The Dusty trail ends in Cincinnati

Lifting Cueto too late Tuesday helped seal Baker's fate . . .

Lifting Cueto too late Tuesday helped seal Baker’s fate . . .

The Cincinnati Reds have thrown out the first manager of the 2013 postseason. Three days after his Reds suffered a humiliating loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild card game, Dusty Baker’s tenure ended with his head on the proverbial plate.

And, with his resume showing a man who’s managed and won the most games without winning a World Series since the late Gene Mauch.

It may seem at first a little bizarre to pink a manager who’s won 90+ games three out of the past four seasons and taken his team to the postseason three out of the past four. But it may also seem to many—Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated phrased it just this way—that Tuesday night’s humiliation hoisted up in plain sight that Baker had finally run out of chances with a team that may have needed a new voice.

After the final out Tuesday night, I wrote in these pages, “And the second guessing of Baker’s don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff managing style begins all over again. Is he just too much a players’ manager to have his team appropriately inflamed for the big ones? Has he still not yet figured out how to manipulate his pitching staff when one big gun is wounded and the one he’s compelled to start instead is rusted after a long enough disablement? Has he lost his ability to motivate as he’s heightened his ability to accommodate?”

Apparently, the Reds answered “yes” to all those questions, in one or another way.

Baker never made quite the kind of mistakes Mauch made in his heyday. He never panicked heavily enough to think about starting but two pitchers on two or three days’ rest each in a desperation bid to sew up a title he had in the bank by six games with barely a fortnight to go. He never hung players with the no-heart tag because they were injures or caused players to fear reporting injuries.

And, unlike Mauch, Baker wasn’t the type to let his temper get the better of him, not even when he had to play babysitter to feuding Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent (and a lot of other people) in San Francisco. His door wasn’t just open to his players, it just about didn’t exist. Bonds might turn the Giants clubhouse into an eggshell-carpeted psychic nightmare, but Baker wouldn’t be caught dead turning over the postgame food spread over the slightest or the toughest loss, in the heat of a pennant race or otherwise.

In fact, it’s possible that one of Baker’s wounding flaws is that he doesn’t panic. Or, at least, that he didn’t know how to turn his mind on a dime and respond appropriately when crunch time is now, it’s time to play for serious stakes, and no matter what there come times when you’ve got to switch your guys and your plans:

* Baker had his Giants five outs from putting the 2002 World Series into their pockets when he decided to lift his starter Russ Ortiz in Game Six . . . and make a show of handing him the game ball as he brought in Felix Rodriguez. The Anaheim Angels, themselves a loosey-goose bunch, with a dugout’s-eye view of Baker’s little game ball ceremony, were distinctly unamused. They cranked up their major philosophy of that season (outfielder/first baseman Darin Erstad: “Long as we have an out, we have a chance”), overthrew the Giants in Game Six (Scott Spiezio’s launch over the right field fence off Rodriguez only began the uprising), and bagged Game Seven behind a rook named John Lackey.

* After outsmarting himself out of his job in San Francisco, Baker was hired by the Chicago Cubs. He had them to within six outs of the 2003 World Series when the so-called Bartman Game—actually, the Alex Gonzalez game, the shortstop letting a double play ball bound off his chest, opening a seven-run eighth-inning flood—sent the Cubs to a seventh League Championship Series Game. And Baker inexplicably left his Game Seven starter Kerry Wood in to take a seven-run beating that helped send the Florida Marlins to the Series . . . and the rings.

* Baker may or may not have helped finish the ruination of pitching stars Wood and Mark Prior with overwork. (To his credit, Baker did learn a lesson from that experience; he’s long since become very adept at moderating his pitching staffs, though the high-profile declines of Prior and Wood continue to loom large enough in evaluations of Baker.)

* Last year, a year after the Philadelphia Phillies swept them out of the division series (beginning with Roy Halladay’s no-hitter), Baker’s Reds opened the division series with two wins in San Francisco, then lost three straight and a trip to the LCS at home.

* This year, in a season-long dogfight in the National League Central, Baker’s Reds lost their final five of the regular season when they might have had the wild card’s home field advantage. The final three of those final five came at the Pirates’ hands. Did the players just run out of gas? Did they quit on the manager? We’ll never know for certain.

Then, on a night Johnny Cueto—who probably shouldn’t have been starting the game in the first place, considering his long enough disablement and his rustiness accordingly—clearly didn’t have his best and could be (and was) rattled by a wild PNC Park crowd, surrendering two homers in the second inning and three hits and a run in the third, Baker still sent Cueto out for the fourth . . . and Cueto surrendered a double that helped build another run.

These Reds might have lost the wild card game regardless, considering their lefthanded-leaning lineup didn’t match very well against Pirates starter Francisco Liriano, but not getting his bullpen up and working at the split second Cueto became only too obviously rattled in the third didn’t help Baker in the long run.

Want a comparison? Look at last year’s division series, Game Three. Baker let his closer Aroldis Chapman pitch a single inning for a mere fifteen pitches. Giants manager Bruce Bochy let his closer, Sergio Romo, work two innings . . . and get credit for the win. Look at Game Four: Bochy hooked Barry Zito posthaste in the third; Baker let Mike Leake stay in for a five-run beating. And, especially, look at Game Five:

* Mat Latos surrendered six runs in the fifth, including a two-out salami by Buster Posey.

* Baker put on a hit-and-run in the Cincinnati sixth with two men on and his men botched it into a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play: Jay Bruce got himself caught stealing while Giants starter Matt Cain was striking out Ryan Ludwick.

* Bochy hooked Matt Cain, his starter, right after that strikeout and trusted his bullpen to escape the jam. And, eventually, Bochy let Romo pitch more than a single inning.

Baker, in essence, rarely if ever switched his strategies. As ESPN’s David Schoenfeld notes, Baker manages every game including the postseason as though it’s the regular season. Don’t sweat the small stuff, there’s always tomorrow. The problem is that the postseason puts a distinct limit on your tomorrows.

You could say that the 2013 Reds were hit where they hurt when they had nobody capable of hitting cleanup with Ludwick missing much of the season. Brandon Phillips isn’t exactly the cleanup type, but Baker thought otherwise. That wasn’t the only thing that cost him a trip to the division series at least or his head on a plate, but it didn’t exactly help.

Baker has always gotten his players to play for him in the regular season, even in testy situations such as the eggshell-carpeted San Francisco clubhouses which got that carpeting thanks to Bonds. But he’s taken his teams to ten postseason series and won only three of those series; in postseason games, his record is 19-26.

His future? He just might get another shot. Verducci thinks Seattle might be a possibility, considering Baker loves life on the West Coast, or a team looking for a midseason change in hand with a push to the postseason.

Baker’s a good baseball man and a good manager. If he could only figure out at long enough last that you can turn on the intensity in the postseason without sacrificing the congenial clubhouse you foster, he might yet put a certain ring on his teams’ fingers. And, his own.

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