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Again, Rivera gets a night off

As a rule, managers don't win or lose World Series games.

Who wins and who loses depends to a great degree on how well the players play, to a lesser degree on which team gets luckier ... and to a significantly smaller degree on what the managers do.

And yet, people like me don't often bother writing about the players or the luck, because what can you write about? Unless you're 1) in the locker room to ask Alex Gonzalez about his home run, or 2) blessed with Roger Angell's talent of seeing things on TV that nobody else sees, you're often left questioning the manager's wisdom.

So that's what I'm doing today. It's a lot of fun, really it is, and this might be my last chance in 2003.

Let me start with the end of the story, and then we'll go back to the beginning ...

The New York Yankees are blessed with one of the greatest relief pitchers, and he's pitched the grand total of two innings in the Yankees' last three games. Both innings came in a game the Yankees won by five runs. Zero innings came in the other two games, which the Yankees lost by a combined total of three runs.

Now, I don't claim to be an expert in fuzzy math -- I'll leave that to the guy in the White House -- but as a big fan of intelligent management, those numbers just don't make a lot of sense to me.

Yesterday, I grouped Joe Torre among the "nitwit managers" of the world, and that wasn't fair. Torre's no nitwit.

But you know what makes this truly interesting? Torre is not afraid to take chances, to try new things. I believe Torre's the only manager of the last 15 years to regularly use his closer for two innings at a time in the postseason. I suspect that if you ran some sort of sophisticated analysis, you'd find that the Yankees would probably have lost an extra postseason series at some point if Torre had not used Rivera in this unorthodox fashion.

There used to be a popular term in baseball: "the Old Army Game." Its origin is unknown, but here's how coach Hughie Jennings defined the term in a 1917 issue of Baseball Magazine:

There is a system of playing baseball which players call the Old Army Game. In this game every move is played according to Hoyle. When the first man gets on the bases by a pass or an error or a hit, the next man promptly sacrifices and so on through the list of approved methods of trying to make that man score. Everybody on the other club and most well informed persons in the crowd know just what will happen under given conditions. Of course, they do not know and nobody can know when a hit or an error will happen, but they do know what use will be made of it when it does occur and how the next man up will try to act under the circumstances.

Nobody plays the Old Army Game any more, not in its strictest sense (though when the leaves start to change colors, many managers do suddenly come down with the highly contagious but short-lived Small Ball Fever).

In a broad sense, "the Old Army Game" was all about conservatism, orthodoxy ... and covering your butt.

Joe Torre cast all that aside when he decided that he wasn't just going to use his closer in the ninth; he'd use him in the eighth and sometimes even in the seventh. Torre deserves a lot of credit for this.

Unfortunately, in a sense he's simply devised a New Army Game: different, but no less rigid. Under the rules of the New Army Game, Rivera will be summoned to protect a lead in the eighth, and he's staying in for the ninth no matter how large that lead might grow. Rivera won't be summoned on the road unless the Yankees have a lead, no matter what else might be happening in the game.

The result? The Yankees just played three games in three days, and somehow Torre managed to mis-use his best pitcher in all three games.

Tuesday, he let Rivera finish a game in which the Yankees had a huge lead.

Wednesday, he didn't let Rivera pitch at all. Yes, Rivera had just pitched two innings 24 hours earlier, but 1) he shouldn't have pitched two innings, 2) in those two innings, he'd thrown only 24 pitches, 3) Rivera has pitched in consecutive games many times before, and 4) this is the World Series, man. The season will be over, one way or the other, in five days.

Thursday, again he didn't let Rivera pitch at all. Rivera was well-rested, and anyway the Yankees have all of Friday to rest and relax and recuperate. This is rank speculation, but the Yankees lost by two runs. Chris Hammond -- who's rarely allowed on the field during real games because nobody thinks he can pitch -- gave up two runs in two innings. Isn't it at least somewhat likely that if Rivera had pitched two innings in Game 5 rather than Hammond, the Yankees would have won? Or that if Rivera had pitched two innings in Game 4 instead of Weaver, the Yankees would have won?

In Mariano Rivera, Joe Torre's got one of the most dangerous soldiers since relief pitching became a recognized MOS (42 Kilo?). Yes, Torre's New Army Game is certainly better than the Old Army Game, which says you don't use your closer until the ninth.

But the New Game didn't work, either, in the Battle for Joe Robbie. And now the Yankees are fighting for their lives.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.