SweetSpot: Fredi Gonzalez

One of the byproducts of sabermetrics has been the change in how we view managers. For starters, general managers are now the off-the-field face of the organization. There was a time when Earl Weaver had a big role in determining his 25-man roster or Davey Johnson could tell Frank Cashen he wanted a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on his team. Now the general manager pretty much says, "Here are the players I'm giving you." As a result, we discuss general managers and roster building and the like as much as we discuss in-game decisions. Where we used to rail against managers, we demand that GMs be fired.

Think about this also: We talk about managers in terms of, well, managing. How they manage players and their egos. How they manage the bullpen. How they manage pitch counts. How they manage a young player. How they manage the media.

Less often, we talk about them in terms of strategy and tactics. This picks up in the postseason, of course, as we scrutinize every pitching change and sacrifice bunt and realize nothing Ron Washington does seems to make sense, but the regular season is dissected and analyzed more in a big-picture mindset.

Then sabermetrics piles on and says a lot of the decisions managers make aren't really all that important: Lineup order doesn't matter all that much, one-run strategies are overrated. Even all the shifting we see these days? That's coming from the front offices and the stat nerds, not the manager on the bench.

But then we get games like Wednesday night's at Citi Field between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, a reminder that the big picture consists of 162 little pictures, and some of those little pictures depend on a key decision from the manager. Score a big 3-2 win here for the Braves in their battle for the wild card, with a big tip of the cap to skipper Fredi Gonzalez.

Here's what happened. After Andrelton Simmons made perhaps the defensive play of the season to save a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Braves took that 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel might be money in the ninth, but a little bit of tactical chicanery didn't hurt the Braves' chances on Wednesday night.

All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel came on and showed some of the wildness that has made him a little less dominant this season (his ERA entering the game was all the way up to 1.76, and he'd blown four saves). Eric Campbell singled sharply to right field on a 3-2 fastball. Matt den Dekker got ahead 3-0 and eventually walked on a 3-2 fastball.

Due up for the Mets: Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada and the pitcher, Flores hitting .224 and Tejada .228. With David Wright and Daniel Murphy both apparently unavailable with injuries, the Mets' bench was thin, so manager Terry Collins didn't really have any pinch-hitting options since he had to save a hitter for the pitcher.

Collins elected to bunt with Flores. That itself is debatable. I would have swung away, my theory being that getting the tying run to third base against Kimbrel is less valuable than against most pitchers because Kimbrel's strikeout rate is so high. Plus, he had just walked a batter and has been wild all season, so who knows what happens if you don't give him an out. I'd rather hope to go 1-for-3 than 1-for-2.

Flores got the bunt down and both runners moved up, bringing up the light-hitting Tejada, who has just 12 extra-base hits in over 300 at-bats. Gonzalez faced a tough decision: Bring the infield in to cut off the tying run but increase the probability of a grounder or line drive going through the infield and winning the game for the Mets, or keep the infield back to at least preserve a better chance of keeping the game tied and sending it into extra innings.

This is a situation in which the numbers can't provide a "right" answer. You could attempt to analyze the probability of Tejada hitting a ground ball (41 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play) against Kimbrel, who allows grounders on 43 percent of his balls in play. But then you have to factor in that Kimbrel didn't look sharp. And you'd have to factor in the odds of Tejada hitting a hard grounder or a slow grounder, let alone a line drive.

Oh, and you have about 10 seconds to make your decision. Good luck consulting the charts there.

Gonzalez had to make a snap decision. Maybe it wasn't that difficult; after all, with Kimbrel you have a good chance of a strikeout anyway, even against a solid contact hitter like Tejada. But it's one with enormous risk, no? Most managers are going to play it safe there; managers, by nature, are risk-averse. If Tejada hits a seeing-eye single through the drawn-in infield, the Braves lose and Gonzalez is vilified by the fans and the media.

I'm guessing that Gonzalez's primary consideration was that Tejada doesn't hit the ball hard. With that in mind, he brought the infield in.

It worked. Tejada hit a slow-roller to third base and the Braves got the out at home plate. Kimbrel then got pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis to fly out to shallow left and the Braves were a win closer in the wild-card standings, one game behind the Cardinals.

Sabermetricians often talk about the "process" -- stick to the right process and things will eventually go in your favor. Sometimes a right decision will backfire and a wrong decision will work. But it's the process that matters.

Well, sometimes it's the result that matters. Fredi Gonzalez went for the win and got it.

Eric and I take your questions on the Braves, Josh Donaldson's MVP chances, Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Matt Cain and Chris Owings.
One of the great unanswered questions of sabermetrics is how much value a manager brings to a team. Maybe it's ultimately something that can't be properly evaluated, since aside from on-field strategic moves, much of what a manager does is difficult or impossible to measure, like communicating with players and staff, keeping a positive clubhouse or dealing with the front office and the media.

