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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

GMs look to future while learning from defeat

Justice: GMs look to future, learn from defeat

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GMs look to future while learning from defeat

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Weeks later, there's still pain. That's the one thing on which they pretty much all agree.

"There's part of you where the sting lingers for life," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

Walt Jocketty of the Reds understands.

"It still hurts," he said.

How about you, Dan Duquette? Same thing?

"It's tough," the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations said. "You think about the opportunities, the missed opportunities. If you convert one or two of those plays, the season continues."

They all poured themselves back into their jobs long before they gathered this week at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells for the annual General Managers Meetings. But as they prepare for 2013, there's still some coming to grips with 2012.

"You can't linger around and feel sorry for yourself," Dombrowski said. "You have to go back to work."

This was an amazing baseball season in so many ways, with at least 20 teams still in contention at the All-Star break. Down the stretch, virtually every game seemed to matter. As Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "The playoffs started early this year."

That's certainly how it felt as teams punched and counter-punched to get one of the 10 playoff berths. Now about the 10 teams that made it. All of them seemed good enough to win a championship. In the end, though, only one team could win the World Series, and that one team was the San Francisco Giants.

For the others -- for the Reds and Tigers, for the Nationals and Cardinals and Orioles and A's -- they wrote a painful ending to a season that had seemed magical at times.

"We ran into Justin Verlander," A's general manager Billy Beane said, referring to Game 5 of an American League Division Series.

The A's had gut-punched the Tigers the night before in Game 4 by rallying for three runs in the ninth inning.

Then in the deciding Game 5, Verlander took the ball and never gave it back. His four-hit, 122-pitch shutout was the definition of a big-game performance.

"I thought what [Tigers manager] Jim Leyland did was really smart," Beane said. "He was going to make us beat his best guy. He wasn't going to leave him out there for 160 pitches, but if Verlander got in trouble early, he wasn't necessarily coming out. Our guys were aware of that."

All 10 playoff teams made the summer a little better where they lived, sending fans to bed feeling pretty darn good about the local nine. So are all the good vibes erased by not being able to finish the deal? How do ultra-successful, ultra-competitive men deal with gut-wrenching defeats?

"I was over it about two days after we got shocked by the Cardinals," Mike Rizzo of the Nationals said. "My mindset was, 'What went wrong? How can we improve it? How do we fix it?'"

Here's the problem. There's a chance nothing went wrong. Rizzo has done a first-rate job building a great franchise.

The Nationals had baseball's best record (98-64) because he did almost everything right, from stocking a farm system with power arms to putting the right guy (Davey Johnson) in charge.

In the end, though, they could not get by the St. Louis Cardinals. All that good work couldn't have been erased by a tough defeat in Game 5 of a National League Division Series, could it?

"I mean, we ran into a battle-tested, World Series-champion St. Louis Cardinal team," Rizzo said. "In boxing, you've got to knock out the champ. We had 'em on the ropes, but we couldn't knock 'em out. I don't think anything went drastically wrong. It's just that Game 5 was their day. I thought we played 'em tough. We lost to a quality ballclub."

He began working on 2013 the moment he walked into a silent clubhouse after Game 5.

"Don't forget how you feel right now," he told his players and staff. "Remember it. Feed off it positively. Let's not have it happen again."

In Dombrowski's case, he forced himself back to work almost immediately. Moments after the Tigers lost Game 4 of the World Series, he went around his clubhouse congratulating players on a good season.

He also summoned a few off to the side and told them that they probably wouldn't be re-signed. He believed it was important to be honest with them and especially to have that kind of meeting face to face.

"You've been with those guys all year, in some cases for years," he said. "You don't want to pick up the phone in another day and say, 'We're going to let you go.' Even though it's not easy, it's better doing it that way."

Under Dombrowski, the Tigers have been to the ALCS three times in seven years and won two AL pennants.

Still ...

"There were a lot of good things," he said. "You're one of the final two. We drew 3 million people, had the highest television ratings in baseball. But when you don't get that final one, it leaves an empty feeling."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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