Braves' Fredi Gonzalez erred in not going to Craig Kimbrel in eighth
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez should have gone to closer Craig Kimbrel to start the eighth inning of Game 4 against the Dodgers.
To be fair, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez in the eighth inning of Monday's season ending loss to the Dodgers did what most skippers would do. That is, he kept his closer in the chamber and instead let a setup man face what were at that point the most critical outs of the game. Bulletin: It didn't work.
As you know by now, Yasiel Puig led off the eighth with a double, and Juan Uribe, after failing twice to lay down a bunt, took that setup man -- David Carpenter -- deep to left for a go-ahead home run. The fresh lead, of course, would stand.
The strictures of modern bullpen usage say that closers and primary setup men, because -- as the thinking goes -- relievers work best with carefully tailored and consistent roles, should work an inning at a time and generally the same inning. For the closer, that inning is the ninth. On occasion, though, you'll see a manager deviate from orthodoxy in, say, a postseason game and let his closer notch a save that requires more than three outs. Joe Torre did this quite often with Mariano Rivera, for instance. On Monday night, Gonzalez, like Torre, should have risen above the regular-season mindset. He did not.
Carpenter is a very good reliever, to be sure, but he's not Craig Kimbrel, the Braves' closer who's also the best reliever in the game today. Consider that Kimbrel in 2013 posted a 1.21 ERA, and also consider that his career ERA is 1.39 (!). Over four seasons in the majors, he's struck out more than 43 percent of the batters he's faced. In other words, to call Kimbrel "dominant" is to give him short shrift.
Given all that, it's puzzling in the extreme that Gonzalez -- in an elimination game, with an off day on Tuesday and with Kimbrel's not having pitched since Friday and having thrown just 25 pitches since Sept. 29 -- did not call upon his shutdown closer for the final six outs.
After the game, Gonzalez said this:
"We were thinking, and we had it set up. We double-switched and put our best defense out there. We had it set up to bring him in for four outs. I think six outs was something that we weren't even talking about in the dugout. But I think with two outs we were planning to do that. We set up the eighth inning to be able to do that."
Four outs is fine, but six is a bridge too far? That's arbitrary and self-defeating, particularly in a game that -- and this bears repeating -- the Braves could not lose.
For what it's worth, yes, Kimbrel is primarily a one-inning pitcher, but he does have four career regular-season appearances that have lasted more than one inning, and in the 2010 NLDS he made a two-inning appearance against the Giants. As well, he went 1 1/3 innings in Game 2 of the very series in question. So the extended save is not a foreign notion to Kimbrel.
He was ready, he was rested, he's the best reliever in the world, and the Braves needed six outs to win a game started by Clayton Kershaw and bring the series back to Atlanta. Instead, Gonzalez allowed a lesser reliever -- a good reliever, but demonstrably a lesser one -- to pitch the most important inning of the Braves' season.
At this point, one is tempted to ask the question "why," but there's little use in asking a question that has no answer.
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