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LSU's CWS Pitching Preview For Games 3 Through (Possibly) 7

The College World Series is a strange animal.  In any tournament format in baseball, your pitching depth is going to be challenged, but the CWS is peculiar in how little it challenges that depth early in the proceedings, as long as you keep winning.  LSU has gotten through the the first two games using its two ace starters, and when our next game rolls around, we can go back to our first ace.  In fact, we were able to use our second ace for an inning in the first game and he was able to come back in the next game to pitch 6 innings (and probably could have gone more if needed).

Things change though.  After playing two games in three days, and then resting for 3 days, the games will suddenly compress.  Depending on how things play out from here, LSU could end up playing as many as 5 games in 6 days beginning with Friday's game against Arkansas, or as few as 3 games in 5 days.  Suddenly, we are faced with choices in how to use our pitchers, with costs and benefits to each choice. 

Let's start by explicitly stating our premise:  we must use our pitchers in the way that maximize our chances of winning the tournament.  Heretofore, we have been looking at a separate question: "How do we maximize our chances of winning the game we're playing or the game we're playing next."  To this point, there has been an identity of the two questions, and we look at winning this game as a proxy for maximizing our chances of winning the tournament.  The best case in point has been a brief exchange between me and Poseur in the comment section of a post about the LSU vs. Baylor game in the regional.  To recap, in that winner's bracket game, Baylor pitched several pitchers multiple innings and lost, putting themselves in the loser's bracket with virtually no pitchers left who had anything in the tank for their next game.  I commented:

I think one thing that bears pointing out is that Baylor played to win the game, but seemed unconcerned about setting up the rest of the tournament. The decision to start Tolleson and then bring in Miller was inspired, but the decision to finish up the game with Volz was too much. Instead of pitching one guy 90 pitches and the rest 20 or so, or even two guys 60 pitches each, he pitched three different guys about 60 pitches each. Each one is now spent, I think for the remainder of the tournament.

Right now it will be a struggle to put together a 9 inning game with the pitchers they have left unless they can pull off the same thing we did in the SEC tournament and find quality starts from way down the roster.

Poseur replied:

Baylor managed the game as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. Everyoe was available and then went balls out to win. LSU treated it like an important league game. But I think Baylor made the right call to go all in.

So far, most any time we played a game, it has been wise to play each game almost as if it was the only game that mattered.  This is why it was a good idea to pitch Louis Coleman for one inning in Game 1 only to turn around and start him in Game 2.  The first game was in doubt.  It was an important game and we could afford to use Coleman for an inning without worrying about how it would affect the next game, in part because the next game was not the next day.  This is also why it was a bad idea for Cal State Fullerton to save its ace for its second game.  It did not maximize their chances of winning the game.  And oh by the way, they lost it.

Arkansas, incidentally, played their game last night exactly like Baylor did way back when.  In a 12 inning game, they used 3 different very good pitchers for 3 innings or more.  Of course, it makes perfectly sense to go for broke if you're locked into a tight game in the loser's bracket.

The problem is, I'm not sure that logic applies to LSU anymore.  Or at least, it needs to be discussed.  Is it still so important to win the next game that we should "Pull Out All the Stops" as the post was entitled?  If we lose on Friday, we get another chance on Saturday.  If we win either of those two games, we start a 3-day best-of-3 series on Monday.

With that in mind, let's look at our options going forward and get an informal review of our decision matrix:

1.  Play each game as if it is the last.  Anthony Ranaudo is available on Friday, with 6 days of rest in his pocket.  He'll be 100% on that day.  If we win that game, we play again on Monday with Louis Coleman available.  After that game, we would have to go with another pitcher on Tuesday, and we could bring Ranaudo back on Wednesday on 4 days rest, but that would be pretty short rest for Ranaudo, who is accustomed to pitching on 6 days of rest.

But what if we lose with Ranaudo on Friday?  Coleman would be good to go on Monday, but he would only have 4 days rest before Saturday.  He could go, but it would be a risk that he would not be at his best.  And after that Saturday game, Coleman would probably be finished for the rest of the Tournament, unless he was removed pretty early.  We would need to get two games out of Ross, Bradshaw, Cain, and the rest of the middle class of our pitching staff, and we would need to win one of them before we could bring Ranaudo back on Wednesday (and maybe, possibly use Coleman in short relief on Wednesday.

2.  Try to get to the championship series with Ross instead of Ranaudo, bringing Ranaudo back on Saturday if we lose.  We could go with Austin Ross on Friday instead of Anthony Ranaudo.  The advantage here is that if we were to win with Ross on the mound, we would go to the championship series with Ranaudo in Game 1 and then Coleman in Game 2, both with more than full rest.  Two aces in a best-of-3 series, when there is no guarantee that our opponent will have anything left in the tank pitching-wise.  A win with Ross on Friday would give us a greatchance to win the whole shebang.