But we all agree that a good manager has value. How responsible was John Farrell for the Red Sox winning the World Series? How much credit do we give Mike Matheny? If Joe Maddon is worth four extra wins a season for the Rays, should he be getting paid $20 million per year instead of an estimated $2 million? When teams are currently paying free agents about $6.5 million per win on the open market, what's a good manager worth? Joe Girardi, probably the highest-paid manager, gets $4 million per season, so you could make the argument that the Yankees aren't placing much value at all on Girardi's abilities. (Not that managers should be paid on the same scale as players, but isn't a win a win, no matter where it comes from?)

Anyway, Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot conducted a study to at least give us to a starting point on evaluating managers. He compared projected records to actual records for every team since 2003 and figured out how many wins each manager was above or below the preseason projection. (He used Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for 2003-09, Marcel for 2010-11 and ZiPS for 2012-13.) It's far from perfect -- if Clayton Kershaw blows out his shoulder, that reflects on Don Mattingly's record even though it's no fault of his own -- but it gives us some results to consider.

For managers who have managed at least three seasons, Jon's top five in wins added per 162 games were Farrell (+5.7), Fredi Gonzalez (+5.5), Tony La Russa (+5.0), Mattingly (+4.7) and Ron Washington (+4.4). You can get the rest of the top 10 by clicking the link above. Interesting that Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington, three managers the stats guys love to criticize, fared very well in this study. It's also worth noting that Farrell, Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington are regarded as good communicators with their players.

The bottom five (there were 42 managers in all who had managed three seasons) were Manny Acta (-8.1), John Russell (-7.7), Jerry Manuel (-5.9), Bob Geren (-4.7) and Alan Trammell (-3.0), none of whom are managing now. Eric Wedge was next on the list and he's not managing either. The much-maligned Dusty Baker ranked 36th.

The one guy I was surprised to see not in the top 10 was Maddon, the guy I consider the best manager in the game. His year-by-year totals courtesy of Jon:

2006: -8 (61 actual wins versus 69 projected wins)
2007: -12 (66 actual wins versus 78 projected)
2008: +8 (97 actual wins versus 89 projected)
2009: -7 (84 actual wins versus 91 projected)
2010: +6 (96 actual wins versus 90 projected)
2011: +6 (91 actual wins versus 85 projected)
2012: -3 (90 actual wins versus 93 projected)
2013: +4 (92 actual wins versus 88 projected)

Total: -6.

Of course, take away those first two seasons and Maddon fares much better. Still, the projection systems are usually high on the Rays, so the perception that Maddon is extracting tons of extra value out of a roster of mediocre talent may not really be true. Even the 2008 team that came out of nowhere was projected to do well, at least by Baseball Prospectus. Of course, you can argue that some of the players project well because Maddon uses them in the right situations (he doesn't play Sean Rodriguez much against right-handed pitchers, for example). And the Rays have mostly kept their starting pitchers healthy, which is a credit to Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Maddon is still my No. 1 manager ... and I'd pay him more than $2 million per season.
How do you evaluate a manager's performance? It's one aspect of baseball that sabermetrics hasn't figured out exactly how to tackle, in part because much of a manager's duties are the behind the scenes: keeping a positive clubhouse culture, keeping players happy, making sure everyone is on the same page, getting the most out of a rookie or a veteran in decline, or making sure the veterans aren't feeding too much fried food to the rookies.

When we discuss managers during the season, we focus for the most part on strategical decisions, batting orders and bullpen usage. But those things are maybe the least important aspect of a manager's job, because in this era most managers take the same approach to in-game managing. Teams carry so many pitchers that pinch-hitting and bench options are relatively limited and most managers don't abuse the bunt.

So the manager of the year balloting tends to throw all that out the window and instead come to an easier process: Which team surprised the most or improved the most?

Thus it was no surprise that Clint Hurdle of the Pirates was a landslide winner for National League Manager of the Year, outpolling Don Mattingly of the Dodgers and Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves. The Pirates improved from 79 to 94 wins, finishing over .500 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Hurdle did a terrific job with the bullpen and then working rookie Gerrit Cole into the rotation, but maybe the most important move he made was buying into advanced defensive metrics.

The Pirates dramatically increased the number of defensive shifts they employed and improved from 24th to third in the majors in defensive runs saved (minus-25 to plus-68). The Pirates actually scored 17 fewer runs than in 2012; but they allowed 97 fewer -- almost the exact improvement in their DRS (93 runs). You can argue that the improvement came from Francisco Liriano and the pitching staff, but the strikeout and walk rates were basically the same as 2012 (they did allow fewer home runs). Most of the defensive improvement for the Pirates did come from the defense, and for that Hurdle deserves some of the credit.

Mike Matheny didn't finish in the top three, but I thought he deserved as much recognition as Mattingly and Gonzalez, both of whom showed in the postseason why they've come under some fire for some in-game decision-making. The Cardinals were expected to do well, but Matheny did a great job with a roster with so many rookies.

