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Clint Hurdle, You Outsmarted Charlie Manuel, But ...

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Dear Clint,

Long time no talk. Congratulations on a fantastic opening to the season. The home opener was not the most rousing offensive display, with 27 outs after two opening singles, but the pitching was great on both sides and it was a beautiful day at the game's most beautiful park.

Then the weekend brought great excitement and more of what we have come to expect from your teams in your short tenure as manager here. They play hard until the last out. Back-to-back walk-off wins will certainly invigorate the fanbase, and I imagine it made for an enjoyable plane ride as you embarked on your difficult nine-game West Coast swing. Nobody needs to remind you that opening the season against three former Cy Young Award winners in the first four games is no piece of cake, and going 2-1 in the first three is a great way to begin the season.

Knowing you, you'll want to credit the players and coaches for this weekend's success, as you always do. And you're right, the players are always going to be primarily responsible for the wins and losses. But you pushed all the right buttons this weekend. Really. Like Midas. Lineup changes, pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, the occasional sacrifice bunt (which I couldn't even argue with) and the bullpen usage all worked out almost perfectly. Super job.

And that brings me to my point. Or maybe I should call it my plea.

Clint, you had a front-row seat to what some would call very questionable, and critics might call downright terrible, managing this weekend. And it came from a manager who not only won a major league-best 102 games just last season, but also has a World Series Championship on his resume.

I don't mean to pick on Charlie Manuel, because what he did this weekend happens throughout the game. But I'm pointing it out to you in hopes that you rise above it and take a different approach this year. And since you saw how dramatically it impacted things this weekend, I'm thinking you will.

As you know, the Phillies made some changes in the offseason. Most notably, they signed Red Sox free agent closer Jonathan Papelbon to a crazy-big contract worth $50 million over four years. Yep, they took a lot of grief for it, but that's what they did. And once the ink dried, the money was effectively spent, so that's what they've got. I figure if you're going to pay a young man that kind of money, you are better to put him to work, right? That's why I'm confused.

Papelbon has been in the majors since 2005 and took over the Sox closer role in 2006. Since then, he's been one of the best in the business, as you know. He was a bit off in 2010, but bounced back nicely last season and was rewarded with the big bucks from the Phils. The last four years, Papelbon has pitched 64.1, 67, 68 and 69 innings.

So on Thursday, Opening Day, you couldn't have been surprised when your counterpart Manuel pulled Roy Halladay after eight spectacular innings (the guy's a machine, isn't he?) and called on his $50 Million Man. 10 pitches, three batters and one strikeout later, it was over. The Phils won 1-0 and the $50 Million Man got his first save. I'm sure GM Ruben Amaro and Phillies fans envisioned 50 more games finishing the same way this season.

After Friday's off day, you and the Phillies got into another nail-biting pitchers' duel on Saturday. I bet there was a sigh of relief when your team finally got its first run of the season in the sixth to tie the game 1-1. Going to the seventh, with both teams going into the bullpen, I felt like you had an advantage, but of course, they did have the $50 Million Man.

This time, Manuel used four relievers to get through the seventh, eighth and ninth, but he didn't use his $50 Million Man, because there wasn't a save situation. I loved the way you used two relievers to get through the seventh and eighth and then turned to your closer, Joel Hanrahan, to pitch the ninth. You knew there was no save to be had (it's really just a contrived stat, don't you think?), so it made sense to use your best reliever to get the next outs and put the Bucs in the best position to win. (I'm a little tired of Herm Edwards on ESPN saying "You play to win the game," but we all agree with the point. Fire with your best. Good choice.)

By the way, you know what's funny? Your guy Hanrahan is a lot like the $50 Million Man, if obviously not quite as accomplished. Hanny is 30 years old. He's been in the majors since 2007, but did not really become an elite reliever until last year, when you gave him the job. Great call! He was exceptional last year. And the great thing for you guys is that he comes relatively cheap at $4.1 million this year and is also under team control next year. Can you say relative value? The last three years he has pitched 68.2, 69.2 and 64 innings, almost identical numbers to those of the $50 Million Man.

I digress. Back to Saturday night's game. Hanrahan did his job in the top of the ninth, but your Pirates were unable to push a run across in their half, so on to some extra baseball, still tied 1-1. The people waiting for the fireworks with little kids probably weren't that happy, but I know I was riveted. I was ready for the chess match. You turned to veteran Juan Cruz, who did his job, and the game moved to the bottom of the 10th.

I assumed Manuel would turn to the $50 Million Man at this point. He'd already used four relievers and his options were pretty limited. Of course, I was wrong. It was a long offseason ,and I had forgotten the edict that closers are only to be used in save situations. Being the road team in extra innings, Manuel was going to wait until his team got a lead to use the $50 Million Man. So he turned to Joe Blanton. (I feel like I should be on Twitter and tweet BLOLanton right now.)

