Braves were undone by decision to go to Dunn
Instead of simply stating the obvious and reiterating what has been tweeted, blogged and talked about at great length over the course of the past 14 hours, I’m going to blame all the pain and disgust many of you are feeling on Eric Hinske.
Had Hinske not provided you hope with that go-ahead, eighth-inning blast, Braves manager Bobby Cox might have never made that ill-fated determination that left-hander Mike Dunn had a better chance to retire Aubrey Huff than his strikeout specialist Craig Kimbrel.
Game 3 was ultimately lost because Brooks Conrad was still showing that same defensive apprehension that many of us, including this National League scout, have witnessed for more than a week.
But had Cox simply allowed Kimbrel a chance to prove that he is indeed ready to serve as the closer, Buster Posey might never have had the chance to shoot and score through Conrad’s legs. More importantly, the Braves might have actually been sending Derek Lowe to the mound tonight to face a short-rested Tim Lincecum with a chance to clinch matchup against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series.
Instead if a short-rested Lowe proves better than 21-year-old Madison Bumgarner tonight, the Braves will have to travel to San Francisco for Wednesday’s Game 5 to face Lincecum, who will have had an extra day to recover from the 119-pitch masterpiece he produced in Game 1.
Before we delve further into this post, I’m not trying to overlook the significance of Conrad’s three-error performance. The ninth-inning error obviously proved decisive. The errors he made in the first two innings proved destructive as they led to an unearned run and forced Tim Hudson to throw an additional 25 pitches.
Hudson ended up throwing 104 pitches in seven innings. Without Conrad’s early miscues, the Braves ace certainly could have completed at least eight innings. If that was the case, then Jonny Venters and Kimbrel would have both been available to pitch the ninth inning.
Instead, Cox chose to pull Kimbrel with runners at first and second and two outs in favor of Dunn, who promptly lost his lefty-lefty matchup by allowing Huff to deliver a game-tying single to right.
“If [Huff] hits a double or a homer off Kimbrel, then you’re asking why we didn’t bring in the lefty,” Cox said after the game.
With all due respect, I don’t think this would have been an overwhelming thought even if the much more experienced Venters had still been available.
In Billy Wagner’s absence, Kimbrel stands as the club’s best option in the closer’s role. Dating back to Sept. 9 extending through the end of the regular season, the 22-year-old rookie matched Wagner with a Major League-leading 18.26 strikeouts per nine innings.
With runners on first and second and two outs in last night’s ninth inning, the defensively-challenged Braves were certainly in need of one of those strikeouts. But Cox chose to allow Dunn to face Huff, who hit .297 with an .894 OPS vs. right-handed hitters and .296 with an .884 OPS vs. left-handed hitters this season.
After spending most of this year with Triple-A Gwinnett, Dunn spent the final month of the season in Atlanta, allowing left-handers to hit .250 (6-for-24) against him. He did record 12 strikeouts in the 24 at-bats left-handers compiled against him during this span.
But there certainly wasn’t a reason to replace one rookie reliever with another, especially when the formula includes somebody as talented as Kimbrel.
After he returned to the Majors at the conclusion of Gwinnett’s season, Kimbrel limited left-handed hitters to a .133 batting average. He struck out 10 of the 15 left-handed batters he faced in this span.
There was obviously a chance that Kimbrel would have also allowed Huff to tie the game. But even if everything had played out in the same manner, I don’t think anybody would have second-guessed Cox’s decision to stick with his impressive young right-hander while Dunn remained idle in the bullpen.
Now the Braves have to find a way to win two games in a row. In the process, they’ll have to arouse a slumbering offense that has tallied just two runs (one earned) against the Giants starters.
And of course, they have to address the Conrad issue. My guess is that we’ll see Troy Glaus at third base and Omar Infante at second base tonight. Glaus could certainly prove to be a defensive liability at the hot corner. But right now, the Braves have no other choice.
Plus their lineup might benefit from the instant offense that Glaus could provide with his occasional power.
In San Francisco, the Giants fans chanted “Posey’s better” when Jason Heyward came to the plate. The Braves fans countered with some “Heyward’s better” chants when Buster Posey strolled to the plate yesterday.
So far this head-to-head matchup has been a mismatch. Heyward has struck out seven times and gone hitless in 12 at-bats. Posey has five hits, including a double, and just three strikeouts in 12 at-bats.
Through the first three games of this NLDS, the Giants have undoubtedly been better than what’s left of what was once a pretty good Braves club.
But with Lowe and Tommy Hanson going in the final two games, the Braves can feel that they at least still have a chance.