In the American League balloting, you could have made a good argument for any of the three finalists -- Terry Francona of the Indians, John Farrell of the Red Sox and Bob Melvin of the A's -- plus perennial contender Joe Maddon of the Rays and even Joe Girardi of the Yankees. Francona, who didn't receive a first-place vote the two seasons he led the Red Sox to World Series titles, edged out Farrell in first-place votes, 16 to 12.

I would have gone for Melvin, mostly because I thought he had to do the most managing -- the A’s platooned more than any other AL club, he had to work through the early loss of Opening Day starter Brett Anderson and a drop in production from Yoenis Cespedes. But Francona is a deserving winner, as Farrell would have been.

In defense of Fredi Gonzalez

October, 8, 2013
So, Eric Karabell and I had a good discussion today about what happened in the eighth inning of the Braves-Dodgers game on Monday night.

His question to me: Is it fair to rip Fredi Gonzalez when no other manager would have used Craig Kimbrel to start the eighth inning? And: Is it fair to rip Gonzalez when David Carpenter had a very good season (1.78 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 65.2 innings)?

Well ... I argued yes, my point still being:

(A) I don't want to lose the game without my best reliever appearing. By managing to the save -- the ninth-inning save (or, as in Game 2, the four-out save) -- Gonzalez used Kimbrel for just four outs in the series. Five other Braves relievers were used more in the series. Kimbrel threw 25 pitches in five days.

(B) Kimbrel is special, making it even more important you find a way to use him.

Still, Eric's point is fair: Gonzalez is managing like everyone and it's not Carpenter like was horrible; maybe there's no shame in losing a game with a reliever who had a sub-2.00 ERA.

To the point about two-inning saves, I checked the past five postseasons, 2008 to 2012. There were only four two-inning saves: Jason Motte in Game 3 of last year's NLCS, Phil Coke in Game 2 of the ALCS last year (with a three-run lead) and Mariano Rivera twice in 2009.

There were also a few other instances when a closer, or a one-inning setup guy, pitched two innings. Motte had another two-inning appearance last year where he got the win (Game 5 of the NLDS). Sergio Romo had one for the Giants, although that was the ninth and 10th innings of a game that was tied. But Eric's point is basically true: Two-inning saves are exceptionally rare.

Managers have been a little more willing to go to four-out saves. In those five seasons, there were 13 four-out saves and four five-out saves (although one of those came in a 10-3 game was broken up in the ninth). Motte had three of those 13 four-out saves. (These numbers don't include blown saves or other instances were a closer may have gone more than three outs in a tie game.)

So, four outs is sort of OK. But five or six outs are basically off-limits.

Let's get the positives out of the way, because this game should be remembered for the heroics more than a managerial decision.

What a start by Freddy Garcia, who first appeared in the postseason with the Seattle Mariners back in 2000, when one of his teammates was Rickey Henderson.

What a gutsy effort by Clayton Kershaw, pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career and allowing just two runs -- both unearned -- in six innings.

What a double by Yasiel Puig, leading off the bottom of eighth inning by scooting a 2-2 fastball past a diving Freddie Freeman into the right-field corner, leading Vin Scully to exclaim, "The wild horse is loose!" as Puig sprinted into second in about two blinks of the eye.
[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillYasiel Puig's double was one of the glorious things overshadowed by Juan Uribe's blast.

And, of course, what a home run by Juan Uribe, a guy many had wanted the Los Angeles Dodgers to release in the offseason, eating the final year of his contract. Manager Don Mattingly had asked him to bunt Puig to third to get the tying run 90 feet away. Uribe bunted two balls foul, laid off two close pitches -- Juan Uribe showing plate discipline! -- and then tomahawked a high fastball from David Carpenter into the left-field stands for a shocking two-run homer that held up as a 4-3 Dodgers victory when Kenley Jansen closed it out.

It was a thrilling game to cap off an amazing day of baseball. Four games that had a little bit of everything. But … I can't avoid it. Note that I wrote "David Carpenter" and not "Craig Kimbrel."

It's simple really: The Braves had to win this game. Lose, and they go home. Somehow they lost -- in the late innings, no less -- without using the most dominant relief pitcher in the game. Kimbrel did not throw a single pitch.

Look at that note above from Jeff Passan. Consider that Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was willing to use Kimbrel for four outs in Game 2 -- but not six outs in a must-win game. Not six outs even after Puig had led off with the double. It's managing to a statistic instead of managing to win. Gonzalez decided he'd rather get Kimbrel a "save" than put his team in the best possible position to win.

The sad thing is, Gonzalez apparently didn't even think of using Kimbrel for two innings. "I think six outs isn't something we were even talking about in the dugout," he said after the game.

But what’s the difference between four outs and six outs? Six pitches? Ten pitches? And that doesn’t even factor in that the Dodgers had the 5-6-7 hitters due up in the eighth and the 8-9-1 hitters up in the ninth. What part of the lineup is more likely to score runs?

So instead you lost a game with a guy who had a 6.07 ERA last year for the Houston Astros.

