Cox, Bochy not managing to their standards
Each skipper endures his own struggles in wacky Game 3
ATLANTA -- Braves manager Bobby Cox is bound for the Hall of Fame. His Giants counterpart, Bruce Bochy, may not get there, but in a 16-year career, he's established himself as one of baseball's truly solid bench men.
Neither man distinguished himself with his tactics on Sunday at Turner Field, though. The Giants won, 3-2, but did so despite a head-scratching sequence in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, it's tough not to look at two critical decisions by Cox that left Atlanta with something less than its best squad on the field when San Francisco rallied to win the game in the ninth.
It's a players' game, of course. And if the Giants had come through more often with runners on base in the early innings, Eric Hinske's pinch-homer in the eighth might have gone relatively unnoticed. Conversely, if Braves closer Craig Kimbrel had controlled the strike zone in the ninth, things never would have progressed to the point where he was pulled.
But the manager's main job during a game is to put his players in the best position to win, and at pivotal moments on Sunday, both skippers fell short of that standard. The Giants escaped. The Braves did not.
Cox simultaneously overmanaged and undermanaged in the ninth. He stuck with struggling second baseman Brooks Conrad for too long and yet didn't stick with Kimbrel for nearly long enough. Each on its own backfired. Taken in concert, they're baffling.
Conrad committed an error in the first inning. He was charged with another, more critical, one in the second. They were his sixth and seventh in a seven-game stretch. The argument could certainly have been made to get him out of the game right away, if not for the sake of winning the game, simply out of compassion for a player in a deep hole.
Cox stuck with him, though. Conrad turned a slick double play in the third and had an assist in the fifth, and his bat was needed for an Atlanta team desperate for any runs. Once the Braves took the lead in the eighth, though, he needed to come out. Bochy made a defensive substitution in the sixth -- Cox absolutely should have done so with a lead in the ninth.
Instead, he stayed with Conrad. It didn't work. Conrad caught a popup for the first out, but with two outs and two on, he made his most painful error yet. Buster Posey hit a ball right at him and it skipped between Conrad's legs. The winning run scored on the play.
Cox argued that his bench was too short to bring in the extra player, but that's not a good enough argument when you have a lead in the ninth inning of a playoff game. Diory Hernandez was available, and he should have been in there -- even if he was the second-to-last player available left on the bench.
"We were down to one player on the bench with Hernandez [as far as a] position guy, and we didn't want to use [backup catcher] David Ross."
That just can't be your consideration with a lead in the ninth inning of a playoff game. Win the game and there's no need to worry about who's available in a hypothetical bottom of the ninth, or 10th or later.
Even before it got to that point, though, Cox made an odd decision in the opposite direction. With two outs and two on, Cox lifted his ostensible closer, Kimbrel, for Michael Dunn. That created a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Aubrey Huff, but Huff had no platoon split this year. Moreover, the next hitter was Posey, who has crushed lefties even more than right-handed pitching.
The move didn't improve the Braves' chances of winning on Sunday, and it can't have done them any favors going forward, either. If Atlanta plans to commit to Kimbrel, and all signs are that that's the case, why not show faith in him? The magic of the closer mystique is overstated, but even so, it would likely behoove the Braves to display confidence in Kimbrel's golden arm.
Then again, they never would have had the lead to protect but for an equally strange sequence an inning earlier.
Bochy made the same mistake he did two nights earlier when he fetched his starter too soon from a game. While the Giants' bullpen has been rock solid this year, their starters are their engine. And twice now, Bochy has shown a quick hook when it wasn't necessary.
On Sunday, it led to a bad matchup for the Giants. Atlanta went to pinch-hitter Troy Glaus, who may have been a dangerous threat at one time, but is clearly compromised at this point. Glaus has not homered since Aug. 16 and hit .188 with a .288 on-base percentage and a .273 slugging percentage from June 7 until the end of the regular season. He's not someone you play matchups against.
But Bochy removed the lefty Sanchez for the right-hander Sergio Romo, the same man who surrendered the tying runs in Friday night's Giants loss. Predictably, Cox countered with dangerous left-handed bat Eric Hinske, and the outcome wasn't a surprise. Hinske smoked a two-run homer down the line, costing Sanchez the victory and putting the Giants on thin ice.
Sanchez's pitch count was still low, and his stuff was still good. Bochy pulled him, though, even knowing that he might soon see Hinske versus a right-hander.
"It didn't work out," Bochy acknowledged. "That's not a good feeling when you make a change and they hit a two-run homer. But the 'pen's done a great job all year. We have a lot of confidence in them. Serge just made a mistake there, got the ball up, and they took advantage of it. But [I] just felt that Sanchy had done his job, he was at that point, and we had a fresh 'pen down there. Give them credit."
Two nights earlier, Bochy had removed Matt Cain after a single baserunner when Cain was going strong. It didn't bite him immediately, but an inning later, Romo came on and allowed the first two runners to reach. That started the tying rally and left the question as to why Cain had come out.
There's nothing wrong with having faith in a quality bullpen, and Romo is a fine pitcher who's had a good year. But sometimes the right move is no move, and that's especially the case when you have an excellent starter enjoying a dominant game. On Sunday, it didn't cost the Giants. We'll see what happens on Monday.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.