Monday, October 6, 2014

The '64 Phillies Finale: The Perils of Mauch's Genius

The 1964 World Series began on October 7 ... without the Philadelphia Phillies. But it should be noted that the 1964 Phillies probably would not even have been in position to win the pennant without Gene Mauch as their manager. After taking over in Philadelphia in 1960, Mauch quickly earned a reputation for being a thinking, hands-on manager who was masterful in his direction of the game, getting the most out of his roster and outmaneuvering the manager in the opposite dugout.  But managerial brilliance can be a tricky thing. Managers are both strategists and tacticians in the dugout. They must navigate a delicate line between managing too much and managing too little. The question remains whether Mauch's constant maneuvers to try to wrest competitive advantages--both big and small--may have caught up with him in the final weeks of the season and cost his team what proved to be their one best chance to get to the World Series. 

The '64 Phillies Finale: The Perils of Mauch's Genius

When it was over, Gene Mauch blamed himself for the debacle. This was telling not so much because he attempted to remove the stigma of the collapse from his players but because, in the final weeks, he may have put on himself too much of the burden to win games instead of allowing the games to play out with less urgency. Baseball can be unforgiving, quick to smack down those who think they can master the flow of the game. Mauch's intensity and overwhelming desire to maintain tight control over each game--(perhaps for fear of the second-guessing that comes with losing?)--became counterproductive as the Phillies' losses began mounting. His trying hard to force the action began to convey panic with the result that his players became increasingly tight in pressure situations. This was a criticism that Dick Allen in particular made, and in various accounts of what happened.

While Mauch arguably made any number of questionable tactical in-game decisions discussed in this series, his primary miscalculation was strategic, with ultimately unforgiving cascading effects. His big mistake was quite likely beginning to prepare for the World Series prematurely when on September 16, with a six-game lead, he started his ace Jim Bunning on short rest, probably so he would be aligned to start Game 1 of the Series. This mistake was compounded the very next day by his rush to clinch the pennant, manifested by his using two pitchers--Rick Wise and Bobby Shantz--as effectively one starter in LA even though his starting rotation was in disarray because of injuries to Ray Culp and Dennis Bennett. This made Shantz unavailable two days later when Mauch desperately needed a seasoned southpaw--as opposed to an untested rookie lefty--to try to prevent the Dodgers from winning a game already in the 16th inning.

Then he overreacted to a string of defeats, especially to the Reds, that still left the Phillies in control of the pennant race with fewer than 10 games remaining, even if no longer in commanding control. Then, as the defeats piled on, Mauch panicked as he tried desperately to pick up wins by starting his two best pitchers--Bunning and Chris Short--twice consecutively on short rest, when they, and especially Bunning, would have been more effective with normal rest. In particular, starting both pitchers on short rest against Milwaukee, when Philadelphia still had the lead, was arguably a mistake that ultimately forced him to resort to doing so a second time in St. Louis as the Phillies' lead was now gone.

The Phillies lost the pennant by one game. Even if they had lost all of the games where Mauch had no obvious starting pitcher, Culp being unable to pitch because of his elbow and Bennett badly hampered by a bum shoulder, Bunning and Short would have been more likely to pitch effectively and gain a victory on normal rest--as Bunning proved in both of his stretch drive victories, against the Dodgers on September 20 (the usual four days after his short-rest start in Houston ended badly) and on the final day of the season (four days after his third start on short rest also ended badly). Just one additional win by both Bunning and Short, or two by either, could have changed the outcome of the pennant race. In effect, it may be that Mauch turned possible wins into losses by panicking rather than accepting losses for the sake of maximizing the odds of winning when his two best pitchers started.

If Mauch made his decision to start Bunning on September 16 in Houston on only two days' rest in order to line up his ace's remaining starts on normal rest with Game 1 of the World Series--and this seems to be the only plausible explanation, if you study the calendar--it suggests that at that point he took the pennant for granted. Mauch was apparently willing to risk a loss by Bunning on short rest for the purpose of setting him up for the Series even though the National League pennant had not yet been clinched. With a six-game lead at this point, there probably still would have been time enough for Mauch to arrange his rotation for Bunning to start Game 1 of the Series with the appropriate rest between his final regular season starts had he waited for the Phillies to officially cinch the pennant.

While the impact of his starting Bunning in Houston on September 16 could still have been mitigated had Mauch thereafter kept his ace on the normal schedule he apparently had planned, his decision had a cascading effect as the Phillies went into their 10-game losing streak because Bunning turned out not to be available to start against one of the remaining contending clubs, the Reds. In trying to prepare for the World Series, Gene Mauch outsmarted himself and forgot the importance of starting his best pitchers in their appropriate turns to keep them in rhythm.

Baseball has a way of punishing hubris.

This concludes Baseball Historical Insight's series on what happened in the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies ... fifty years ago.

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