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October 4, 2012

On the Beat

Planning a Play-In Strategy

by John Perrotto

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The Braves will make history Friday when they host the Cardinals in what is officially called the National League Wild Card Game but has is also being alternately called the Single-Elimination Game, The Knockout Game, The Preliminary Round Game, The Play-In Game, and The Coin Flip Game, among others.

Regardless of name, the Braves-Cardinals game will be unique, as will the American League wild card game between the Orioles and Rangers at Arlington on Friday night. Thanks to the addition of the second wild card this season, those four teams are in a one-and-done situation. (Granted, the Orioles and Rangers would still be involved in a play-in if there were only one wild card.) Win and move on to the Division Series. Lose, and the post-season experience lasted approximately 3.5 hours. In the NCAA Tournament, coaches like to say, "survive and advance," and that's exactly how Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is looking at it.

"It's a must-win game, as simple as that," Gonzalez said. "We've got to win it. There is no margin for error. We'll play the game like it's the last game of the season."

Teams can change their 25-man rosters between each postseason round. Thus, the Braves will carry fewer starting pitchers than normal and more position players for the wild-card game.

"We want to give ourselves as many options as you can because you might have to pull out all the stops in this game," Gonzalez said. "It makes for an interesting scenario and some potentially interesting strategy. Do you use more pinch-hitters because you have a longer bench? You might, depending on the situation, and any time you're in a must-win game, you can't be scared to use everyone in your bullpen, especially since they'll all be rested and ready."

The Braves finished the regular season with a 94-68 record, six games better than the Cardinals, who were 88-74, but Atlanta seemingly has little advantage in its upcoming game. However, Braves general manager Frank Wren is trying to look on the bright side.

"It's a tough situation to be in a must-win game right off the bat, but the good thing is we're at home," Wren said. "Having the better record means we have home-field advantage, and we're certainly excited about that."

Reaching the postseason has helped the Braves erase the sting of last year's epic September collapse, which caused them to miss the playoffs by one game. Worse yet, the Cardinals beat the Braves out for the NL wild card and went on to win the World Series. However, Atlanta’s players aren't necessarily happy that their post-season fate will be decided in a winner-take-all game.

"I'm not a big fan of it," right-hander Tim Hudson said. "I don't think a lot of players are. I understand there are one-game tiebreakers for division titles or wild cards, but this is different. We're already in the postseason. There should be at least a little more margin for error, even if it were a best-of-three series. That way, you'd have a little room to breathe. But it is what is, and all we can do about it is go out and win the game and not make it an issue. It's on us, too, for not winning our division."

Catcher Brian McCann feels the same ways about the one-game setup. However, he also sees the big picture and knows the addition of the second wild card kept more teams in contention and seemingly sparked more fan interest in more markets.

"I understand why Major League Baseball wants to do it this way, because a one-game playoff brings a lot of drama, and those games should produce some really good television ratings," McCann said. "From a player's standpoint, it's tough, but I can also see where the fans would really be excited. Ultimately, that's what it's all about, and I'm fine with that."

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A few minutes with Reds bench coach Chris Speier

On what it was like filling in as acting manager in late September after Dusty Baker suffered a mini-stroke: "It was really hard for me to concentrate at first, when one of my best friends and a brother in arms was in the hospital and not knowing exactly what the heck was going on with him. Everybody in the clubhouse and on the field kind of had their attention torn because they were worried about what was going on with our leader. Fortunately, we had just about clinched a post-season berth and the division title when Dusty went into the hospital. From that standpoint, it was certainly easier than having to try to figure everything out in the middle of a tight pennant race."

On how he relied on the coaching staff to make managing a committee effort: "Everyone really pulled together. I was still doing the running game and the defense. I've always done that, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. (Pitching coach) Bryan Price and (bullpen coach) Mack Jenkins, boy, I couldn't have done it without their help. They had the pitching all lined up as far as who was available and when were the right situations to bring certain guys into the game. Then when there were hitting strategy decisions to be made, I asked (hitting coach) Brook Jacoby about those things, and he gave a lot of good input."

On what it was like to be the acting manager when Homer Bailey threw his no-hitter on Sept. 29 against the Pirates: "I've had a chance to see a lot of exciting moments in all my years in baseball, and that was up there with any of them. It was also the most nerve-wracking. My biggest fear was that his pitch count might get too high and I'd have to pull him from the game. That's the last thing I wanted to do. The opportunity to throw a no-hitter doesn't come around very often, and I'd hate to deny someone of that. At the same time, you've got to look at the bigger picture, and the last thing you would want to do is leave Homer out there too long and then not have him be 100 percent for the postseason. It was fun to watch, though. He's always been a good thrower with a great arm, but he's making that transition into becoming a pitcher. He's really becoming the total package."

On if the Reds are ready for the postseason, which they open Saturday by playing the Giants in Game One of the National League Division Series in San Francisco: "I really think we are. We had a chance to clinch with two weeks left in the season. That gave us a lot of time to rest the guys who needed rest, but our guys also maintained that intensity level you need to succeed in the postseason."

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A few minutes with White Sox manager Robin Ventura

On the White Sox being in first place for 126 days and having a three-game lead on Sept. 18, yet finishing second to the Tigers in the American League Central: "It's disappointing, because you wish you could have done better. Obviously, you want to get to the postseason because that's what you play the game for. When I look back on the season, though, I won't consider it a disappointing one. I'm not disappointed in our guys. They gave their best effort all season. You always end up where you're supposed to be when it's all said and done. We came up short. It's tough, but that's the way it turned out."

On what his first season was like after having no previous managerial experience: "It was a little bit different than I thought it would in some regards, it was what I thought it would be in other ways, and in some ways it wasn't even close. There's a little bit of everything that goes into this job, and I feel like a learned a lot this year. No matter what anybody tells you and how much advice you get, you can't really understand what the job is like unless you experience it for yourself. It's been a lot of fun, but there's also a lot of responsibility that goes with it."