As the Braves hit in the ninth inning, the camera panned to Kimbrel in the bullpen, warming up. At one point he turned to the bullpen coach and said, "I'm mad because …" I'm not exactly sure what he said after that, although one person on Twitter surmised it was "I'm mad because I told him if we have the lead in the eighth, I want the ball." We'll see if Kimbrel confirms that, but even if he didn't say that, his look of disgust, standing there with his hands on his hips, will haunt Braves fans all winter.

This should be covered in Managing 101. You can't lose a game without getting your best reliever in there, especially one with Kimbrel's credentials, at some point. Who cares if it's the seventh inning or the eighth inning or the ninth. Just use him. Isn't that the most important thing? I'd rather lose with Carpenter in the ninth inning or the 10th inning or whenever, at least knowing I had used Kimbrel at some juncture.

Look, managing your bullpen in a structured manner in the regular season is one thing.

October is not the regular season.

Fredi Gonzalez didn't think the best reliever in the game can get six outs.

He ended up getting none.

Eric and myself discuss why Dusty Baker got fired in Cincinnati and why we're not happy with what managers are doing in the playoffs so far.
Well, not every rookie starter can be expected to deliver a performance like Gerrit Cole did for the Pirates or Sonny Gray did for the A's.

There isn't a whole lot to say about the Dodgers' 13-6 pounding of the Braves in Game 3 of their NL Division Series, other than to say the Dodgers hit well, the Braves pitched and fielded poorly and Hanley Ramirez might be on his way to one of those legendary Octobers.

The turning point, if there was one, came with Fredi Gonzalez's slow hook on rookie starter Julio Teheran. Teheran had allowed four runs in the second inning during a rally capped by Carl Crawford's three-run homer to right field with two outs. OK, he'd been one strike away from getting out of the inning with one run -- Crawford jumped on a 2-2 slider -- but in the bottom of the third, after the Braves had scored twice to tie the game, Gonzalez let Teheran allow four more hits and two runs before finally pulling him.

It was too late. Considering the importance of this game -- the winner of Game 3 has won 14 of the past 15 Division Series that were tied at one game -- you can't leave the starter in that long. What's the point of carrying seven relievers for a five-game series that has two off days if you can't be more flexible than how you would manage in the regular season?

[+] EnlargeJulio Teheran
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJulio Teheran wasn't the only rookie hurler who didn't bring his best game to this October Sunday.
It's an issue I have with most managers in the postseason, the unwillingness to change how they manage in October from how they manage in July, the inability to be more creative. Over 162 games, you have to worry about burning out your bullpen, and you have to let Teheran learn how to pitch out of jams. But you can't wait in the postseason. There is an urgency to every game, and one inning can change an entire series.

Compare Gonzalez's slow hook to what Don Mattingly did. Donnie Manager made some questionable moves in Game 2, but he didn't hesitate in this game. After the Dodgers took that 6-4 lead, Hyun-Jin Ryu was due up with two outs. He's actually a good batter -- he hit a sac fly earlier in the game and hit .203 with four extra-base hits in the regular season -- but Mattingly sensed an opportunity to (A) get more runs and (B) not gamble by keeping Ryu in there after he'd struggled through three innings.

Again, in the regular season with a 6-4 lead, you let Ryu go back out there with that lead, hoping that you can squeeze a couple more innings out of him. So I liked the decision to yank him and go to Chris Capuano, who responded with three scoreless innings.

One more minor nitpick on Gonzalez. When Capuano walked the first better he faced, No. 8 hitter Elliot Johnson, I thought Gonzalez should have hit for pitcher Alex Wood, who had replaced Teheran. Yes, Wood is a guy who started in the regular season and can give the Braves multiple innings out of the pen, but the leadoff walk presented the possibility of a big inning. Again, series tied, trailing in Game 3, there is no time for patience. Wood sacrificed and Capuano settled down, but bring in a position player to hit off Capuano and who knows what could have happened.

As for Ramirez, the dude is ripping line drives all over the place. After going 3-for-4, he's 7-for-13 in the series with six RBIs and six extra-base hits. He could be headed for one of those Reggie Jackson/David Ortiz/David Freese postseasons. Ramirez was the best player in 2013 on a per-game basis, and he's showing why he hit .345 with 20 home runs in 86 games. The Braves have 24 hours to figure out how to get him out.

Freddy Garcia -- yep, Freddy Garcia, who first appeared in the postseason way back in 2000 with the Mariners -- is the starter the Braves are trusting in Game 4 to do that. Garcia had 27 good innings with the Braves (1.65 ERA), which proves nothing but was enough to convince Gonzalez to start him. Hey, he had a 5.77 ERA for the Orioles in 53 innings, but who cares. Johnson got released by the Royals, but had 100 good at-bats with the Braves, so let's make him the starting second baseman. Evan Gattis isn't a left fielder, and his failure to get to a fairly routine fly ball in the second inning helped set up that four-run inning, and he later failed to back up a Ramirez triple that bounced off the wall, but, whatever., Let's keep sending him out there.

