|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
MILWAUKEE -- When he walked to the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, his team trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by two runs Saturday, Arizona manager Kirk Gibson had a decision to make.
His starting pitcher, Ian Kennedy, had thrown 109 pitches and seemed to be tiring. Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun stood on second after lacing a double to right. And Milwaukee's RBI stud, Prince Fielder, stood at home plate. All the conventional baseball wisdom in the world pointed to putting Fielder on first and taking your chances with Rickie Weeks.
But this is the fearless Kirk Gibson, who plays by his own rules. This is an unconventional manager who demands aggressiveness, imploring his team to play the game with both feet firmly pressed on the gas. Since Gibson has assumed the reigns in Arizona last July, he has managed one way: fearless. That's why Arizona pitchers intentionally walked only 16 batters all season -- fewest in the league. It's why they were second in stolen bases. Last in sacrifice bunts. All season long, Gibson seemed to push the right buttons and in doing so received much of the credit for Arizona's worst-to-first turnaround. But a funny thing happened at Miller Park in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Conventional wisdom won. In three different situations, the assertive path that helped lead Arizona to the postseason was filled with potholes. And because of it, the Milwaukee Brewers won 4-1 and have a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.
|Kirk Gibson listened to his pitcher, and that strategy failed against Prince Fielder.|
"You think things out as best as you can," Gibson said. "That's why it's a competition. Somebody wins."
After this competition, the questions weren't about all the unconventional things Gibson and his team did right, but rather the trio of decisions that went wrong. None greater than Gibson's decision to allow Kennedy to face Fielder in the seventh inning.
Gibson said his gut told him to either walk Fielder or call on relief pitcher Joe Paterson, who had struck out Fielder three times in four at-bats in the regular season. But Kennedy, who amazingly didn't issue a single intentional walk all season, talked his manager out of it when Gibson visited the mound before the at-bat.
"We had a conversation," Kennedy said. "He asked me what I thought. Obviously I wanted to go after him. We talked about walking him, but I'm not going to do that."
One hung curveball later and a fan in the right-field bleachers had a new souvenir, the Brewers had a 4-0 lead and Kennedy had a trip to the showers. Afterward, his arm wrapped in ice, he still insisted it was the right call.
"I just hung a curveball," he said. "If I make my pitch there he either rolls over it or swings and misses it. But I hung it right down into the middle of his swing."
Gibson, on the other hand, second-guessed himself.
"It was my decision to let him do it that way and it didn't work out," the manager said. "He threw probably his worst pitch of the game and [Fielder] put a good swing on it and hit it out of the park.
"I made a poor decision. And sometimes, you know, that's how the game goes. There's another game tomorrow. We'll be optimistic. We'll be upbeat. We'll be prepared like we are every game and I'll try to do a better job myself. That's all you can do."
Gibson and Kennedy were also questioned about the decision to pitch to No. 8 hitter Jonathan Lucroy after Yuniesky Betancourt's two-out triple in the sixth. Though Yovani Gallardo is among the better hitting pitchers in the league (.218 career average with nine home runs), he's still a pitcher. Kennedy didn't see it that way.
"It was a guy who can't really hit and Gallardo who can swing it a little bit, so there was no thought at all," Kennedy said.Kennedy said he made the perfect pitch -- and Gibson agreed -- but Lucroy fought it off to drop a bloop single into left that scored Betancourt and gave Milwaukee a 2-0 lead.
The other head-scratcher was less bucking conventional wisdom and more Gibson's Diamondbacks baseball gone wrong. With one out in the top of the first and Willie Bloomquist on second, Justin Upton drilled a single to left that Braun picked up and fired on two hops to Lucroy, who was waiting for Bloomquist at home plate. If third-base coach Matt Williams had held Bloomquist, the Diamondbacks would have had first and third with one out and their No. 4 and No. 5 hitters due up.
|The Diamondbacks aggressively sent Willie Bloomquist home in the first. He was thrown out.|
Afterward, Williams defended the decision to send Bloomquist, insisting he would make the exact same decision next time.
"That's the way we play," Williams said. "It's a situation where Ryan made a nice little two-hop throw to the plate. He stopped on the ball and used his arm strength and made a nice throw. But hey, we're going to push it. That's what we do."
What the Diamondbacks do now has Arizona needing to win three out of the next four to keep its season alive. But late Saturday afternoon, there was no panic. Arizona knows everything went right for Milwaukee -- Braun and Fielder, the Brewers' two best two hitters, had big days, and Gallardo was downright dominant, surrendering just four hits and one earned run in eight innings. He tied a Brewers playoff record with nine strikeouts.
Sunday is a new day and a new chance for Gibson's rolling of the dice to produce a winner.
"We've been down before and we've been resilient and we'll come back and believe we can win tomorrow," Gibson said. "It's a long series. It's one game. We're going to keep it in perspective."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.