Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Goodbye, Atlanta Braves, Yet Again

By Jeff Kallman

Here it is, plain and simple. A man who inspired an awful lot of people to urge the Los Angeles Dodgers to purge last winter sent them to the National League Championship Series with one swing Monday night. The National League's most dominant relief pitcher of the year was nowhere to be seen in the bottom of the eighth to stop him.

And a man who still insisted on managing as though it were some time in June instead of some time in October has a winter's worth of second guessing ahead of him, refusing even to think of Craig Kimbrel going out to try for a six-out save, one that might have kept the Atlanta Braves playing.

But there Kimbrel wasn't in the bottom of the eighth, with the Braves up 3-2. Not even after Yasiel Puig (The wild horse is loose! Dodger broadcast legend Vin Scully, calling it on radio, crowed) opened by swatting David Carpenter's 2-2 fastball right past first baseman Freddie Freeman on the dive, pulling into second base in such a Road Runner-like blink the only thing missing was Puig chirping "Beep! Beep!" as he rounded first.

And there was Juan Uribe, fouling two bunt attempts, demurring on two close pitches, something not ordinarily thought to be programmed into his software, then sending Carpenter's hanging slider parabolically into the left field seats. Leaving Dodgers manager Don Mattingly able send his closer out for the ninth to secure the 4-3 triumph at the end of one of baseball's most surrealistic known postseason days.

And, leaving Carpenter to take the rap that ought to belong to his manager. "It was my fault," the pitcher told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I'm the reason that we're not going back to Atlanta tied 2-2. I'll take the responsibility for it every time. I let the guys down. It kills me. It kills me to have to say that."

That's nothing compared to how it's likely to kill Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to have to say, "Maybe I should have brought in Kimbrel after Puig hit the double."

It was a day on which St. Louis Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha got thatclose to no-hitting the Pittsburgh Pirates, magnificently, until Pedro Alvarez busted up the no-hitter and the shutout with a shot that landed about five right field bleacher rows short of landing in the Allegheny River. Still, the Cardinals hung on for dear life to make sure Matt Holliday's two-run shot in the sixth held up to force a fifth division series game of their own in their home playpen.

It was also a day on which the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays wrestled mightily back and forth, with a few miscues but a lot of arduous, refuse-to-die play, until the bottom of the ninth. In yet another win-or-be-gone game the Rays ended Game Three of their American League division series when Koji Uehara, the Red Sox closer who's been the next best thing to the untouchable for three months, threw Tampa Bay backup catcher Jose Lobaton a nifty little splitter on which Lobaton swung as though wielding a five-iron, the blast deflecting off a fan's glove and into the cownose ray tank behind the center field fence.

Not to mention a day on which Oakland Athletics closer Grant Balfour and Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez emptied the benches in the ninth with a little verbal repartee to interrupt, just momentarily, a 6-3 Game 3 A's win in Detroit that proved the A's didn't necessarily have to out-pitch the Tigers to beat them–they could, and did, out-slug them to do it.

All of which almost paled next to what the Dodgers wrung out Monday night to close the day out. Up to and including Uribe swinging for the most dramatic Dodger hit since Steve Finley — defying the San Francisco Giants' pulling the infield and the outfield in with the bases loaded — lofted one over the right field fence to finish a 7-run National League West-winning bottom of the ninth in September 2004.

Gonzalez had no thought about bringing in Kimbrel at any time in the eighth, never mind to start the inning. Not even after Puig went off to the races leading off, with Dodger Stadium screaming madly. "I think six outs is something we weren't even talking about in the dugout," Gonzalez said after the game.

Would he prefer they be talking about it most of the Braves' winter to come? It's liable to be a very lively topic of conversation now that the Braves have lost a sixth straight postseason set since 2001 because of it.

Things were mighty interesting before that, of course. The Dodgers went to their ace Clayton Kershaw to start on three days' rest, which should have told you something right there. Mattingly may have his in-game flaws now and then, but with the chance to put the Braves away once and for all he decided to send his no-questions-asked lancer out on three days' rest and no second thoughts.

