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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Evaluation of starting Kotsay in center? Good hit, no field


If Mark Kotsay -- or another Brewers outfielder -- catches this ball, maybe the Cardinals don't score. (AP)  
If Mark Kotsay -- or another Brewers outfielder -- catches this ball, maybe the Cardinals don't score. (AP)  

ST. LOUIS -- Ron Roenicke told Mark Kotsay he would be in the lineup, playing center field, on Tuesday, the off day between Games 2 and 3. The first-year Brewers manager almost always affords veterans who are not regulars the courtesy of at least a day's worth of advance notice when he intends to plug them into the lineup.

Kotsay, 35, has been a stranger to the Milwaukee lineup more often than not this year, especially lately. He had started only three times since Sept. 3, and only four times since Aug. 22. He had made only nine starts in center field the entire season.

But as Roenicke pondered different Game 3 lineups, he kept coming back to Kotsay. He liked his numbers against St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter (career 4 for 11). Nyjer Morgan has been providing diminishing returns. Carlos Gomez is no offensive threat.

It was the kind of bold and unexpected decision that can win a game, change a series, land softly into the happy glow of postseason history.

On Wednesday, it was the kind of decision that left Kotsay with a bright, red strawberry of a scrape visible through the whiskers on his chin.

The Brewers were scuffed up following a 4-3 loss in Game 3 of this NL Championship Series, a loss made tougher still when Kotsay was doubled off second base in the top of the first and couldn't make a key play in the bottom of the first.

NLCS: Brewers at Cardinals
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"You've got a lot of adrenalin and emotion," Kotsay said of the worst of his moments Wednesday, the pickoff. "You want to do everything you can to help the club win. When you're given that opportunity the least amount of times, sometimes you let that adrenalin take over."

Should Roenicke have started Kotsay? Was this a wild gamble, or a calculated risk? As Roenicke said before the game, something good always seems to happen when Kotsay is in the lineup.

And it almost did again. Kotsay smashed a leadoff home run in the third, sandwiched between two walks. A 1.000 on-base percentage against Carpenter. Awesome. Exactly as Roenicke had drawn it up.

But there was something else here. Getting Game 3 was vital for the Brewers, simply because Yovani Gallardo was starting. After he beat Ian Kennedy and Arizona in Game 5 of the division series on Sunday, Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin sidled up to him through the champagne spray and told him, "You're an ace now. Don't ever lose that title."

Though Gallardo is decidedly un-ace-like against the Cardinals -- now 1-8 career against them -- the scary thing for the Brewers is how the rest of the rotation is regressing. Combined, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke are 1-3 with an 11.52 ERA in five postseason starts.

So behind Gallardo on Wednesday, you could make the argument that what the Brewers needed most was their best defensive lineup. And with that thought hanging in the air, one on, no outs in the bottom of the first ... Jon Jay skied a ball toward the left-center field gap.

Shaded toward right field against the left-handed Jay, Kotsay took off. He ran. And ran. And dove ... and couldn't catch it.

By inning's end, the Cardinals pushed four runs across the plate. It was a winning number.

Roenicke acknowledged afterward that Gomez definitely makes that catch.

He also said he would not lose any sleep over his decision.

"Not at all," Roenicke said. "No."

Had he not written Kotsay's name onto the lineup card, the manager explained, he would have written Morgan's.

"Gomez is a fabulous center fielder, but you also have to look at trying to score runs and trying to figure your offense and where you slot guys," Roenicke said. "Not so much that maybe one guy is better than the other, but how does he fit into your lineup?"

Issue is, when Morgan doesn't play, the No. 2 hole becomes an issue. Gomez is so weak offensively that he's a liability hitting that high. Enter, Wednesday, Kotsay.

"It's easy to look at afterwards and say, 'Gomez would have caught it,' " Roenicke said. "But Gomez, I didn't think he was an option for today's game.

"I like him out there anytime I can get him out there. But I didn't think he was a good choice today."

This is Kotsay's third LCS. He played in Oakland when the Athletics were swept by Detroit in the 2006 ALCS. Played in Boston when the Red Sox were beaten by Tampa Bay in the 2008 ALCS. Had some big moments in that series playing first base with Mike Lowell sidelined by a hip injury.

He has played under pressure, and if he hasn't quite been to the summit, he's been close. He's felt the highs, heard the cheers.

"Ron played the guy he felt gave us the best chance to win," another veteran, Milwaukee infielder Craig Counsell, said. "Nyjer and Gomez, obviously, run better than Mark. That's no secret.

"It could have easily worked out the other way."

Before Jay's ball got away, Kotsay was on second base and Ryan Braun on first with one out. But when Prince Fielder lofted a ball into center field, Kotsay was too far toward third and couldn't get back before Jay threw to second to double him off.

The scramble back was so chaotic that Kotsay wound up sliding headfirst on his chin part of the way.

Kotsay spoke of the sick feeling of being caught in no-man's land. Roenicke noted that, when you're playing every day, "your instincts are sharper than when you don't play every day."

Still, it wasn't enough to scare Roenicke away from Kotsay.

To his credit, Kotsay declined to play the "I wasn't sharp" card.

"No," he said. "That ball was tailing away from me. It's a 3-2 count with a runner on second and a left-handed hitter up. You're looking to pull the ball there, you're not looking to go to left-center. [Jay] got beat. It was a good pitch. It just was out of my reach.

"I gave every effort to get it, came up short and they built momentum on that play."

But for a few inches here and a cloud of dust there, maybe we would be talking about Kotsay's home run today instead. Though Kotsay didn't make that catch in the first, Gallardo was the one who issued two walks later in the inning, one of which came around to score.

"Obviously, Mark was in for his at-bats, and he had great at-bats against Carpenter," Counsell said. "It was the right play versus Carp. It was."

Or, as Prince Fielder put it, "He almost helped us win tonight."


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