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With Craig Kimbrel watching, Braves blow late lead

Oct 8, 2013, 1:35 AM EDT

Juan Uribe, Yasiel Puig AP

Craig Kimbrel hadn’t pitched two innings in a game since 2011, and the Braves weren’t about to have him try to get six outs now. It’s a decision they’ll think about all winter after Juan Uribe hit a go-ahead two-run homer off David Carpenter, leading the Dodgers past the Braves and into the NLCS on Monday.

The easy narrative is that the Dodgers asked their stud to do something he’s never done before and the Braves wouldn’t. And the Dodgers won and the Braves didn’t.

Of course, that’s oversimplifying things. And the Dodgers’ decision could have backfired in a big way, even though Clayton Kershaw was as good as they possibly could have hoped for while pitching on three days’ rest. He allowed just two unearned runs in six innings, but he did leave with the game tied. He also left earlier than he might have otherwise, and the Braves were able to capitalize and take a 3-2 lead in the seventh against Ronald Belisario.

But then the eighth inning came. And it’s worth noting that the Braves are on their fourth setup man of the season after Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty succumbed to season-ending injuries and Jordan Walden‘s shoulder problems left him a little shaky. Carpenter’s been great, but he’s no Kimbrel and he did give up a two-run homer to Hanley Ramirez in Game 2. The Braves had Kimbrel warming up behind Carpenter in the eighth, but decided not to bring him in even after Yasiel Puig‘s leadoff double. Uribe, after missing a sac bunt attempt, followed with the homer that made it a 4-3 game.

The thing is the both the Braves and Dodgers knew situations like this might arise. The Dodgers knew how the NLDS schedules were laid out. Both teams had their respective divisions wrapped up in September. Both could have experimented. The Braves could have tried Kimbrel in a two-inning save. The Dodgers could have used Kershaw on three days’ rest and then given him extra rest afterwards. It not only would have provided the teams with data, but it would have given Kimbrel and Kershaw both a better idea how to approach the situations in the bigger games. But major league teams are rarely that proactive.

Now the Braves are headed home in early October again. If you count last year’s one-game wild card, this makes eight straight postseason series lost by the team dating back to 2001. In this case, the better team won. Still, being so close to have a decisive Game 5 back in Atlanta will have the team thinking “what if?” all offseason long.


  1. gkzeigler - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:41 AM

    Mariano Rivera had 14 postseason saves of 6 outs or more in his career…the all time record. The Yankees put their best pitcher in the game as early as possible in the games that matter most…the playoffs. That’s why they have 27 chips. In Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series against Boston, Rivera entered the game in a 5-5 tie and pitched three scoreless innings. Some teams understand that the biggest moments call for the best players to bring you home. When Mo retired, Craig Kimbrel was universally acknowledged as the new best closer in the game. Give him the ball. Who cares if he has never done it before. You can’t manage the postseason like the regular season. This is no different than the last 2 decades…the sense of urgency is not where it needs to be. I want my best players to decide my fate. No excuse for Kimbrel not to get that ball! We need to turn up the intensity, the focus and the emotion in the playoffs. This not July…this is October. Last thing…the Braves have the 3rd youngest roster in baseball. They must learn…Freddie G must learn…BJ Upton and Uggla need to resurrect their careers…the entire team needs to focus on being better at putting the ba in play…guys are too talented not to be a professional and put the team first.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Oct 8, 2013 at 9:18 AM

      Mariano Rivera had 14 postseason saves of 6 outs or more in his career…the all time record. The Yankees put their best pitcher in the game as early as possible in the games that matter most…the playoffs.

      While Torre was great at this, the Yanks also lost a few games because Torre did the exact opposite. ’03 WS, Yanks up 2-1 in the series, and Mo never pitched because the Yanks were away at FL/Miami. Jeff freaking Weaver gives up a walk off HR which ties up the series. You might also make the case that Mo should have pitched the 8th and 9th in G5 of the ALCS in ’04 with the Yanks winning 4-2, but that didn’t happen, Gordon gave up a leadoff HR to Ortiz and then walked and gave up a single before Torre finally pulled him.

