Series: NLDS, Game 4, Giants lead 2-1Time: 7:30 p.m. ESTTV: TBSStarters:Madison Bumgarner (7-6, 3.00 ERA) vs. Derek Lowe (0-1, 1.69 ERA) (NOTE: Bumgarner's stats regular season; Lowe's stats postseason)
This has been an incredibly tight series. All three games have been decided by one run. The last two have seen the decisive run scored in the victor's last at-bat. Game 2 went into extra innings, and if Major League Baseball had expanded instant replay, Game 1 might still be going on, as the only runner to score in the entire game was thrown out stealing second earlier in that inning but was ruled safe.
If we've learned anything from the first three games of the series it's that, unless Bobby Cox wants to start his retirement Tuesday morning, he can't keep playing Brooks Conrad in the field. (UPDATE: Cox has elected to bench Conrad for Game 4.) Conrad can't be blamed entirely for the Braves' Game 3 loss. Yes, he made a Bucknerian error in the top of the ninth which allowed the winning run to score, but the ball was hit hard, and Conrad was briefly screened from it by second base umpire Jerry Layne, who did all he could not to get hit by the ball. Also, the game was already tied by the time that ball off Buster Posey's bat skipped through Conrad's legs. The problem is that it was Conrad's third error of the game, fourth of the series, and eighth in his last seven games. Conrad has started the Braves' last eight games in the wake of Martin Prado's season-ending oblique and hip injuries and made an error in all but two of them. After making an error in three straight starts at third base, Conrad was moved to second base on the final day of the season, and has since made five errors in four games at the keystone since.
Conrad may not actually be as inept a fielder as he has appeared to be over the last week, but fielding slumps are as real as hitting slumps, and if all of these errors weren't in his head Sunday morning, after Game 3, they absolutely are now. Conrad, who slugged .487 this season, is in the Braves' lineup for his bat, and when he hit .350/.381/.650 over the final six games of the regular season, the four errors he made in those games were acceptable. In this series, however, he has reached base just once, on a single, in 10 plate appearances while striking out four times and has made another four errors. Something has to give.
The Braves' depleted roster doesn't offer an obvious replacement, but Troy Glaus can hit and Omar Infante can switch to second base, allowing Glaus to play third, which is what Cox elected to do. Glaus was the shocking defensive hero of Game 2 after he was subbed in at third base in the bottom of the 10th inning. With one out and the potential game-ending run scampering home from third on a grounder hit right to him, Glaus made the incredibly gutsy decision to throw to second to start a skin-of-their-teeth inning-ending double play rather than throw home to cut off the run. If that didn't earn Glaus and his big right-handed bat a start in place of Conrad, particularly against a lefty like Bumgarner, it's hard to know what would have. Glaus has started just two games, both at first base, since returning in early September from a minor league rehab assignment during which he played third base. That he went 1-for-3 in each of those two games doesn't tell us much, but everyone knows a healthy Glaus will hit. Facing elimination, the Braves are at the point at which they need to ask players like Glaus to give them whatever they have left.
To that end, rather than take a chance on rookie right-hander Brandon Beachy, Cox is going back to Game 1 starter Derek Lowe on three days' rest in the hope that Lowe can be as effective against these Giants in Atlanta as he was in San Francisco in Game 1. That night, Lowe held the Giants to that one controversial run over 5 1/3 innings while striking out six and likely would have gone deeper had Tim Lincecum not made one Giants run seem like 10. The upside to Lowe's early exit in that game is that he threw just 96 pitches and thus should be at the top of his game tonight despite the limited time off.
Short rest is not big thing for Lowe. His final start of the regular season came on three days' rest and saw him hold the Marlins to one run over 5 2/3 innings while striking out nine against just one walk. With the Dodgers in 2008, he started Game 4 of the NLCS on short rest and held the powerful Phillies to two runs over five innings, and in the Red Sox's historic comeback in the 2004 ALCS, he started Game 7 on two days' rest and held the Yankees to one run on one hit and a walk over six frames, earning the win as Boston completed their unprecedented comeback.
As for the 21-year-old rookie lefty opposing the 37-year-old veteran righty, Madison Bumgarner enters this start on 10 days' rest, and the Giants hope he hasn't lost the feel he had coming down the stretch, when he posted a 1.18 ERA over his last six starts. Bumgarner's extreme home/road split (see table below) works in the Giants favor, as does the knowledge that, if they lose this game, they'll have a fully rested Lincecum ready to go for Game 5 back home on the Bay.