On the most difficult part of his first season: "Without a doubt, losing a staff member on Opening Day when (batting practice pitcher and former White Sox reliever) Kevin Hickey was found unresponsive in his hotel room and eventually passed away. I've been throw a lot of different things in my baseball career, but nothing compared to that. That's life. That's far more important than baseball, and it was very hard for all of us to lose a great friend like Hick."

On what he enjoyed most about managing: "We used a lot of rookie pitchers this season—threw them right into the fire without training wheels—and I was really happy about the way they performed. To know we have a lot of talented pitchers who should be able to help us for a number of years to come is exciting. It always starts with pitching, and I like our young pitchers."

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Scouts' views

Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter: "If the Cardinals get past the wild-card game, I think you'll see him come up with some big performances. He threw the ball better each time out in those three starts he made at the end of the season."

Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin: "The Rockies have a long way to go to get back to respectability, but this is one guy they can build a rotation around. He really looked good late in the season."

Orioles first baseman/outfielder Chris Davis: "Sometimes, the light bulb turns on for players, and it has in this guy's case this season. He's finally turning into the type of power hitter a lot of people thought he could be."

Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey: "Knuckleballer or not, it's pretty impressive that he had the type of season he had even though he had an abdominal tear. I guess you could say he really gutted this season out."

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez: "He got back to being the old Adrian Gonzalez at the end of the season. He finally looked relaxed, and I think he's ready to have a monster season next year."

Royals right-hander Jeremy Guthrie: "He pitched very well at the end of the year, and I think he would be wise to re-sign with the Royals. It's a good spot for him. The Royals really need pitching, and he's a low-key guy who fits in well in a small market like Kansas City."

Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner: "I know he says he wants to keep playing, but the only way I'd touch him if he takes a minor-league contract with no guarantee of a major-league job. There isn't much left in that tank."

Padres third baseman Chase Headley: "He's always been a smart hitter, and now he's figured out he can turn on pitches. I don't think these last two months have been a fluke. I think we've seen the emergence of a star player."

Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill: "He might have had the quietest great season in the major leagues this year. He was absolutely terrific."

Yankees designated hitter Raul Ibanez: "I am stunned by the season he's had. I thought he was cooked last year. I didn't even think he had enough left to help a team off the bench. I put him down as a firm ‘no sign’ on my report at the end of last season."

Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche: "Nobody ever mentions him in the MVP talk, but he's been a steady run producer all year in the middle of that lineup. He's meant a lot more to that club that people give him credit for."

Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke: "I know his stats haven't been very good so far, but I like this kid. He's got a pretty good idea of how to pitch, and his stuff is good. He just needs to settle down and find the strike zone."

Twins first baseman Justin Morneau: "He's never going to be the player he used to be because of all the injuries, but the positive is that he got through this season pretty much unscathed. He's still a productive player when he's healthy, just not an MVP candidate anymore."

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia: "You've got to love him. Anybody else with a broken finger on a last-place team would have shut it down, but he kept playing to the end. And he played well, too."

Giants catcher Buster Posey: "He deserves all the credit in the world to come back from that ankle injury to have an MVP-type season, but Bruce Bochy deserves credit, too. Bochy did a good job of spotting Posey at first base enough to keep his bat in the lineup and take some stress off the ankle."

Rays right-hander James Shields: "I don't know if the Rays will trade him, but if they do, then they'll get a boatload for him this winter. He was as good as I've ever seen him Tuesday night (when he struck out 15 Orioles)."

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Front-office types’ views

Angels: "They've got to shore up that pitching staff in the offseason. They lack depth, especially in the bullpen, and that bit them this year."

Astros: "I like the way they played at the end of the season. They've got a long way to go, mind you, but I do think have some pretty decent young players to build around."

Athletics: "This was the finest hour for Billy Beane and Bob Melvin. Billy made all the right moves personnel-wise, and BoMel pushed all the right buttons strategically. If you look at that team on paper, there is no way it should have won their division."

Blue Jays: "For all the love he gets in the industry, I’m not convinced John Farrell is a very good manager. I know they got decimated by injuries, but they play sloppy baseball, and I don't like the way some of their young players carry themselves."

Brewers: "I really expected a drop-off this year, and there was one early, but I liked how they bounced back late in the season. I think they'll be contenders next year because Doug Melvin is a good GM."

Cubs: "I know they lost 100 games, but they are headed in the right direction. It's going to take some time, but they'll get it done."

Mariners: "I'm not a big fan of fooling around with park dimensions, but moving the fences in at Safeco Field was long overdue. That place has played tricks with their hitters' minds ever since it opened. I think the changes they are making are fair. It'll still be a pitchers' park, but not to the extreme it has been."

Marlins: "Hey, everyone likes a good human interest story, and Adam Greenberg is a nice story, but it seems to me—and a lot of other people in the game—that the Marlins gave the guy a chance more because they wanted good publicity in a bad season more than they wanted to make someone's dream come true. Sad to say, but anytime David Samson is involved, your first thought is there is an ulterior motive."

Phillies: "They fired some coaches at the end of the season, and it was needed. This was a team that lacked attention to detail, even when they played better in the second half."

Rangers: "They played awful down the stretch, and I really don't know how they're going to regroup and make a run in the postseason. If there was ever a team that looked like a certain one-and-done in that new knockout game, it's these guys."

Tigers: "If Max Scherzer can't pitch or is affected by his shoulder or ankle, then the Tigers are in big trouble. They just don't have the pitching depth to absorb his loss."

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In this week's Must Read, the great Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com writes that Billy Beane has gotten his vindication this season.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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