The downside to this strategy would behow difficult things would be on us if we lost with Ross on Friday.  Then we would have to play on Saturday, at which point it would be incumbent upon us to pitch Ranaudo.  We would have a very good chance of winning on Saturday, as our opponent's pitching staff would be ravaged by the circuitous path they will have taken to get to that point while we would have a 7-inning ace on the mound and a reasonably fresh bullpen.  But after winning on Saturday, Ranaudo would be spent.  We would go into the championship series with Coleman as our only ace available.

You can see then a risk-and-reward scenario here.  If we pitch Ross on Friday and win, we have a great chance of winning it all.  If we pitch Ross on Friday and lose, we have significantly compromised our chances of winning it all.  We perhaps though have not significantly reduced our chances of advancing to the championship series.  We have merely compromised our capacity to win it once we get there.

3.  Try to get to the championship series without using Ranaudo or Ross no matter what happens.  We could resolve to pitch Ross on Friday, and if we lose that game go with Bradshaw, Cain, or Byrd on Saturday.  This is the strategy that perhaps most compromises our chances of making it to the championship series, but would give us an excellent chance of winning hte series if we make it.  Ranaudo and Coleman would both be on complete rest and ready to go on Monday and Tuesday.  You have to like our chances with those guys on the mound, but you can't like our chances if we don'tmake it that far.

One variation on this theme would be to allow ourselves to use Ranaudo on Friday and Coleman on Saturday, but only in short relief to preserve a lead for an inning or two late, then we could bring them back on Monday and Tuesday respectively on 2 days rest.

4.  Pitch our best available rested pitcher in any given game.  This would be Ranaudo on Friday and Ross on Saturday, if Saturday is necessary.  It probably somewhat compromises our chances of getting to the championship series, but not as much as some others might think.  There's no guarantee that Coleman would be effective on four days rest, which is significantly shorter than is typical for him, even though he is a work horse.  Plus, this is an area where pitching him for an inning in game 1 and then for 6 innings in game 2 may actually make it difficult for us to bring him back quickly, even if it's only a little quickly.

The advantage is that Coleman would be available for the Monday game on full rest, and we could still bring Ranaudo back on short rest on Wednesday.  Using Coleman on Saturday would use him up for the tournament, except perhaps for a short relief appearance on Wednesday.

So I have developed four potential strategies to use.  The first maximizes our chances of making it to the championship series, but if things go poorly it would devastate our chances of winning the series once we got there, by potentially making both of our ace starters unavailable until the final game, when Ranaudo would be available on fairly short rest and Coleman hardly available at all.  The second somewhat compromises our ability to make it to the championship game, but has a huge upside if it's successful, while having a built-in safety valve of using one of our aces if we don't get the win on Friday.  There's a good chance of making the regional, but if things go sub-optimally (meaning we lose on Friday), we use our ace on Saturday and he is probably used up for the rest of the tournament.  The third option commits us to taking our biggest chances on Friday and Saturday, ensuring that our aces are available and rested in the championship series, but dramatically increasing our chances of not making it to the championship series at all.  The fourth makes each pitcher we use go at his maximum effectiveness, even if it doesn't maximize the chances of winning each particular game.

The fourth is perhaps more balanced, giving us a good chance on winning on Friday, but saving Coleman for Monday no matter what, making it less likely for us to get to the championship but maximizing Ranaudo's usage throughout the tournament.

One complication to think about is that whoever we pitch for extended innings on Saturady is probably not going to be available for the rest of the tournament.  This makes it difficult for us to commit to using "Johnny Allstaff" to try to scratch out a win on Saturday.  If we use Bradshaw for 4 innings and Cain for 3, that's two of our best relief pitchers who might not be available again for the rest of the tournament.  Things could get difficult if we had to go to a Wednesday game with Ross on short rest and Bradshaw and Cain not really available.

Another factor to think about is that Arkansas has seen Ranaudo, and beat him.  He gave up 5 runs in 6 tough innings on May 2, 2009.  Ranaudo facing an opponent who beat him, and one game after his subpar performance against UVA poses an interesting psychological challenge.

This is all a bit of navel-gazing, because Paul Mainieri has already said that he's going with Ranaudo on Friday.  We know he's trying to maximize his chances of winning on Friday.  It's a good strategy because it doesn't exactly spend Ranaudo for the tournament.  He could come back on Wednesday if there is a Wednesday game, though it would be on less than full rest.  Winning on Friday with Ranaudo would be great for us.  We could come back with Coleman on Monday and then try to win it with Ross/Bradshaw/Cain/Byrd/Whomever on Tuesday with Ranaudo back out on Wednesday.  It would be especially helpful if we could develop a big lead and take Ranaudo out at 80 or so pitches to help him come back, but that may not be practical.

The problem is that if we lose on Friday, we will really be hurting in the championship series if we make it there.  It appears Mainieri is committed to the "win the next game" at all costs scenario, and I'm not sure it's really the best thing for our championship prospects.  I'm not sure it isn't the best thing for those prospects either, but we have to choose something.