October 13, 2011
Kotsay it Ain't So
Sometimes a manager plays a hunch and winds up looking smart, even if the process by which he arrives at the decision appears flawed. In Game Five of the AL Division Series, Jim Leyland batted light-hitting utilityman Don Kelly second, and Kelly responded with a solo home run in the first inning en route to a 3-2 Tigers victory and a series win. On the other hand, sometimes a manager makes a head-scratching move, and it backfires so badly it raises the question of whether a best-of-seven series can end in three games. In Game Three of the NL Championship Series, Ron Roenicke chose to start Mark Kotsay in center field and bat him second against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Before the first inning was out, Kotsay wound up on the wrong end of two game-changing plays en route to a 4-0 deficit, and while the Brewers made a game of it, they fell 4-3, putting themselves in a two-games-to-one hole with the possibility that the series may not make it back to Milwaukee.
The 35-year-old Kotsay was an odd choice to start in center, not only because Roenicke has employed a workable platoon between lefty Nyjer Morgan (.316/.370/.439 against righties this season) and righty Carlos Gomez (.278/.301/.556 against lefties, albeit in just 90 plate appearances), two speedsters who combined for 13 FRAA this year. Kotsay, also a lefty, hit a thin .259/.318/.368 against righties and was 3.4 runs below average in the field. Furthermore, he had just one start in center field in August and September, and just eight starts total in that span. With Morgan just 3-for-20 in the postseason—the last of those hits the Division Series-winning RBI, followed by the greatest (or worst) open mike moment of sports celebration you'll ever see—and coming off an 0-for-3 with some misadventures afield, Roenicke chose to get away with what had gotten him to this position.
Apparently factoring into the decision was the fact that Kotsay was 4-for-11 in his career versus Carpenter, including 3-for-4 with a double this year, while Morgan was just 2-for-23. Small samples those are, though you can understand the temptation to shy away from the latter in light of his recent struggles. Kotsay initially made his manager look smart by drawing a first-inning walk against a less-than-sharp Carpenter, and advancing to second as Ryan Braun was hit by a pitch. The Brewers appeared primed for big things when Prince Fielder got ahead in the count 2-0, but two pitches later, the slugger hit a shallow fly to center field that Jon Jay snared. Thinking it would fall, Kotsay had run too far off second base upon contact, and Jay's throw not only beat him back for an inning-ending double play, but left him with a mouthful of dirt after being upended and humiliated. Alas, it got worse.
In writing up Game One of the series, I had noted that aside from Yovani Gallardo, the rest of the Brewers' rotation had failed to deliver a quality start this postseason, and had in fact delivered a double-digit ERA. Shaun Marcum's dud on Monday night continued that trend, lowering the non-Gallardos' mark all the way from 11.57 to 11.51. The Brewers' blueprint for winning this series after squandering home-field advantage necessitated a strong start from the 25-year-old righty, particularly when matched against Carpenter—perhaps not the easiest request to fulfill, since the Cardinals had rocked him for a 5.70 ERA and a whopping eight homers in 23
Alas, he was a mess. Rafael Furcal led off the first inning with a single up the middle, and advanced to second when Gallardo bounced a curveball to Jay after putting him in an 0-2 hole. Jay battled back to 2-2, then hit a dying quail to—wait for it—center field. Morgan or Gomez likely would have had it, but Kotsay was a beat slow. The ball eluded him and skipped past Braun as well for an RBI double. Albert Pujols, who had destroyed everything in his path en route to a 4-for-5 night with three doubles and a homer on Monday, followed with a ground-rule double on the next pitch for a 2-0 lead.
Already digging himself a hole, Gallardo lost the strike zone, walking Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman on a combined 10 pitches, loading the bases without having recorded an out. Even a 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Yadier Molina netted another run, and then David Freese hit a long fly ball just out of reach of right fielder Corey Hart, who had misjudged the ball, for another double and another run, 4-0 Cardinals. Thanks again, outfield defense. Gallardo intentionally walked Nick Punto to face Carpenter, who obliged with a one-pitch ground out, the 33rd pitch of an ugly inning.
To their credit, the Brewers didn't simply roll over and die. Three straight singles by Rickie Weeks, Jerry Hairston Jr., and Yuniesky Betancourt brought home a run before Carpenter had retired a hitter in the second inning, and productive fly balls by Jonathan Lucroy and Gallardo (an outstanding hitter for a pitcher, .218/.258/.391 with nine career homers)netted a second. Carpenter needed 27 pitches to escape via a Hart strikeout, pushing his two-inning total to 46.