Look, this kind of decision-making doesn't kill you against the Phillies, the Mets or the Marlins. It does against a good team. Dodgers wrap this one up in four.
Of the past 15 Division Series that were tied 1-1, the Game 3 winner won the series 14 times, so you can understand the importance of Sunday night's Braves-Dodgers game in Los Angeles. Interestingly, the matchup between Julio Teheran and Hyun-jin Ryu is just the 11th between rookie starters in postseason history.

Even more interesting may be the strategies that managers Fredi Gonzalez and Don Mattingly employ in what should be another tense, close game. Both skippers made several questionable moves in Game 2, topped by Mattingly intentionally walking Reed Johnson with two outs to load the bases for Jason Heyward, who singled in two critical runs.

Here are some strategic elements to potentially watch for in this game:
  • Carl Crawford versus Braves left-handed relievers. Crawford was pretty useless against left-handers this year, hitting .206/.261/.290. Mattingly let him hit against Luis Avilan in the seventh inning of Game 2 with the tying run on third base and Crawford hit into an inning-ending double play. Michael Young had already hit in that inning and once you get past Young, the Dodgers bench thins out in a hurry -- Scott Van Slyke, backup infielder Nick Punto, backup catcher Tim Federowicz, the hobbled Andre Ethier (who can't hit lefties anyway) and pinch-running specialist Dee Gordon. Van Slyke hit .234/.342/.422 against lefties so would have been a better option. While you need to be careful about burning through your bench in the seventh inning, if you're ever going to hit for Crawford that was about as big a situation as you can run into. And if you're not going to hit for him, it gives Gonzalez an easy matchup advantage.
  • How long can Craig Kimbrel go? Kimbrel recorded a four-out save in Game 2, and it's a sign of closer usage that people were more surprised that Kimbrel was brought in for more than three outs than outraged that Gonzalez let David Carpenter (who did have a good year) face Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig in the eighth, after Carpenter had given up a two-run homer to Hanley Ramirez. In other words, Carpenter, a guy the Astros and Blue Jays traded away in the past year, faced the big guns in the lineup while Kimbrel got the bottom of the order. Let's see how Gonzalez handles Kimbrel in this game.
  • One-run strategies. Both managers showed in Game 2 that they'll play for one run if the situation arises. Gonzalez elected to have Andrelton Simmons bunt in front of No. 8 hitter Elliot Johnson, for example. Expect more bunts that will drive statheads crazy.
  • Ryu versus Braves lefties. Ryu is actually a reverse-platoon left-hander, as lefties hit .270 off him while righties hit .245. So don't be surprised if Mattingly lifts Ryu for a lefty reliever (Paco Rodriguez or J.P. Howell) to face Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman or Brian McCann in a key situation.
  • Ethier coming off the bench. Teheran's slider made him much more effective against right-handers (.204 versus .289). Ethier still isn't ready to play the field, but provides an interesting pinch-hitting option if Mattingly sees an opportunity in the middle innings -- although it's unlikely he'd hit for, say, catcher A.J. Ellis or third baseman Juan Uribe, leaving Ethier for Ryu as the only probably situation that arises where Ethier would face Teheran.
  • Mattingly and the bullpen. He probably overthought things a bit in Game 2, not thinking Gonzalez would hit Johnson for Jose Constanza when Mattingly replaced Chris Withrow with Rodriguez. Brian Wilson has looked good as the setup guy, so Mattingly is unlikely to deviate from a Wilson-Kenley Jansen combo in the eighth and ninth. But that does give him the option of a pretty quick hook on Ryu if needed and use Withrow and Rodriguez in the sixth and/or seventh innings if he has the lead.
ATLANTA -- Put this game in your back pocket. Or, more specifically, put the seventh inning in your back pocket. Because if the Atlanta Braves go on to win this series, and then go on to do something magical in the next series and then the big one after that, this will be a game to remember, the game Dodgers manager Don Mattingly elected to pitch to Jason Heyward with the bases loaded instead of somebody named Jose Constanza.

True story.

"Play the matchups. Play the matchups. That's what the postseason is about," Heyward said about his crucial at-bat against Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. "You go lefty-lefty there."

Heyward singled in two runs, turning a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead, the eventual winning runs in the Braves' 4-3 victory over the Dodgers that tied up their Division Series.

But the story is how we got to that matchup, in an inning with enough strategy to make a sabermetrician's head explode and fans sweat profusely through their Freddie Freeman replica jerseys. Watching Mattingly and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez match wits may not exactly have been Earl Weaver versus Billy Martin, but it made for entertaining opportunities for the pundits and fans to debate.

[+] EnlargeJason Heyward
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJason Heyward said his two-run single off Paco Rodriguez was the best moment of his career.
In that one crucial decision, however, Gonzalez may have masterfully duped Mattingly.

The Braves led 2-1, Zack Greinke having been removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh after just 83 pitches (even though he did he hit .328 this season). Right-hander Chris Withrow came on in relief and walked Brian McCann before Chris Johnson lined a soft, broken-bat single to left. Gonzalez had Andrelton Simmons sacrifice in front of the weaker-hitting Elliot Johnson, a questionable move in itself that looked even more questionable after Withrow stuck out Johnson looking on a nasty 0-2 curveball.