      • moogro - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:08 PM

        This shows that even mo’ is better.

  2. misterj167 - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:49 AM

    I always thought the Braves’ players took these playoff losses too calmly after 1995, particularly after the collapse f the 1996 team that should have won. year after year they’d get taken out by teams that a year or so later were cellar-dwellers, because the mentality of the team is to build towards the season, not the playoffs. This is a different bunch of players, and very young, so how they deal with it in the years to come will be important.

    Still, if Carpenter had gotten the Braves to the ninth and Kimbrel had shut them down to send the series back to Atlanta, the decision to pitch Kershaw would have been the one everyone is discussing.

    • NatsLady - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:06 AM

      Well, it’s tough. The Nats had their eye on the playoffs and how they could learn from Game 5–and they dropped the ball on the 162. No urgency for 2/3 of the season, and the final 1/3 just wasn’t enough. Both teams are young and motivated, next season will be very interesting.

    • American of African Descent - Oct 8, 2013 at 9:33 AM

      That’s right. Those damn late ’90s/early ’00s Yankees — flash-in-the-pan cellar dwellers!

      • misterj167 - Oct 8, 2013 at 3:43 PM

        I was referring to losses in the playoffs, not the World Series. The Braves lost to the Yankees twice in the Series (’96 and ’99). Here’s the playoff history from ’91 to ’05, and how many games behind the teams that beat them were at the end of the regular season:

        ’93 Phillies (7 games)*
        ’97 Florida (9 games)*
        ’98 San Diego (8 games)*
        ’00 Cardinals (even)
        ’01 Diamondbacks (trailed by 4 games)
        ’02 Giants (7 games)*
        ’03 Cubs (13 games)*
        ’04 Astros (4 games)
        ’05 Astros (1 game)

        *shows a season where they won 100+ games

        The only teams on that list I would not consider to be a flash-in-the pan are the Cardinals and the Giants, and only the Diamondbacks had a better regular season record than the Braves at that point. The Phillies were years away from becoming a dominant team in ’93, and when they were dominant they clearly earned it.

        Now the question is, as I said before, with this new group of players, will they start to fall into that category? As I saw it this year, the late loss to the Phillies, at home, in a game they knew they had to win in order to secure home field advantage in the playoffs and not have to face the Dodgers in the first round, was key, particularly since they were only facing four Phillies relief pitchers and not a dominant starter. Maybe a loss like that is excusable earlier on in the year, but not when your season is on the line. Whether they would have went on to beat the Pirates in the playoffs is beside the point: the great teams win the games they know they must win.

        I still think winning consistently is more important (and harder) than winning World Series, but a fella gets a little tired of the whole “choke in the playoffs” thing. I hope that in the coming years they learn to step on a few throats. They have the potential to win at least two Series in the next five years or so, let’s see how they do.

  3. NatsLady - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:10 AM

    And, with respect, Matthew, did you write this in September? Because it’s pretty after-the-fact.

    And, even if you did propose this (and I somehow missed that post), suppose Kershaw or Kimbrel had gotten injured in September with this experimenting? Supposed it wasn’t Kershaw that had to go on short rest, but Greinke, or a dozen other scenarios.

    Bottom line is, in the playoffs you have to expect players to go outside their “normal” boundaries, and you can’t always know in advance what that will entail.

    • skids003 - Oct 8, 2013 at 7:50 AM

      I agree, natslady. It’s easy to write this after the fact.

      • paperlions - Oct 8, 2013 at 8:14 AM

        Except, of course, it has been written 1000s of times: “losing a late lead in a high leverage situation without your best reliever ever seeing the mound simply because it isn’t the 9th inning yet is stupid.”

        This isn’t an “after the fact” article, it is just another version of the same common sense article that has been written over and over, and that is correct in it’s premise.

