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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.

Notes

  • 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.
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Justice
10/08
Juan Uribe is definitely a post-season hero. Consider this: since 2005, Uribe has played on 4 teams that reached the post-season -- the 2005 White Sox, the 2008 White Sox, the 2010 Giants and the 2013 Dodgers. The collective record of these teams in the post-season? The 2005 White Sox went 11-1. The 2008 White Sox went 1-2. The 2010 Giants went 11-4 and the 2013 Dodgers have gone 3-1, so far. Uribe's teams have gone a collective 26-8 and in the 2005 and 2010 World Series, Uribe made huge, critical plays, as he did tonight for the Dodgers. That really is a post-season hero.
degerman1987
10/08
Great insight and account of a game that I was unable to watch. Thanks for the coverage.
cdt719
10/08
A 6 inning sample "proved" that the best pitcher in baseball is more than adequate on short rest?
sykojohnny
10/08
The concept of a "save" along with the requisite set-up man resulted in the best Braves pitcher standing in the bullpen while Carpenter faced the Puig/Uribe duo so that Kimbrel could face the 8th hitter, a pinch hitter and the leadoff hitter in the 9th. Shouldn't it have been the other way around?
newsense
10/08
The idea that once Kimbrel comes into the game to start the eighth, he still has to pitch the entire ninth is absurd. Even if he comes in in the eighth, he could pitch to one or two batters in the ninth. the next guy could enter with one or two out and no one on and have a relatively easy "save."
fantasyking
10/08
What would be "relatively easy" about coming on in the ninth, with the top of the Dodgers' order up, in a hostile environment, with a one-run lead, and having not closed a game all season? Kimbrel was the man for the job in the ninth, period. The only debate is whether you think he could have handled the ninth effectively after also being asked to handle the eighth. Maybe he could have, but he hasn't proven it before, and it would have been a sizeable gamble.
Robotey
10/08
Story has it wrong: bad news for the Braves is that Brian McCann out down two fingers when he only should have put down one. How any Major League catcher can choose to speed up Uribe's bat when his pitcher is throwing 97mph is beyond me. The only fault with the manager is for not insisting on calling the pitches, because his catcher is clearly incapable of doing so. This was a matter of execution, not strategy.
statsrath
10/08
There might be a case here, as hard as Carpenter throws, but it's worth noting that Uribe was 16-for-92 (.174) with 26 strikeouts versus right-handers' sliders coming into the game: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/h_tabs.php?player=346874&gFilt=&time=month&minmax=ci&var=ra&s_type=2&startDate=01/01/2013&endDate=10/06/2013&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=R.
Robotey
10/08
Yes, Daniel, but what are his numbers against hanging sliders? As an LA resident, I've watched plenty of Uribe for the last 3 years, he the perfect example of a mistake hitter. If a pitcher avoids mistakes, he gets Uribe out. With a rookie on the mound, high pressure situation, even if he throws 97 down the heart of the plate Uribe is not going to turn it around. There is a kernel of truth to most cliches, for a reason: if you're going to get beat, get beat with your best pitch. Carpenter throws gas, and the Braves are playing golf now because they got beat by a rookie throwing his 2nd best pitch. Carpenter could have done the job, but he needed a catcher who knew how many fingers to put down.
drawbb
10/08
Unfortunately for Atlanta, getting beat on pitches that aren't your best is an old story. I've always blamed Cox for the Leyritz HR that turned around the 1996 World Series. Letting Wohlers, who threw 100 MPH at the time and was a fastball/forkball pitcher, get beaten on a hanging slider is still the sad epitome of criminal baseball negligence.
fantasyking
10/09
Important note: Wohlers gave up that HR to Leyritz in the EIGHTH inning. He was asked to come in for a two-inning save, which he had not done all season.
fantasyking
10/09
ETA: Wohlers did complete some 5-out saves in 1996, but he failed to complete a 6-out save when asked to do so.
statsrath
10/08
Like I said, I think that's a good point. From McCann's perspective, it was probably a case of prioritizing Uribe's weakness—swinging at sliders below the zone and away—rather than Carpenter's strength, which was the wrong decision. That said, I think the same applies to the cliché of getting beat with your best pitcher on the mound, and I would rather have had Kimbrel on the mound with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run at the plate than Carpenter.
Robotey
10/10
In hindsight, I'm almost tempted to agree with you about calling for Kimbrel in the 8th BUT, I think that when considering that option most folks assume Kimbrel will be lights out for 2 straight innings, but how many times have we seen the letdown by the amped closer in his 2nd inning of work after putting out a fire--ok, maybe not so many because there are no more 6 out saves--but, given that even Kimbrel is mortal, we can't assume he'll be automatic for both innings.
KBarth
10/08
Kershaw would be available then, Saturday? Game 2 instead of game 1 of the next series? If that means it's Greinke/Kershaw instead of Kershaw/Greinke to start the next series, I'd think most everyone in the Dodger camp would be okay with that. I'd conclude that the timing of the series strongly suggest that throwing Kershaw last night was a good move.