio Franco followed with consecutive singles, pulling Cleveland to within 5-2 and bringing Mauch to the mound for a conference with Moore and catcher Bob Boone.
“He asked me how I felt,” Moore said. “I felt OK. But the next bleeping pitch-- Boom! “
Actual sound effects were provided by Andre Thornton, who drove Moore’s first offering over the left-field fence for a three-run home run and a 5-5 tie.
“I couldn’t have set it on a tee any better for him,” Moore said.
Moore got Mike Hargrove to ground out and finally end the inning, but this one had already begun to slip away from the Angels. It was gone for good an inning later, when Cliburn lost his duel with Willard.
“I feel bad for Stu,” Moore said. “He had to get the loss out of it, when I was the one who stunk. I gave up five runs in one inning.”
He later went over and apologized to Cliburn. “Sorry, man,” Moore told him.
“Don’t worry about it,” Cliburn said. “You’ve done it all year.”
This afternoon, that was little consolation for Moore. He tried to joke about it, looking over at the Spanish-speaking Luis Sanchez and shrugging. “ El gasolino on the fire,” he said. “Whoosh!”
He then tried to forget about it, pouring himself a mug of beer. That didn’t work. The beer was getting warm as Moore mulled over The Awful Eighth. Finally, he took a long pull on the mug and spit the contents onto the floor.
“This was going to put us a game up,” Moore said. “But you can’t assume anything. Not until you get that 27th out.”
Moore assumed there would be second-guessing over Mauch’s strategy. “That’s why people buy newspapers, that’s why they buy tickets to games,” he said.
“I don’t know. I just work here. I just didn’t make the right pitches.”
This was a hard one to accept. “But,” Moore said, “I’m not going to die over it. We’re low right now, but that’s natural. If you’re not low after a game like this, you have no character.”
Whatever character the Angels have most certainly will be tested after a game like this.