Yesterday afternoon, right around lunchtime in Los Angeles, the Dodgers dropped this bombshell:
With a 2-1 advantage in the Division Series and a chance to seal victory on their home turf, the Dodgers were going for the jugular. Manager Don Mattingly had decided to hand the ball to his best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and ask him to do something that he had never done as a starter: work on three days’ rest.
Some nine hours later, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was given a similar opportunity. His team had stared down Kershaw and, with the help of shaky glovework from the Dodgers, come out ahead. As the game went into the seventh-inning stretch, the winning pitcher of record was Freddy Garcia, and the go-ahead run freshly delivered by the unlikely tandem of Elliot Johnson, who tripled with one away in the top of the seventh, and pinch-hitter Jose Constanza, who singled him home.
Luis Avilan and Brian Wilson each stranded a couple of baserunners to preserve the 3-2 score until the bottom of the eighth—decision time for Gonzalez. His best pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, was getting greased up for a high-leverage assignment. But Kimbrel, well on his way to being remembered as one of the great closers of the post-Mariano Rivera generation, had never recorded six outs to convert a save. In fact, the 25-year-old had only twice completed two innings in any major-league situation, once while blowing a save chance in 2011, his rookie year, and once as a 22-year-old wetting his feet in 2010.
Gonzalez went instead with David Carpenter, who earned his trust with an outstanding regular season, during which he compiled a 1.78 ERA and went 33 straight appearances from late July through September without coughing up more than one run. Yasiel Puig led off the frame with a double, putting the tying run in scoring position and bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Kimbrel was ready. But Gonzalez was not prepared to put him in for six outs.
For a moment, the decision to stay with Carpenter seemed warranted. Juan Uribe stepped to the plate with a benign assignment from Mattingly: to move Puig to third with a sacrifice bunt. Gone was the bloodthirsty impetus for starting Kershaw; by that point, the Dodgers merely wanted to tie the game and leave it in the hands of each team’s best relievers. Once the stage was set for Skip Schumaker to try his hand at sending Puig home, Gonzalez would once again have the chance to bring in his closer, to make it as difficult as possible for Schumaker to make contact in the situation when the Dodgers would need a ball in play most.
Both skippers’ best-laid plans fell through when Uribe fouled off his two bunt attempts. The bad news for the Dodgers was that Puig was stuck on second, one strike away from still being there with the Braves one out closer to forcing Game Five. The bad news for the Braves was that Uribe was no longer bunting.
Carpenter backed up a 2-2 slider. Uribe walloped it into the left-field stands. Kenley Jansen struck out the side in the ninth. And Kimbrel was left pacing in the bullpen with a ball in his glove.
The buzz before Game Four was all about the Dodgers going for the jugular. The fateful moment in the contest and the series came when neither team wanted to.
- The decision to start Kershaw drew mixed opinions. Some thought it was the right call—among other reasons, because the Dodgers faced the prospect of thousands of miles of extra travel if they failed to clinch the series in four. Others thought it was a desperation move at a time that didn’t call for one. In the end, Kershaw’s six innings of two-run ball, which might have been seven scoreless frames with a perfect infield, proved that the best pitcher in baseball is more than adequate on short rest.
- Garcia served up a couple of home runs to Carl Crawford but otherwise had no trouble keeping up with Kershaw. He allowed five more hits and one more walk, but executed his pitches to escape the jams he faced and matched the left-hander’s strikeout total of six. In fact, Garcia—despite a much less electric fastball—elicited 13 whiffs to Kershaw’s 12. The Braves’ decision to send Garcia, a summertime minor-league pickup, to the hill with their season on the line also was vindicated. David Hale, Paul Maholm, and Alex Wood—the three likeliest alternatives—would have been hard-pressed to match the veteran righty’s performance.
- Crawford’s big flies gave him three in the last two games. The left fielder slugged only one in his last 350 regular-season plate appearances, a two-run shot off of Collin McHugh on September 27. Crawford also turned in a multi-homer showing on April 28, accounting for the only tallies in a 2-0 duel between Kershaw and Kyle Lohse.
- Crawford wound up hitting more home runs in Game Four than the Braves whacked in the entire series. Atlanta’s only long ball was Jason Heyward’s inconsequential blast in the Game Three loss. The Braves, who topped the senior circuit with 181 taters during the regular season, had just five separate four-game stretches over which they failed to notch at least two home runs.
- Brian McCann, whose season ended with a golden sombrero, was the only regular on either team who went hitless in the series. The catcher scuffled down the stretch, posting a .628 OPS from August 1 through the end of September, and his slump continued with an 0-for-13 rut in the playoffs. If this is the end of the line in Atlanta for McCann, an impending free agent, it will be a disappointing farewell.
- With the Kershaw bullet fired in Game Four of the Division Series, the Dodgers almost certainly will hand the ball to Zack Greinke in Game One of the NLCS. They will learn the identity of their opponent on Wednesday night and will return to the field, either visiting the Cardinals or hosting the Pirates, on Friday.