I'm guessing your boys in the dugout were licking their chops. Rod Barajas crushed that ball that missed going out by about three inches, but it was high comedy watching him lug himself and that Steinway safely into second. I'll bet you never pinch-ran a catcher for another catcher before! Another crafty move. And while your men made it more interesting than I wanted (how 'bout a fly ball, Clemente, Jr.?), it was great to see them pull out the 2-1 walk-off win, and on an infield single, no less! Another first for you, I assume.

That night, as I was getting ready to go to sleep, all I could envision was Manuel, drinking a beer on his office, cursing himself for not using the $50 Million Man.

But you know what, Clint, maybe it's me who's crazy, 'cause we saw Manuel do the same damn thing on Sunday. Great job by your men to come back from 4-1 down, but I couldn't believe Manuel used his bullpen the way he did. You remember in the eighth inning when you were down 4-3 and the Phils were already on their third reliever? Long weekend, I know, but there were two outs and you guys had guys on first and second. Their lefty Antonio Bastardo was on the hill, and you had lefty Pedro Alvarez coming up. I liked your decision to pinch-hit with right-handed rookie Matt Hague there even though Pedro had homered earlier. Showed some cojones. Play to win the game, right?

I remembered closers are usually only supposed to pitch one inning, but I figured Manuel would want this game badly, particularly after losing such a tough one last night. I mean, the $50 Million Man didn't pitch Friday or Saturday and the Phils have an off day on Tuesday. If not then for a four-out save, when? Pretty high-leverage situation too, don't you think?

Well, we know what happened. Bastardo stayed in the game and Hague, The Hit Collector, came through with his first major-league knock, tying the game at four. Then it was a replay of Saturday night. You knew your team would not have a save situation playing at home -- not that that would matter of course, you just wanted to use your best pitcher to get some outs. Call on Joel! And he did the job.

Cue the bottom of the ninth and no save situation, and Manuel turned to some guy named David Herndon. Casey McGehee doubled, Andrew McCutchen had a great at bat, and you guys got win number two.

But Clint, sorry to ramble on, there is one thing I need to point out to you. Remember last year when you guys were tied for first place in the NL Central on July 26 with a 53-47 record and the Pirates were the talk of the baseball world? You played that 19-inning game that night against the Braves and got jobbed by Jerry Meals and lost 4-3? Yeah, you didn't use Joel Hanrahan that game.

Yep, your relievers did do a great job in that 19-inning game. But then the next night you had to go extra innings again. You lost 2-1 in 10 innings. You kept Hanrahan in the pen that game too. You did use Hanny the following day and even brought him in for a four-out save, but your team would go on to lose the next 10 in a row, and you ended up using Hanrahan three times in that stretch just to get him work. In the middle of that losing streak, in an extra-inning game in Philadelphia, you chose not to use him and the team lost 6-5 after being ahead 5-3 going to the bottom of the eighth.

In fact, I looked it up. Over the course of last year, your team went 1-5 in extra-inning road games. You used Joel Hanrahan in only two of those games. They were both save situations where he blew the lead, which led directly to the games going to extra innings. It happens, no problem there. But in the other four road extra-inning contests last year, you did exactly what Manuel did this weekend and left your best reliever in the bullpen. You lost on every occasion. That doesn't even count games in which you were tied or ahead in the eighth or ninth and ended up losing while your man Hanrahan went unused. There were a bunch of those too.

I know you are concerned about your players' health, but overwork didn't drive the decision in any of those four instances, just like it didn't for Manuel on Sunday. Instead, a dumb statistic apparently drove the decision. Why would Manuel manage for a stat when he is already managing the $50 Million Man? His Man got paid, and Manuel should now use him when it serves the team best.

You may have to deal with egos, but you're good at that and Hanrahan seems like a really good guy. I know it isn't about trying to get him 45 saves, it's about trying to get the Pirates 80, 85, 90 wins. You need to use him like you did this weekend. You need your best pitchers to pitch the most innings and also hopefully the most important innings. Your men look like they might be slightly offensively-challenged this year, so pitching is going to matter more than ever.

Clint, the old cliche that you have forgotten more about baseball than I'll ever know probably applies in spades here. But I'm thinking Manuel may have cost his team a game or two this weekend because you managed the pants off him at PNC Park. I just hope that when those games get played in Citizens Bank Ballpark or any other of the road venues you visit this year, the roles aren't reversed because you base your decision-making on a silly statistic. Use the best pitchers available to get the outs that give your team the best chance to win. The other way didn't work for you last year and it didn't work for Mr. Manuel this weekend.

Think Goose Gossage in his prime. Joel Hanrahan certainly is physically able to pitch 80 to 85 innings. That is how you need to use your $4.1 Million Man. And let's be realistic, he likely is going to be someone else's $30-40 Million Man soon enough.

I look forward to seeing you when you're back in town, Congratulations again on a good start, and best of luck out west.