October 12, 2010
LDS Day Six Wrapup
Five-game series have a different dynamic when compared to their seven-game brethren, in particular when it comes to stress management. One loss represents 50 percent of your series-recommended allowance, so teams find themselves in desperation mode much quicker. After getting a gift win in Game Two to tie the National League Division Series, the Braves gave one right back to the Giants on Sunday in equally, if not more heart-breaking fashion. With his season (and career) on the line, manager Bobby Cox did not hesitate to make major overhauls to his Game Four approach on Monday night.
The easy decision was to start Derek Lowe on three days' rest. While he struggled to command his arsenal in Game One, his sinker was effective, with the ground-ball variety representing 11 of the 16 outs recorded, and in just 96 pitches. No matter the pitch count, Cox was without options, as while Brandon Beachy was a great story for going from the instructional league to pressure-packed September starts, a post-season stay-alive game would be far too heady an assignment.
Then with the lineup, Cox knew he had to bench Brooks Conrad, whose play in the field had clearly entered the 'sad to watch' phase, yet the injury-riddled roster left him with no ideal options. In the end, Atlanta's lineup looked radically different that anything we've seen recently.
One gets the feeling that Cox spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what to do here. The decisions started by moving Omar Infante back to second base, which solves the second-base problem but forces something ugly at third in Troy Glaus, who despite starting the miracle double play that led to a Game Two victory, is a virtual lawn ornament at the hot corner. Again, this was best of Cox's poor options, but his tinkering didn't end there, as Jason Heyward was dropped to one of his early-season spots in the lineup, an understandable move considering the rookie's struggles and Matt Diaz's near All-Star status against left-handers. Yet, Cox didn't play the platoon advantage in center, leaving doghouse-bound Melky Cabrera on the bench to favor the defensive prowess of Rick Ankiel, who went 4-for-26 with 15 strikeouts versus left-handed pitching following his trade to the Braves from the Royals on July 31. During the final months of the year, when the Braves often had to make lineup decisions based on the least-horrifying scenario, Cox and his staff often leaned on batter/pitcher matchups to help with the decision-making process. Atlanta would have no such assistance on Monday, as nobody on the roster had ever faced Madison Bumgarner in the big leagues. One can debate the value of such data considering the small sample sizes involved, but without that data, all of Cox's decisions became that much more gut-based, coming from one of the most respectable guts in the game. Monday night's lineup is hardly what somebody with an Atlanta deck of Strat-o-Matic cards would do, but many of the decisions involved things (in particular, Conrad's struggles) that a computer simply cannot account for.
For the Giants, things were far loss complicated. Mike Fontenot got the start at third base over an ailing Panda, as Game Three's triple and run scored helped his cause. The most-discussed decision, and one that never changed for manager Bruce Bochy, was to go with Bumgarner to start the game. The aggressive-minded would see a 2-1 advantage in a five-game series as a boot to the throat that should not be let up, and after all, we're talking about Tim Lincecum here, who despite his 119 pitches last Thursday in Game One, is The Freak, the guy who doesn't ice his arm, the kid who during his University of Washington days would go the distance on Friday and then close games out on Sunday. Still, knowing he had a Game Five at home with his ace on the mound in his back pocket, as well as the need to win three series and not just one, Bochy went with Bumgarner, who made his skipper's decision easier with a Cliff Lee-esque September than included a 1.13 ERA in five starts to go with 32 strikeouts in 32 innings and just four walks.
To call Lowe masterful during the first part of the game is to do a disservice to just how good he was. After using his sinker almost exclusively during an 11-pitch first inning that generated a pair of ground-ball outs, Lowe began to mix in the slider he found late in the season, turning it into a swing-and-miss pitch in the second and third frames, striking out four of the next six hitters he would face to remain perfect through three, while making the committee to shorten ballgames proud by often taking less than six seconds between pitches. While he struggled with his control suddenly in the fourth and got help by a great Brian McCann throw and even better tag by Alex Gonzalez on a stolen-base attempt, he recovered quickly with a six-pitch fifth inning that was shorter than your average Ramones song.
For Bumgarner, it was a struggle from the start. His very first pitch of the game was a fastball that clocked in at 95 mph, big velocity for the lefty. The extra heat was possibly the result of Bumgarner being amped in a high-pressure situation, but with the extra velocity came command issues, as the rookie completely lost the lower half of the strike zone. His 1-2-3 first inning featured a couple of hard-hit balls, and it was clear adjustments needed to be made. Bumgarner began to pay for his location in the second inning. After getting two quick outs thanks mostly to poor at-bats from McCann and Gonzalez, singles from Heyward and Glaus created the game's first high-pressure situation. Ankiel should have been the perfect solution to Bumgarner's problems, but instead, Bumgarner stopped throwing strikes and walked him, before Lowe ended the inning with a surprisingly hard-hit ball to right. While the Braves failed to score in the second, the walk to Ankiel was what led to the Braves' first run, as after a pair of singles to start the third (again, both on elevated fastballs), McCann's sacrifice fly brought home the game's first run, when in a frame that could have begun with Lowe hitting, it would have been the third out. With visits to the mound from pitching coach Dave Righetti and pitchers loosening up in the pen, the Giants seemed to recognize that Bumgarner was unlikely to make the necessary adjustments. Instead, he did just that, as Bumgarner fired a perfect fourth and fifth innings, not because he made adjustments as much as the Giants' coaching staff did. Clearly struggling with elevation, catcher Buster Posey simply stopped putting one finger down, calling just two fastballs during the entire fifth inning, turning Bumgarner into a curveball/slider specialist who would then change speeds with his cutter.