Thanks in part to that faith and to Uribe's inability to resist when a slider hangs in front of him, Mattingly may have the option of sending a better-rested Kershaw out to open the LCS as a result.

Given the circumstance Kershaw pitched magnificently enough, allowing only 2 unearned runs and 6 hits in six innings. The bad news was those two runs — setup in the fourth on an infield throwing error and a wild pitch — eradicating the early lead Carl Crawford handed his mates single-handedly. He became the first Dodger since now-first base coach Davey Lopes (Game 6, 1978 World Series) to open a postseason game long, flogging one into the right field pavilion, and he hit one several rows back in the lower right field seats his next time up.

On the other side of the mound, Gonzalez stayed with his pick, veteran Freddy Garcia, who'd been plucked from the scrap heap, rolled a sub-2.00 ERA down the stretch for the Braves, and probably had Gonzalez thinking his postseason experience would be just the thing to go with Monday.

And it was. Garcia almost out-pitched Kershaw — almost. He allowed only Crawford's two solo bombs, scattered 8 hits total over six innings otherwise, walked 2, but struck out 6, and might have been the story of the game otherwise for the Braves. Or he might have shared it with Jose Constanza, pinch hitting in the top of the seventh and busting a two-all tie with an RBI single off reliever Ronald Belisario.

Gonzalez, alas, will have to live with the move he didn't make.

Contrast that to Rays manager Joe Maddon making the eye-rubbers that paid off big earlier in the day. He sacrificed his designated hitter in the eighth in Tampa Bay, when Wil Myers came up with leg cramps, sending the day's DH, Matt Joyce, to play right field instead of, say, reserve outfielder Sam Fuld (who'd score as a pinch runner in short order), knowing he'd have eight more lineup slots to worry about the pitcher's slot he now had to pencil in.

Then, in the top of the ninth, the Rays up by a run, Maddon double switched, putting Lobaton in the pitcher's lineup slot and writing in closer Fernando Rodney to bat in catcher Jose Molina's nine hole. (Maddon admits he has a taste for National League baseball when the feeling's right.) Rodney might blow the save — with an open base Maddon elected to pitch to Dustin Pedroia with the infield back, and Pedroia swatted a game-tying RBI groundout to shortstop — but Lobaton got to hit in the ninth with two quick outs (including Evan Longoria, he of the mammoth 3-run homer in the fifth off Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, tying things at three) and nobody aboard.

Lobaton swung right through Uehara's first splitter. Then came the one that didn't split quite right, the one that assured the Rays once again would live to play another day. Maddon managing off the chart, appropriate to the time of year even if there might have been a head scratch in reaction, made that happen. Gonzalez managing by the book, inappropriate to the time of year, apparently believing the best closer in the league couldn't get him six outs.

He didn't have any qualms about asking Kimbrel for a four-out save in Game 2, but he couldn't bear the thought of asking Kimbrel for a six-out save in a game the Braves absolutely had to win. You tell me whether this is going to prove worse than the Braves' September 2011 collapse, one saved from eternal infamy only because that year's Red Sox collapsed even worse in the same month.

Kimbrel was said to have been standing with hands on hips and a look on his face described as something between disgust and pain during the ninth inning. After Dodgers closer Kenley Jensen hammered the final nails into the Atlanta coffin, Kershaw was in the middle of a clubhouse champagne and beer shampoo, joining his manager in getting hugs and a well-done from a fellow who'd been there, done that, and enjoyed a few champagne shampoos of his own once upon a time: Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

"You don't want it to ever end the way we ended today," Gonzalez mourned. "But we had the right guy out there. Carp has been good for us. There is nothing to be ashamed of."

Carpenter was good for the Braves on the regular season. That 1.78 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 56 assignments speaks for itself. But so does Kimbrel's 1.21 ERA/0.88 WHIP, not to mention a third straight league leadership with 50 saves.

These Braves, who managed to shake off a few hiccups and a few dubious deals to post the National League's best regular season record, deserved better than regular season managing in a win-or-be-gone game.

All they have to do is look at who's going to the NLCS on their dime, because their manager — who isn't without his own in-game hiccups, and whose job was on the line in June before that spectacular in-season resurrection — remembered what time of year it really was Monday night.

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