So two outs, runners at second and third, pitcher Luis Avilan due up. Gonzalez sent up the left-handed Constanza to pinch-hit, a guy with just 31 plate appearances all season in the major leagues and just eight hits, all singles. He's on the roster primarily as a pinch-running or defensive option in the outfield.

Withrow is a rookie reliever with an upper 90s fastball who came on strong late in the year, and while he had just 34.2 innings, he struck out 43 batters and allowed just 20 hits. Left-handers hit just .217 off him -- limited sample size caveat -- with just one extra-base hit allowed. In other words, he's good. Good enough to face Constanza.

One problem with having so many relievers on the roster is you may overthink it and actually feel inclined to use them. Mattingly brought in the lefty Rodriguez, but of course Gonzalez wasn't going to let Constanza face Rodriguez; he sent up Reed Johnson. Mattingly elected to walk Johnson to face Heyward.

"Just really at that point trusting Paco to do what he had to do. ... Paco has been that guy all year long," Mattingly said.

Simmons, watching from the Braves’ dugout, admitted he "was a little surprised" Mattingly elected to load the bases. Simmons said the players aren't necessarily analyzing each move like the managers and coaching staff do, but they trust the manager to put the best players in the right spot. So when a player says he's surprised by a move, you have to wonder.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDon Mattingly decided to pitch to Jason Heyward instead of Jose Constanza, and the Dodgers paid for it.
Mattingly got his lefty-lefty matchup, but Heyward was much improved against left-handed pitchers this season after his early-season struggles and appendectomy. Since June 1 he'd had a .402 on-base percentage against lefties. Yes, Rodriguez had held lefties to a .131 average, so it wasn't the worst matchup for the Dodgers. But Rodriguez was also in a situation where he had to throw strikes, and Heyward has excellent plate discipline.

Chris Withrow versus Jose Constanza? Or Paco Rodriguez versus Jason Heyward with the bases loaded?

* * * *

It's funny how players will view a game differently. Chris Johnson said, "I don't think it's a must-win game until you lose and go home." He's right, of course, it wasn't a must-win game for the Braves. On the other hand, you don't want to head to Los Angeles down 2-0. "We felt like our backs were against the wall," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We took it like it was an elimination game." He's right as well. In a short series, you have to play with a certain urgency. You can't let any situation slip away, and you have to take advantage of mistakes your opponents give you.

That's what Mattingly did. He opened the door and paid the price when Heyward singled up the middle on a 2-1 slider. Heyward said it was the best moment of his career. "I mean, the top," he said. "For right now, the top. This is this moment. ... We want to be in those situations to come through big for your team."

Heyward split the difference between Johnson and Laird when told Gonzalez said the game was probably a must-win, saying, "I know a manager has got a different mindset sometimes than the players, but I know we all agree on one thing: Every night in the postseason is a must-win game for us. You don't want to ever think it's OK to lose."

A baseball game is made up of hundreds of little decisions, starting with each pitch and what to throw. Avilan had a big decision himself in the top of that fateful seventh. With runners at the corners and one out, Carl Crawford hit a hard grounder back to him, with the runner on third breaking for home.

"As soon as I caught it, my first thought was second base," he said. "I knew we had a good shortstop with a strong arm.

"I saw the runner at third base running to home plate but thought I had a good chance at the double play."

Avilan and Simmons turned the double play, 1-6-3. Inning over. In the blink of a moment, Avilan made the right decision.

In his moment, Don Mattingly didn't, and the Braves are back in the series.

Chess match: Dodgers versus Braves

October, 3, 2013
Here's a look at some managerial tactics that Clint Hurdle and Mike Matheny employ. Now let's check in on Don Mattingly and Fredi Gonzalez.

Los Angeles Dodgers versus Atlanta Braves

What Mattingly likes to do: On offense, Mattingly isn't especially busy. Oddly, while he doesn't have his team steal much, the Dodgers nevertheless made more outs on baserunning plays than any other team in the postseason (61). You can only blame Yasiel Puig for 11 of those, with Hanley Ramirez (nine) and Adrian Gonzalez (seven) doing some damage as well. We'll see if mistakes on the bases haunts them in the LDS.

On defense, Mattingly likes using the intentional pass: starters, relievers, you name it, he'll tell the guy to do it. Thanks to the better overall quality of his staff this year, Mattingly has toned things down from having his pitchers issue 62 last season, but he still had Ronald Belisario -- one of his preferred pen men in tight games in the seventh and eighth -- issue 10 freebies under orders. Put into a tight situation in the late innings, don't act surprised if Mattingly starts putting extra people on base.

