October 02, 2011
MILWAUKEE — Nobody did a better job managing a major league ballclub during the regular season than Kirk Gibson. Unexpectedly by most, if not all, the Arizona Diamondbacks reversed course after a 97-loss season in 2010, winning 94 games and an NL West championship this season.
And then came Saturday, when the D-backs opened the NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers, and Gibson reverted into a green skipper managing his first playoff game.
Gibson allowed D-backs right-hander Ian Kennedy(notes) to throw at least one pitch too many, and Prince Fielder(notes) lined it into the first row of bleachers in right field at Miller Park for a killer two-run home run in Milwaukee's 4-1 victory.
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At the postgame press conference, Gibson realized he had set himself up to be second-gussed, and he confessed his mistake after barely being prompted.
"I left him in, it was a bad decision on my part obviously," Gibson said softly. He must have been seething on the inside.
"Ultimately that's what he wanted to do, and it was my decision to let him do it that way," he said. "It didn't work out."
Arizona's coaching staff made other decisions that didn't work out. After a two-out single by Justin Upton(notes) in the first inning, third-base coach Matt Williams waved in Willie Bloomquist(notes), who was thrown out at home by about 20-feet — even after the throw from Ryan Braun(notes) in left field took two hops to reach catcher Jonathan Lucroy(notes).
The Brewers led 2-0 and first base was open after Braun lined a double to right with two outs. Left-hander Joe Paterson(notes) — who struck out Fielder in three of four at-bats during the regular season — was warming in the bullpen.
Gibson could be seen talking with pitching coach Charles Nagy for a few seconds, presumably about Arizona's options. Gibson then hopped out of the dugout and quickly trotted to the pitcher's mound, his pace revealing which way he was leaning — he wanted to stick with Kennedy, even after 109 pitches.
As told by reporter Nick Piecoro in the Arizona Republic, the conversation with Kennedy went like this:
"I wasn't going to do that," Kennedy said. "If that was the case, you might as well just bring (Paterson) in and face him lefty-lefty."
Gibson also could have walked Fielder and brought in right-hander Brad Ziegler(notes) to face Rickie Weeks, but — as Braun pointed out in crediting Weeks' presence — Arizona probably didn't like the idea of pitching to him with two men aboard.
So, the D-backs went with Kennedy, who grabbed a strike with a fastball. A TV camera pulled close on Fielder, who could be seen saying "OK."
"I was thinking a lot of things up there," Fielder said. "I just talk to myself sometimes."
The next pitch was a hanging curveball that caught too much of the plate, and Fielder talked to it with his bat.
With Gallardo dealing perhaps the best game of his career for Milwaukee, the outcome might have been decided before the seventh inning even started. But at 4-0, the D-backs were all-but doomed.
Gibson blamed himself for Fielder, but didn't criticize Williams' decision to send Bloomquist in the first inning, when Gallardo wasn't sharp. And he didn't have a problem pitching to Lucroy instead of Gallardo in the sixth.
"No, we're going to attack him," Gibson said.
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Reporter Mike Dodd from USA Today asked Gibson if, after Fielder's homer, he had a flashback to his playing days with the Detroit Tigers during the 1984 World Series. Back then, the Padres chose to pitch to Gibson with a base open and he hit a home run that sealed the Series victory for Detroit.
"No, I didn't think about that at all," Gibson said. "I just felt bad. I made a poor decision. And sometimes that's how the game goes."
Fielder stuck up for Gibson and Kennedy after being asked if he was surprised to get a chance to swing.
"I mean, Kennedy's a potential Cy Young winner. He's their guy," Fielder said. "I wasn't surprised at all."
He might have been being polite, careful not to violate the unspoken code to not question decisions made by opponents. But Fielder wasn't the only one defending Gibson's move. Teammate Jerry Hairston, on the dais with Fielder, said Kennedy was the right guy for the moment.
"He's their best pitcher, he's got 21 wins," Hairston said. "You guys act like — this guy, he pitched a great game today. ... He challenged Prince, that's what baseball's all about."
Prince chimed in: "That's what he's supposed to do."
Gibson could not disagree more. Now.
Brewers manager Roenicke doesn't like being second-guessed, either.
"They're tough calls. They're easy to second-guess," Roenicke said. "Afterward you can say, 'Oh, why is he pitching to Prince?' Those decisions are not easy when you have to make them before he is at bat, instead of after."
Gibson probably agrees with that. Who would disagree that these decisions take careful consideration?
Sticking with the starter for eternity might have been the right thing to do in the time of Old Hoss Radbourn, but in today's era of specialization, you don't need to let the team's No. 1/1A slugger beat you with a tiring pitcher.
"We'll be optimistic, we'll be upbeat," Gibson said. "We'll come out prepared like we do every game. And I'll try to do a better job myself. That's all you can do.
"We've been down before and we've been resilient, and we'll come back with a good attitude and believe we can win tomorrow. It's a long series. It's one game. I mean, we're going to keep it in perspective."
The perspective should be that it's a short series and one mistake can end your season. The D-backs might have made mistakes three already. At least Gibson was right about one thing: It's just one loss.
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