That inability to take advantage of Bumgarner's early struggles turned into a problem when Lowe made his first miscue of the game in serving up a cookie to Cody Ross in the sixth inning that was barely deposited over the left-field fence. It wasn't an indication of Lowe struggling as much as it was simply a one-time event, as Lowe continued to cruise following Ross' blast, ending the inning by striking out Andres Torres on yet another slider in the dirt. Not only did this tying shot change the game's momentum and energy, but it changed Bochy's decisions as well. With Ross batting, Nate Schierholtz was in the on-deck circle to hit for Bumgarner, and whether this was a semi-bluff or not, the tie game allowed Bochy to stick with the suddenly effective left-hander. It was like facing a different pitcher for the Braves in the fourth and fifth innings, and all of a sudden it was Atlanta which needed to make adjustments after scoring just one run against the much weaker version of Bumgarner.
They made those adjustments as quick as possibly, as McCann was looking breaking ball to lead off the sixth and got just that, for a home run on the first pitch of the frame. Now sitting back and forgetting the fastball (other than yet another hack-tastic at-bat from Gonzalez), the Braves got another solid single from Heyward, but with their decimated lineup, Atlanta failed to capitalize any further, ending the inning on a Ankiel strikeout. If any game was fitting for a La Russa-esque pitchers-hitting-eighth lineup, it was this one, as the Ankiel walk in the second was no more than a costly (for the Giants) fluke at the time but now it was hurting the offensive flow of the Braves. When Lowe started the seventh and was due to hit first in the bottom of the inning, it was no surprise to see action in the Atlanta bullpen.
Entering the inning at 80 pitches, Lowe showed no obvious signs of fatigue, as his sinker remained at 88-90 mph with a slider in the low 80s, but his control was beginning to waver. A walk issued to Aubrey Huff and a lightly-hit infield single by Posey led to Lowe's first runners in scoring position, bringing a trip to the mound from Cox. Once again, it was time for Cox to not necessarily forget what conventional wisdom was but at least favor his gut, and whatever Lowe said to him on the mound, it convinced Cox to allow him to stay in the game for one more batter. It was an on-the-fly decision, and it was wrong, as Lowe walked Pat Burrell on five pitches to end his night in what was arguably one of his best starts of the year, and considering the circumstances, certainly his gutsiest.
Cox at least went by the book with his decision for the first reliever, as when the bases are loaded with one out, it is certainly the right time to lean on the guy with a ground-ball ratio of over four-to-one. This is where the vagaries and randomness of baseball come into play and either thrill you, or break your heart. Peter Moylan in the end did his job, generating a ground ball from the bat of Jose Uribe. Two feet more to the right and it's likely a 6-4-3 double play and the biggest two outs of the game for Atlanta. Instead, it required Gonzalez to go to his right and forced a high throw to second which pulled Infante off the bag, allowing the tying run to score and meaning the end of the night for Moylan with those two feet costing him "hero of the game" status.
Now in the midst of a potential nightmare, Cox took another risk, going with the power arm in Johnny Venters, and further crippling an already impotent lineup by pulling a double switch that brought Diory Hernandez in to play third. Sitting in the upper 90s, Venters nearly escaped the inning by striking out what's left of Aaron Roward, but again, Cox went with his gut, and by thinking ahead instead of worrying about the now, his decision proved costly. Deciding that he wanted to get more than two outs out of Venters, Cox left him in to face Ross, who in his career is a .290/.351/.595 hitter against southpaws. His career OPS against lefties is roughly equal to what Troy Tulowitzki did as a whole this year. Against southpaws,though, Ross is more comparable to the 2010 version of Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones. The gambit failed ultimately as Ross smashed a single to bring home the go-ahead run for a 3-2 Giants lead before Diaz ended the inning and the rally with a perfect throw home followed by a perfect block by McCann as he tagged Burrell for the third out. That is a slow Pat Burrell who was pulled the next inning for a defensive replacement in Bochy's standard seventh-inning moves. Had he not gone by the book (or at least his book), and replaced Burrell with the faster (though hardly a burner) Schierholtz, the lead might have been two runs with an inning still going, but this is just more evidence that modern in-game management can be defined by one word: stagnancy.
In the end, that extra run didn't matter, but not without some minor drama, as a misplay by shortstop Edgar Renteria led to a runner on second with two outs for Heyward in the eighth, but lefty-on-lefty specialist Javier Lopez ended the threat by making the rookie suddenly look like one again. Then in the ninth, command problems and questionable umpire calls led to a couple of walks from suddenly struggling closer Brian Wilson, but completely out of bullets, Cox was forced to let his season ride on the bats of Infante and Cabrera, with predictable results.
Sunday's episode of The Simpsons featured a sabermetrically-obsessed Lisa taking the reins of a Bart's Little League team and leading them to victories using her stat-minded ways. On Monday night, Cox made a decision based on anything but the numbers and paid the price. Score one for Lisa Simpson.
That's not to say the burden of this loss lies solely on Cox. The Braves just were nowhere close to a playoff team offensively, and it showed in their inability to take advantage of Bumgarner's early-game struggles and throughout the series. By the time Atlanta reached the postseason, Chipper Jones was long gone, as was valuable leadoff hitter Martin Prado; with a series of slumps by other regulars leaving McCann as the only hitter in the lineup worth fearing. The fact that this team even got to the playoffs, not to mention played competitive baseball, is a tribute to Cox's leadership, and the Giants postponing their on-field celebration to honor him; and his own emotional reaction during the post-game press conference was as riveting as anything that happened on the field Monday night. I feel awful blaming him, even partially, for the loss, but the Venters/Ross matchup has stuck with me long after the game ended, and I bet it sticks around with Cox much longer.