He's seen a pretty good bullpen come together, although it did have a few bumps in September. It's sort of funny that the team that has added former closers Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Carlos Marmol and Brian Wilson in the past 13 months or so has Kenley Jansen -- the guy they had all along -- closing for them. Beyond the mass of ex-celebs he's had to sort through, it's more impressive that rookies Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow earned key roles. Belisario and Rodriguez struggled down the stretch, however, so look for Wilson to have to get some key outs.

With Matt Kemp out for entire postseason, and Andre Ethier not available in the field for at least the first two games, Mattingly will have to juggle his lineup a bit, with Skip Schumaker likely starting in center field. Puig has hit leadoff most of September, with Carl Crawford hitting second, but the absence of Ethier may prompt Mattingly to move Puig down to the fifth slot behind Gonzalez, with Crawford and Mark Ellis hitting 1-2.

What Fredi Gonzalez likes to do: Conjure up creative solutions when the master plan of counting on B.J. Upton falls apart, apparently. Jason Heyward isn't a lot of people's idea of a leadoff man or center fielder, but Gonzalez has run and won with both notions. And with Justin Upton in the two-hole? Front-loading your lineup instead of conceding either slot to Andrelton Simmons is pretty tasty. Add in his finding ways to get Evan Gattis' power into the lineup, spotting the rookie slugger at catcher and left field with some first base mixed in.

Other stuff? Gonzalez likes to use pinch runners, employing an NL-leading 40 of them. But he doesn't put his runners in motion on the pitch; only Bob Melvin did so less often (by a lot, 74 to 94). He's also fairly aggressive with defensive replacements, plugging them in 51 times. Dan Uggla and Gattis are big parts of the reasons for that, and Uggla was left off the division series roster, but to Gonzalez’s credit, he doesn't let it ride with those kinds of risks. So while Gattis should start in left field, at least in Game 1 against Clayton Kershaw, he won't stay out there if the Braves are leading late in the game.

With a pitching staff that gave Gonzalez a league-leading 102 quality starts plus a bullpen that delivered scoreless outings a remarkable 90.6 percent of the time in their 466 total relief appearances, I don't know if any manager got fewer gray hairs from his pitching staff this season. Well, in his goatee. At any rate, that sort of top-to-bottom excellence is worth noting, because Gonzalez is in the awkward position of having to start veteran retread Freddy Garcia in Game 4, choosing him over Paul Maholm or rookie Alex Wood.

Wood will work out of the pen as a second left-hander with Luis Avilan. Veteran Scott Downs, acquired from the Angels, was left off the division series roster.

Advantage: Closer to a push, but I’d favor Gonzalez here.

Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

    Kris Medlen continues to work on his changeup, which shows promise, but he doesn't use it much out of the bullpen. While his size is less than ideal in the eyes of many scouts, Medlen pitches with great confidence and has ideal makeup for a closer.
    -- Baseball America 2008 Prospect Handbook

This just in: Kris Medlen might turn into a pretty good starter. And that changeup? It's only turned into one of the most lethal pitches in the major leagues.

Because of his short stature, Medlen spent his first two minor league seasons pitching exclusively in relief. Five-foot-10 pitchers are rarely regarded as starting pitching prospects, especially when they were 10th-round draft picks who also played shortstop in junior college. In 2008, the Braves gave Medlen a chance to start 17 games at Double-A Mississippi, he showed the same excellent control he possessed in the bullpen and some began to view him as a potential big league starter.

It's been four years since that breakout Double-A campaign. Medlen has yet to start more than 14 games in a major league season, but he's suddenly become the hottest starter in the big leagues. He dominated the Rockies in a 111-pitch complete game on Monday, striking out a career-high 12 and allowing just one unearned run as the Braves won, 6-1. Medlen became the first Braves starter to fan 12 in a game since Tommy Hanson struck out 14 Astros last season and it was just the 14th 12-strikeout start by an Atlanta pitcher since 2000.

Seven of the strikeouts came on Medlen's changeup, which opponents are hitting just .087 against in 98 plate appearances ending in that pitch. Needless to say, that makes Medlen's changeup one of the best in the game. Here are the lowest OPS totals allowed on a changeup (minimum 200 changeups thrown):

Fernando Rodney, Rays: .235
Kris Medlen, Braves: .262
Tyler Clippard, Nationals: .367
Felix Hernandez, Mariners: .418

It's not as simple as just having a great changeup, of course. Medlen has to successfully set up the pitch with command of his fastball and curveball to go to the changeup as his punchout pitch.

Since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen has now made seven starts -- and allowed four runs. He has a 50/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, allowed one home run and hasn't allowed an earned run over his past four starts. The Braves have won all seven of his starts (and, amazingly, going back to 2010 have won the past 18 games he started). How important has Medlen been to the Braves' playoff hopes? They're 18-15 since he joined the rotation -- meaning they're 11-15 in games he doesn't start.

It begs the question: Why didn't the Braves put Medlen in the rotation earlier? According to manager Fredi Gonzalez, it was all about keeping Medlen's innings down. Like Stephen Strasburg, Medlen was returning from Tommy John surgery after making two appearances last September.

