Thursday October 13th, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- Generally, a manager's unconventional decision regarding his lineup doesn't backfire quite so quickly, nor quite so obviously.

For Wednesday night's NLCS Game 3 against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke chose to in center field start not the brash, if recently misfiring, sparkplug Nyjer Morgan, nor Carlos Gomez, Morgan's fleet-footed platoon mate, but the 35-year-old Mark Kotsay, who is usually a backup to a backup. Kotsay's statistics for the past three seasons combined -- 15 home runs, 84 RBIs -- would make for a single relatively good year. According to the advanced fielding metric Ultimate Zone Rating, he has not had a year in center field that would qualify as even average since 2004. But Roenicke, in his pregame remarks, said, essentially, that he was playing a hunch.

"I always feel good when Kotsay is in the lineup," he said. "Especially when we start him, he seems to have a big day. Something good always seems to happen when he's in there. Numbers matched up good. I think, too, if Nyjer had been swinging the bat well, I wouldn't have even thought about this, but I think it's the right thing to do here."

It wasn't. Roenicke's mistake was first exposed in the top of the first inning, when Kotsay, who not only started but batted second in the order, made a mental error that killed a promising start against Carpenter, most recently seen shutting out the Phillies in Game 5 of the NLDS. Kotsay walked, and then advanced to second when Ryan Braun was hit by a pitch, and then Prince Fielder hit a fly ball to center field. It was quite evident that Fielder's shot would be easily corralled by Jon Jay -- evident to everyone, it seemed, but Kotsay, who took off from second, lingered halfway between second and third and was easily doubled off by Jay's throw.

RIPKEN: Kotsay more of a weapon off the bench

Kotsay's unfortunate play would continue in the inning's bottom half. Jay, the second St. Louis batter, drove a ball into the gap between Kotsay in center and Braun in left. Morgan would probably have gotten to it, and Gomez certainly would have, Roenicke would admit.

"Gomez is going to catch it," he said. "Gomez catches everything that's out there."

Kotsay's 35-year-old legs couldn't propel him to the ball quite fast enough, though, and it fell to the turf just out of his reach, resulting in an RBI double for Jay -- Rafael Furcal had reached base on a leadoff single -- and the genesis of an inning in which the first five Cardinals to come to the plate would reach base against Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, and in which the club would score all the runs it would need to win Game 3 4-3 and to take a 2-1 lead in the series. David Freese, who has broken out this postseason as an able complement to the heart-of-the-order triumvirate of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, capped the scoring with an RBI double. Freese now boasts a robust NLCS batting average of .500, and an OPS of 1.715.

Kotsay would attempt to make amends for his troubled first inning by hitting a near-400 foot home run in the top of the third, but it wasn't enough to undo what he had done, and it would produce the last run the Brewers would score. Starting Kotsay wasn't Roenicke's only pre-game error.

"You would think it would be a low-scoring game," he predicted. "You never know. But we expect to be able to scrap out a few runs to win this game."

The game was billed as a duel of aces, Carpenter versus Gallardo. Were this a duel, though, it would not have been a clean one fought with the precise thrusts of expertly wielded epees, but one of wild flailing and hacking with whatever weapon or piece of furniture happened to be at hand. Both pitchers lasted just five innings, Gallardo allowing four runs on eight hits and five walks, Carpenter three runs on six hits with three walks. Both threw nearly as many balls as they did strikes: 47 of Gallardo's 95 pitches missed the plate, as did 41 of Carpenter's 89.

"It was a battle all night long," Carpenter said, one of his main opponents being his own command.

With both starters struggling, the difference came down to Kotsay's early failures, and then the Cardinals' late success. St. Louis' bullpen, 11th in the NL in ERA during the regular season and formerly a regular source of agita, was brilliant: Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte combined to throw four perfect innings after Carpenter departed.

"Our bullpen is what won the game for us," Berkman said, which was no surprise to Roenicke.

"When you see 96 to 99 [mph] coming out of there with nice sliders, I think it's really good," he said.

The Cardinals, then, won this alleged matchup of aces due largely not to their ace, nor even to their stars, but to their role players' superiority to the Brewers', and to their suddenly unhittable corps of relievers. Game 3 was another example of how the Cardinals now seem to be just slightly better and just slightly deeper, in nearly every respect, than the team that beat them by six games in the NL Central. That advantage should continue to serve them well in this series. Game 4, a matchup between the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse and the Brewers' Randy Wolf, will be played here tomorrow night.

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