With Chris Carpenter looking to provide an encore after his masterpiece in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and Yovani Gallardo coming into the game with a career 1-7 record against the St. Louis Cardinals while allowing 6.5 runs per nine, Wednesday's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series was already one with all sorts of foreboding for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being an ace-on-ace matchup. In 11 starts against St. Louis, Gallardo has managed just four quality starts.
But Carpenter didn’t channel his inner Bob Gibson. Instead, he was the first starter hooked on Wednesday night, after just five innings. And that suited the Cardinals just fine, because with Tony La Russa’s team-pitching approach, he needed only five and a lead before turning to the revolving door from his bullpen. Just four would have to troop in to seal St. Louis' 4-3 victory, because even while he’s willing to go batter to batter with an alacrity unlike that of any other manager in history, La Russa let both Lance Lynn and Jason Motte pitch in multiple innings.
With this game on the line, it wasn’t the ageless geezers like Arthur Rhodes and Octavio Dotel who were pitching. La Russa’s love of veterans might be well-known, but he loves winning more. It was the younger guns he trusted with the one-run lead: rookies Fernando Salas and Lynn, then Marc Rzepczynski for Prince-erasure as the situational lefty, and finally Motte to cook with gas and put the game away. It might not sound like the Nasty Boys, but the Cardinals' pen will settle for being merely nasty.
Thanks to some wildness and some dubious defense -- more on that in a second -- the Cardinals busted out for four runs in the first, which might have triggered your expectation that they were going to repeat Game 2’s ugliness and blow the Brewers back to Milwaukee before they might ever sniff a Game 6. Gallardo wound up having about the strangest game you might imagine -- seemingly on the ropes from the outset en route to putting 13 of the 26 batters he faced on base. But the Cardinals simply couldn’t deliver the knockout blow, even doing Gallardo the characteristic favor of grounding into a couple of double plays.
Despite all that, Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke stuck with Gallardo, barely bothering to ring the pen until he finally hooked his starter after five innings and 95 pitches, down by just a run. If you expected Roenicke to play Captain Hook at any point, guess again. If Gallardo isn’t the Brewers’ ace, they have no ace, and with Randy Wolf starting Game 4, the last thing he could afford was a quick hook.
Given the desperate straits he was in on paper going into this game, Roenicke took a big risk at the outset -- on the lineup card. Roenicke’s willingness to take a few risks on offense is one of his key features as a manager, and with the series tied and going up against Carpenter, he elected to sit Nyjer Morgan vs. a right-handed pitcher and start Mark Kotsay in center in his place. This had a lot to do with the two hitters’ track records against Carpenter -- Morgan had a .469 OPS in 25 career PAs, while Kotsay had an .871 in 12. Carping about small sample sizes is the lazy thing to complain about, but that’s what managers have to work with, and with Morgan swinging out of his shoes in the postseason, Roenicke made a tough call. If you want to be generous, call it situational awareness.
Both the benefits and the hazards couldn’t have become transparent any more quickly than they did in this game. Swapping Kotsay in to play center field was obviously a risk: Kotsay is 35 years old, and it’s been years since he was an adequate center fielder, let alone a good one. And starting wound up being a key to the game’s outcome. After a four-run first inning during which Kotsay’s limited range was responsible for a couple of the runs, it didn’t look so good.
Maybe having Gallardo on the mound made this seem worth trying; Gallardo got 36 percent of his outs on strikeouts this season, so he’s much less defense-dependent than most starting pitchers. With two walks and a home run, Kotsay delivered on the offensive side of the equation, and his homer pulled the Brewers to within a run.
If the game swung on La Russa’s aggressiveness in going to his bullpen, Roenicke’s adaptive decision on his lineup card wound up being decisive for the Brewers. The Cardinals can take some satisfaction in the fact that they didn’t win in a walkover or via another tremendous Carpenter start -- but thanks to their pen, they didn’t need one. Now down two games to one with Wolf due, the Brewers’ situation is fairly desperate, with Wolf’s start in Game 4 already a cause for fear.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.