Braves, Gonzalez play by the book and it costs them their season

Tuesday October 8th, 2013

Mariano Rivera spent his final season collecting gifts and compliments. Consider what the Braves did in NLDS Game 4 last night one final compliment to the greatest relief pitcher ever. By losing a late lead and getting eliminated without using the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta unwittingly acknowledged that there is nobody like Rivera.

Every manager in baseball, including the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez, thinks he cannot use his closer the way that Yankees managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi used Rivera. In Atlanta's Game 4 loss, Gonzalez simply applied the universally accepted maxim that applies even when your team is on the brink of the end of its season: a closer can get four outs but not six.

Check out the tally of two-inning postseason saves in the wild card era (1995-2013):

Mariano Rivera: 14
Every other pitcher in baseball combined: 13

Flash back to Game 4 of the 2005 ALDS. New York was facing an elimination game against the Angels. The Yankees took a 3-2 lead with two runs in the bottom of the seventh. Torre, who had used Tom Gordon as a setup man in Game 1 with a three-run lead, grabbed the game by the throat with only a one-run lead and his team on the brink: He put Rivera on the mound to start the eighth and asked him to get six outs, which he did.

More to blame for the Braves' defeat than Gonzalez is the conventional wisdom that your best relief pitcher can't ever get six outs. No one is recommending that it be done all the time, but why can't there be emergencies in which it is at least considered? Why is every manager managing the exact same way -- even in October when facing elimination?

Pitching decisions dominate postseason second-guessing. Last night Don Mattingly of the Dodgers won a game in which he asked Clayton Kershaw to do something he had never done before (pitch on short rest), while Gonzalez went home without asking Kimbrel to do something he never had done before (get a six-out save).

Of course, Atlanta has more deep-rooted problems than not using Kimbrel into an elimination game. What was supposed to be a dynamite outfield trio of Jason Heyward and Justin and B.J. Upton fizzled in October -- just as it had all season. The Braves' outfield this year ranked 23rd in OPS, 27th in RBIs and 28th in hits, including the fewest in the NL. B.J. Upton (.184 batting average after signing for $75 million) lost his job, forcing Atlanta to field a compromised defense with Evan Gattis in left and Heyward in center.

Against Los Angeles, Heyward and the Upton brothers were 2-for-33 with 15 strikeouts. Catcher Brian McCann went 0-for-13 with nine strikeouts. It turned out that five games simply confirmed what you knew after 162 games: the Dodgers are better than the Braves.

2. Young guns help St. Louis survive

The next time somebody tries to sell you on the importance of postseason experience, you can tell them about the night that the Cardinals used three rookie pitchers while facing elimination on the road in the NLDS and won 2-1. If you don't want to feel a bit older today, don't read this: Each of the three rookies, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, was born in the 1990s.

Never before has a team used three pitchers in a postseason game in which all were 23 or younger. And St. Louis did so under the most extreme circumstances, in a must-win game in Pittsburgh.

CHEN: Wacha delivers gem to force a Game 5

Wacha became the sixth rookie to start a postseason game this year (a seventh, Martin Perez, started the regular season AL tiebreaker) and the third to get a win, joining the A's Sonny Gray and the Pirates' Gerrit Cole. Combined, the six rookies are 3-2 with a 4.35 ERA. Tomorrow, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle will trust Cole in Game 5 over his "proven veteran," A.J. Burnett. It is the right move simply because Cole has better stuff and is throwing the ball better -- factors that are more important than experience alone.

There have been 30 games played this postseason. Only two of them have resulted in wins by starting pitchers who are at least 30 years old: the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Red Sox' John Lackey.

3. Notes from a four-game feast

Monday's packed postseason schedule featured four games, including three possible clinchers. We got a near no-hitter, two games decided on last at-bat home runs and four games decided by a total of six runs. How great was that? Here are a few observations on some of the day's finer points:

Koji Uehara had faced 142 consecutive batters since June 30 without giving up a home run until Jose Lobaton beat him and the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALDS. Batters this year hit .096 against Uehara's splitter, but Lobaton crushed it. Give credit to Boston manager John Farrell: at least he brought his closer into a tie game on the road.

LEMIRE: Rays walk-off against Red Sox in dramatic Game 3

• The last time Clay Buchholz gave up a three-run homer was on Sept. 25, 2012. It's hard to believe he threw an inside changeup to Evan Longoria with two outs, a base open and the struggling Wil Myers on deck with Boston ahead 3-0 in the fifth. Longoria hit Buchholz's pitch for a game-tying home run.

As for Myers, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon did him no favors by asking him to hit cleanup -- not when Myers has looked awful at the plate. Maddon may be the best manager in baseball, but he overthought that one.

• Another strange move: Pirates manager Clint Hurdle playing hit-and-run with Jose Tabata at the plate facing Martinez, a pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff, and Josh Harrison, a guy with two stolen bases, on first base. You're down by a run with five outs left in the game and you put the tying run at risk with that combination? Not good, especially when Harrison starts his slide too early.

By the way, anybody else notice how headfirst slides (Harrison, Yasiel Puig, Quintin Berry, who should have been called out and had his hand smashed on Ben Zobrist's foot during his steal of second in last night's Red Sox-Rays game) are not a very smart idea most of the time?

• The Tigers can't hit without a healthy Miguel Cabrera. Detroit is 3-7 over its past 10 games while batting .228 and averaging two runs per game. Oakland has not allowed Detroit to hit a home run in the ALDS. In fact, the Tigers have gone 223 at-bats without a home run over their past seven games while hitting .202.

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