Both pitchers settled down somewhat after that, hardly dominant but able to grind it out. Gallardo used a more reasonable 29 pitches to get through the next two frames, surrendering a single to Pujols and another double to Freese. Because baseball is a silly game that mocks us when we approach understanding, Kotsay bashed a first-pitch solo homer—a sinker that didn't sink—off Carpenter to lead off the Milwaukee third, this from a player who went yard all of three times in 255 plate appearances during the regular season. Carpenter followed that by allowing a single to Braun, but erased him via a Fielder double play. He worked around a one-out single by Betancourt in the fourth, and a one-out, four-pitch walk of Kotsay (!) in the fifth. After retiring Braun on a fly ball, he intentionally walked Fielder, a seemingly dubious move given that Weeks had to that point collected a hit in each game of the series (including a homer in Monday's rout) after going 1-for-18 in the Division Series.
Carpenter handled the at-bat masterfully. He got Weeks to swing and miss at a low curveball, threw two pitches low and away for balls, got Weeks to foul off another curve, threw a cutter waaay outside the zone, and came back with a curve at the lower edge of the zone that Weeks swung through for strike three. At 89 pitches, he was done for the night. Gallardo departed as well after one more brisk inning, running his total to 95 pitches. The two frontliners combined to allow seven runs on 14 hits and eight walks plus a hit-by-pitch while striking out just five in their 10 innings, neither of them retiring the side in order all night.
That job would be left to the bullpens. Every button Tony La Russa pushed after the fifth inning worked exactly as planned, as Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski, and Jason Motte retired the final 12 Brewers in order, with Lynn working four outs, the Rzepper coming on to strike out Fielder for the second out of the eighth, and the fireballing Motte netting the four-out save, striking out three—Weeks in the eighth, Betancourt and pinch-hitter Casey McGehee in the ninth—with his high-90s heat.
The Brewers' bullpen didn't pitch badly. Ageless LaTroy Hawkins worked around a single and a two-out intentional walk of Pujols to strike out Holliday, who with his hand injury hasn't homered since September 6 (off Gallardo), a span of 60 plate appearances. In the seventh, Takashi Saito, the next man from Milwaukee's Old Closers Retirement Home, used a double play off the bat of Freese to erase Berkman, whom he had plunked in the leg with his first pitch; the Big Puma was nearly wiped out one at-bat earlier when he had to scramble back to first on a hit-and-run that resulted in a Molina fly out, raising the question of whether he should have been pinch-run for at that stage. Given his defense, the vote here is yes.
Facing a particularly favorable slate for a lefty (switch-hitters Nick Punto and Furcal batting from their weaker sides, sandwiched around lefty David Descalso), Chris Narveson retired the side in order in the eighth, though his deployment, instead of either Francisco Rodriguez or John Axford—the top choices to keep the deficit at one going into the ninth—suggested that he's out of consideration for a Game Six fill-in start in Marcum's stead. Marcum has been torched for 30 runs and seven homers in his last 33 innings dating back to September 9, delivering just one quality start out of six, that against the hapless Cubs.
With a 2-1 series lead, much is going the Cardinals' way. Pujols, after being held to a quiet 1-for-4 in the opener, is 6-for-7 with 13 total bases and two walks in the past two games and is hitting .452/.514/.774 for the postseason. Freese is 6-for-12 with two doubles and two homers in this series. Jay, Holliday, and Berkman are a combined 11-for-33, though they were relatively quiet on Wednesday night. The Cardinals' bullpen has allowed just four hits and two runs in 10 innings. The Brewers' vaunted rotation has allowed 15 runs in 15 innings in this series, and has posted a 7.56 ERA for the postseason. Facing Kyle Lohse in Game Four, they send Randy Wolf to the hill, a fly-baller who—as Joe Sheehan has pointed out—is facing a team that hit an NL-best .284/.353/.457 against fly-ballers this season and who was rocked for two homers and seven runs in a three-inning start against the Diamondbacks. The Brewers are just 39-45 this year on the road, including 0-3 in the playoffs, and they're not guaranteed another home game. La Russa's bunch, after being all but counted out a month ago, is poised for the kill.