Standard utilization of a team's best relief pitcher is generally in the role of closer. This pitcher is rarely used before the ninth inning, and often in the classic "up three runs with no one on base" scenario. It seems intuitive that the most effective pitcher should be used in the highest leverage situation regardless of inning, yet this is not the customary practice and most fans and MSM members don't seem to have a problem with it. However, if a similar high-leverage situation is encountered while a team is batting before the ninth inning, a manager will usually send up his best pinch hitter if the circumstance calls for it (lefty/righty matchups also come into play). Standard practice on offense is to send up the best pinch hitter when the game is on the line, regardless of inning. Why is that? Why is the "pinch hitting ace" concept embraced, while the "relief ace" concept is largely dismissed?
In the Mets-Rockies game last September 2nd, Brian Stokes started the 8th inning with the game tied 2-2. Francisco Rodriguez last worked three days earlier and was healthy by all accounts. Stokes proceeded to give up three runs on three hits, while recording only one out. And get this -- Rodriguez was brought in to finish the inning! He retired the only two batters faced and the Mets lost 5-2. Something is backwards here. The best reliever was only brought in after one of the worst relievers (sorry Brian) blew a close game. There weren't any hard questions asked of Jerry Manuel afterwards and no one really seemed to care. Yet if Jerry sent up Alex Cora to pinch-hit for the pitcher in the 7th inning with a runner on 2nd in a tie game, while leaving resting but available David Wright on the bench, there would likely be some second guessing.
This question isn't revolutionary and has probably been discussed at THT, BBTF or The Book Blog but I'm too lazy to search for such a discussion. If anyone has a link to one, please share.