      • moogro - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:12 PM

        Exactly. Why do people prefer 20/20 foresight over 20/20 hindsight when the argument is the same either way?

  4. biasedhomer - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:42 AM

    If you want the perfect example of a good but not great team, look no further than the Braves. Year after year, they quietly have good seasons, get into the playoffs, and exit quietly.

  5. ningenito78 - Oct 8, 2013 at 2:44 AM

    @natslady if they had gotten injured they would have gotten injured doing what they are supposed to be able to do. Absolutely zero excuse for Kimbrell not to be out there in the 8th. The first post was 100% correct. If you’re going to die, you die using your best gun. Absolutely nobody that has ever watched more than a couple innings of baseball would have ever questioned the manager if he had brought Kimbrell into the eighth. After the double it was a no brainer. You have to leave the book at home in the playoffs. You have been together since freaking March. After that much time it shouldn’t take a binder or stats to decide who to go to and when.

    • NatsLady - Oct 8, 2013 at 3:02 AM

      That’s exactly my point. You don’t “practice” or “experiment” for all possible contingencies in September–rather, in October you EXPECT top athletes to perform over and above their best.

      I would have brought Kimbrel in after the double. I’m not smart enough to say I would have had him start the 8th, but Carpenter had already flubbed one game, so immediately there was a runner on base he’s out.

      • NatsLady - Oct 8, 2013 at 3:06 AM

        And that was my frustration with Davey in September, when for us every game was Game 7. This is not the moment to teach, to build stamina, nada. We basically needed to win out to have chance, yet he left starters in too long (TWICE in one week) and other moves that didn’t reflect the urgency.

  6. sincitybonobo - Oct 8, 2013 at 3:21 AM

    It was first guessing- not second guessing or after-the-fact criticism.

    In a must-win game, I’m not losing a lead in the 8th with baseball’s best closer not in the game.

    Off day tomorrow, but game 5 doesn’t matter for ATL if game 4 wasn’t a victory.

    Rivera has 42 postseason saves. 14 were 6-out saves.

    Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001. Decisions like this- to “save” an elite closer for the 9th- haven’t helped.

    • sincitybonobo - Oct 8, 2013 at 3:37 AM

      Scheduled hitters

      8th- Puig, Uribe, Schumaker
      9th- Ellis AJ, Ethier ph, Crawford, (Ellis, Mark)

      Crawford’s heroics not withstanding, the Braves’ biggest threat to the lead was in the in the bottom of the 8th.

  7. sincitybonobo - Oct 8, 2013 at 5:27 AM

    How are the scheduled hitters in the 9th more of a threat than those in the 8th?

    Ask the Phillies and Ryan Madson about Uribe’s NLCS backbreaker in 2010. Puig’s leadoff double ignited the crowd and the rally.

    Crawford’s dingers were off marginal stuff at 80 & 85 mph. He’s not taking Kimbrel deep. Ethier isn’t healthy.

    Also, this wasn’t a nominal closer. Kimbrel is as good as it gets in baseball right now. If the Dodgers would have gotten him, Fredi could have withstood the criticism.

  8. macjacmccoy - Oct 9, 2013 at 10:29 PM

    You cant experiment like that in the regular season, because if the player gets injured doing something he doesnt normally do then you will never hear the end of it. Look at what happened with Mark Sanchez. Rex Ryan had every right to use him in the 4th quarter of a pre-season game bc he was in a competition. Is that what people are talking about though? No, all they are talking about is the fact that Sanchez got hurt doing something that he didnt need to be doing.

    That was in the preseason of a team that no one expected to do anything that upcoming year, and it was to a player that was probably going to lose his job anyway. Imagine if it happened to a Greinke or Kimbrel in a meaningless game after their team’s already clinched a spot in the postseason. A postseason in which they were considered heavy favorites to win it all.

    It makes no sense, and that’s probably why the Braves and Dodgers didnt even consider doing it.

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