The fourth game of the 1992 American League Championship Series was tied, 6-6, when Oakland designated hitter Harold Baines led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a single.
Up stepped Athletics slugger Mark McGwire, who had bashed 42 homers that season. Off went pinch-runner Eric Fox, who stole second on Toronto reliever Duane Ward’s first pitch, putting the winning run in scoring position with no outs.
Ward, a right-hander, featured a nasty slider that broke down and away from right-handed hitters. Oakland Manager Tony La Russa did not like McGwire’s chances of hitting a grounder to the right side to advance Fox.
So what did La Russa do?
“I gave McGwire the . . . bunt sign,” La Russa said, chuckling at the 23-year-old memory.
McGwire, who hit 583 homers and had all of three sacrifice bunts in his 16-year career, shot third-base coach Rene Lachemann a peculiar look.
“He was like, ‘Give me that again?’” said LaRussa, now the chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Then, he looked in the dugout.”
McGwire then dropped a perfect bunt to advance the runner to third. Fox was thrown out at the plate on Terry Steinbach’s ensuing grounder to second, the A’s lost in 11 innings and went on to lose the series to the eventual World Series-champion Blue Jays.
But La Russa’s unorthodox strategy was a perfect example of how managing in postseason games is drastically different than in regular-season games.
Former Arizona Manager Bob Brenly would never have brought Randy Johnson back in relief one night after the 6-foot-10 left-hander threw seven innings and 104 pitches of a regular-season game.
But Brenly didn’t hesitate extending Johnson in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Johnson’s 1 1/3 innings of relief — one night after he went seven innings to win Game 6 — helped the Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees, 3-2, for their only title.
San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy would never summon ace Madison Bumgarner for five innings of relief just three days after the left-hander threw a 117-pitch complete game in the regular season.
But there was Bumgarner, three days after his four-hit shutout in Game 5 of the World Series last October, back on mound in Game 7, serving as long reliever, setup man and closer during a 68-pitch stint that helped the Giants beat Kansas City, 3-2, for their third championship in five years.
And New York Mets Manager Terry Collins would never ask prized 23-year-old starter Noah Syndergaard to warm up not once, twice or three times, but four times in a game from April through September.
The Mets went on to sweep the NL Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs and will open the World Series on Tuesday night at Kansas City.
“There are only so many playoff games, and it’s so valuable to put a win in your pocket that you’re going to resort to some tactics that probably don’t apply to the regular season,” Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said.
“You have to be bold enough to think outside the box, to take that leap of faith. And A, your guys have to be ready; B, they have to be capable of pulling it off, and C, it has to work out.”
The Giants were D — all of the above — during their five-year, three-title run, thanks in large part to Bochy, whose October body of work established him as one of the game’s best managers.
Not wanting any part of a winner-take-all Game 7 at Philadelphia in the 2010 NLCS, Bochy used three-quarters of his playoff rotation — Jonathan Sanchez, Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum — to win Game 6.
He got Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, to buy into a bullpen role in 2012, and the right-hander provided 13 superb relief innings, allowing one run.
And he rode Bumgarner long and hard last October — the left-hander threw 52 2/3 innings, 33% of the team’s 160 postseason total — but not too long or hard.
“I wouldn’t sacrifice a guy’s future or put a guy at risk — if I had concerns about Madison, I wouldn’t have done it,” Bochy said. “He was strong throughout the postseason. His delivery was locked in, and he was throwing free and easy. Once he got in a groove, I thought, ‘This guy could finish the deal,’ and he certainly did.”
Bochy has instilled an all-hands-on-deck playoff mentality that has served the Giants well. In that 2010 NLCS clincher, he told left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, who normally pitched the seventh or eighth, to be ready much earlier.
Sure enough, Affeldt replaced the struggling Sanchez with two on and no outs in the third and retired three batters to escape the jam. Affeldt replaced struggling starter Tim Hudson in the second inning of last year’s World Series clincher and threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
“The margin for error is not there, and a series can swing on one game, so you do all you can to win every game,” Bochy said. “Your leash on the starter is shorter. You have more pitchers available. You’re going to go with your gut on certain players against certain pitchers. You may choose defense over offense.”
Pitchers are often asked to adjust to new or expanded roles. Mets starter Bartolo Colon made eight relief appearances in 18 years, but he got a huge out in the sixth inning of the NLCS clincher against the Cubs, replacing Steven Matz with two on and two outs and striking out Kris Bryant to preserve a 6-1 lead.
“It’s all about the game, the inning, the at-bat, so you’ll do things like Terry [Collins] did the other day, when he took out Matz and brought in Colon,” La Russa said. “You wouldn’t do that in the regular season because the starter needs to build confidence, you need to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Egos must be pushed aside in October. Former Cardinals pitcher Jeff Weaver had a two-hit shutout through five innings in the second game of the 2006 NLDS, but La Russa, knowing Weaver struggled the third time through the order, pulled the veteran right-hander.
Three unheralded relievers — Randy Flores, Josh Kinney and Tyler Johnson — and then-rookie Adam Wainwright combined for four scoreless innings to complete a 2-0 win over San Diego.
“If the kid relievers give up the lead, [stuff] would have been flying, ‘What the hell are you thinking, Tony?’” said La Russa, who managed the Cardinals to the 2006 and 2011 World Series titles. “In a perfect world, you would treat a postseason game like a regular-season game. In the real world, you can’t.”
Those who do are often doomed. Then-Washington Manager Matt Williams was heavily criticized for choosing orthodoxy over urgency in the Nationals’ 3-2 division series-clinching loss to San Francisco last season.
With the score tied after six innings, Williams turned to veteran left-hander Matt Thornton and rookie right-hander Aaron Barrett “because those are our seventh-inning guys.”
Thornton gave up one-out singles to Joe Panik and Buster Posey. A shaky and nervous Barrett walked Hunter Pence to load the bases and spiked a breaking ball for a wild pitch that allowed the Giants to score the winning run while two better relievers — Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen — and starter Stephen Strasburg sat in the bullpen.
Mike Scioscia pushed the right buttons while leading the Angels to the 2002 championship. But in Game 2 of last year’s ALDS, with the score tied, 1-1, in the eighth, he refused to ask Chris Iannetta to bunt with a runner on second and no outs because the Angels catcher hadn’t bunted all season.
Iannetta flied to center, and Collin Cowgill was thrown out trying to advance to third. The Angels lost in 11 innings and were swept by the Royals.
Surely, if McGwire could drop a bunt in 1992, couldn’t Iannetta, who has 483 fewer homers than McGwire, do the same?
“You have to play each game with that 100% urgency,” La Russa said. “But it’s fun not having to weigh the long-term of the regular season against the short-term of the playoffs. It’s all about the moment. That urgency is what makes it exciting and really crystallizes your decision-making.”