Gonzalez got in a little dig at the Nationals after Monday's game. "It was all limits to innings. It was basically the number that Strasburg is facing right now, 160 to 170, because they both were coming off the Tommy John surgery," Gonzalez said. "Where do we want that 160 to 170 to end? Do we want it to end in October or do we want it to end in August?"

Of course, the Nationals can counter that by pointing out they're still 6.5 games ahead of the Braves, likely relegating Atlanta to the wild-card game (the Braves are three up on the Cardinals and four up on the Dodgers).

It's also true that the Braves liked their rotation at the start of the season: Hanson, 2012 All-Star Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Randall Delgado, with Tim Hudson set to return in late April and top prospect Julio Teheran gaining experience in Triple-A. Even after the team signed Ben Sheets and acquired Paul Maholm, it didn't move Medlen into the rotation until finally giving up on Jurrjens and sending Delgado down to the minors.

In fact, it's possible Gonzalez is delving into a little revisionist history. After Medlen won his first start, Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Medlen was scheduled for only one more start, at which point "the Braves would have a decision to make." Schultz outlined the Braves' options at that point, with Hanson returning from the disabled list: Move Medlen to the 'pen, move Hanson to the pen, go to a six-man rotation.

Gonzalez decided to go to a six-man rotation, although that lasted only a few weeks after Sheets landed on the DL after his Aug. 24 start.

Another issue is it wasn't exactly a strong indication while Medlen was pitching in relief that he should move to the rotation: He had averaged 6.0 K's per nine innings, with a 2.8 SO/BB ratio in 54 innings in relief, hardly a dominating total for a reliever. Plus, there was the belief that Medlen was carrying an important workload and saving innings from Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, who memorably tired during the stretch last year. But since moving into the rotation, Medlen's K rate has jumped up to 9.1 per nine innings as a starter with that phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio.

There's no way the Braves could have seen this coming. Certainly, if they had expected Medlen to be close to this good, they would have made the move earlier, innings "limit" or not.

As for Medlen, he explained after the game some of the reasons for his success, like using his curve more as a starter. "You can just attack guys so differently with an extra pitch, an effective pitch, too," he said. "I got a couple strikeouts with it." He also noted how starting is different from relieving. "You're not throwing as many innings, but you're getting up and warming up just as much as anybody. I love the starting part because you can get four days to prepare your arm."

Regardless of how Medlen ended up in the rotation, the Braves have an ace to replace early-season NL leader Beachy, who went down in June with Tommy John surgery of his own. If the Braves do end up in that one-game playoff, you can bet whom Gonzalez is lining up to start it. Not bad for a former junior college shortstop.

Jason HeywardScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesKris Medlen got help from his friends, such as Jason Heyward's running down this ball hit to right field.
News and notes from Monday's action that won't mention the Red Sox and Yankees showed great grit and determination by finally winning a game ...

First base: Barry good. After an 0-3 start following three one-run losses to the Diamondbacks, the Giants turned to Barry Zito against the Rockies at Coors Field. Of course, he threw his first shutout since 2003 and became just the second left-hander to ever throw a shutout there -- Tom Glavine having done it twice. Even more amazing may have been this 11-pitch at-bat Zito mustered off Esmil Rogers. With Buster Posey and Brandon Belt getting the day off the Giants fielded a lineup with Aubrey Huff batting cleanup, Hector Sanchez fifth and Brandon Crawford seventh. Don't worry, Giants fans: Bruce Bochy said Belt will be back in the lineup when the teams meet again on Wednesday.

Second base: Mets win as Nationals throw it away. I wrote on Sunday about the Mets' patient approach at the plate. They drew six walks on Monday and Mike Baxter's pinch-hit leadoff walk off Henry Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth led to the winning run. Ruben Tejada laid down a two-strike bunt that Rodriguez threw away to put runners at second and third. Daniel Murphy then singled in Baxter for a 4-3 win. Jon Rauch threw two hitless innings for the win and the Mets bullpen has allowed just one run in 13.1 innings so far.

Third base: Red-hot Fredi. The curious lineup decision of the night belonged to Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez. He benched Jason Heyward to get Matt Diaz into the lineup, since Diaz was 8-for-15 in his career against J.A. Happ. I suppose playing Diaz is reasonable. But he could have easily moved Martin Prado to third base and put Diaz in left field. Instead, he kept Juan Francisco -- like Heyward a lefty swinger -- in the lineup. Gonzalez's rationale? He wanted to see to how Francisco would fare against a left-handed pitcher in case he's needed later in the season if Chipper Jones can't go. Umm, OK. But why bench Heyward in the season's fourth game? He was 2-for-10 with two walks, a double and triple, hardly a reason to give him a day off. Heyward is still a 22-year-old with superstar potential. Those guys need to play every day. Anyway, the Braves lost 8-3 to the lowly Astros, committed four errors (three by Francisco, the guy Gonzalez had to get in the lineup), they're 0-4 and Gonzalez is undoubtedly the manager on the hottest seat in the bigs right now.

Home plate: Tweet of the day.