The wheels of baseball strategy spin extra fast this time of year, when each game is roughly 25 times more important than in the regular season. Today, in a tense, taut game marked by heroic home runs and exquisite pitch-making, the managers arguably made the biggest difference.
When Game 2 of the National League Championship Series was over, the Atlanta Braves had secured a 4-3 victory over the New York Mets and taken a 2-0 lead in the series, which will resume at Shea Stadium on Friday.
Braves Manager Bobby Cox made several aggressive moves that worked, and Mets counterpart Bobby Valentine failed to make the one move that might have saved him. So the Braves' dominance over the Mets continued. Including the two victories here, the Braves have won 11 of the 14 contests between the teams this season, and seven of the last eight.
To the roll call of unlikely postseason heroes for the Braves--bit players and backups including Mark Lemke, Mike Devereaux, Greg Olson and Francisco Cabrera--add the name Eddie Perez. Perez, the Braves' backup catcher, has provided the winning margin with home runs in both games, including a two-run homer in the sixth inning today.
As he rounded the bases tonight, the crowd of 44,624 at Turner Field chanted, "Ed-die! Ed-die!" "Mine is the easiest name for them to say," Perez joked.
Braves starter Kevin Millwood pitched 7 1/3 innings for his second victory of the postseason. Mets starter Kenny Rogers, whom the Braves had last seen in the 1996 World Series when he was with the New York Yankees, is 0-1 with a 10.22 earned run average in five career postseason starts.
Still, today's game came down to managerial moves. Valentine's decision to leave Rogers in the game to absorb a four-run beating in the sixth inning cost the Mets dearly, as Valentine readily admitted. In the span of eight pitches, the Mets went from a 2-0 lead to a 4-2 deficit.
"I had no reason to keep him in, and I left him in, and it was absolutely the wrong move," Valentine said. "There were a lot of things that went through my mind. It was just the wrong decision."
Conversely, Cox, whose strategic skills have been questioned during the Braves' mostly empty run of postseason play in the 1990s, continued his recent hot streak of gutsy moves.
Cox called on closer John Rocker with one out in the eighth inning, then broke a baseball rule by putting the potential go-ahead run on base with an intentional walk. In the ninth inning, Cox pulled what is becoming his signature move, bringing in a starting pitcher--this time scheduled Game 4 starter John Smoltz--to close the game.
All the moves worked. Rocker struck out John Olerud and Robin Ventura--sandwiched around a daring intentional walk to Mike Piazza, who represented the go-ahead run--and Smoltz pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his first career save.
Asked about his strategy of putting the potential winning run on base, Cox said: "I never like to do that too much. But sometimes you have to throw it all on the table and try it. Ventura can hit it out of the ballpark. We took a chance."
One reason Cox chose to walk Piazza, who is 0 for 7 in the series, was matchups: Ventura was 0 for 4 with four strikeouts against Rocker in his career. Now, make it 0 for 5 with five strikeouts.
The decision to bring in Smoltz was made in part because of the taxing stint Rocker had in Tuesday night's Game 1 victory, in which a ninth-inning error by Chipper Jones extended Rocker's workload to 20 pitches.
It is a favorite move of Cox. He used Greg Maddux to close out a win in last year's NLCS, and he used Millwood to save the classic Game 3 of the first-round win over Houston last week.
The sixth-inning downfall for Rogers and Valentine began with a walk to Jones. Refusing to let Jones beat them the way he did in September--when he hit four homers during a three-game sweep here--the Mets have walked the Braves' slugger five times in two games.
However, just as he did against Houston, right fielder Brian Jordan turned that strategy around, hitting a homer off the right field foul pole to tie the game and set up Perez's game-winner two batters later.
"I love when people challenge me," Jordan said. "And if the Mets want to continue to walk Chipper to get to me, then I'm just going to continue to take advantage."
Knowing Rocker had only one inning in him, Cox called on him with one out in the eighth after Millwood gave up an unearned run, getting the Mets to within one run. "I thought that inning, that was the ballgame," Cox said. "If I could get out of that, it was over."
CUTTING OFF POWER
The Atlanta Braves have had their way against the New York Mets, winning seven of the last eight meetings. In doing so, the Braves shut down the Mets' power sources of Mike Piazza, John Olerud and Robin Ventura.
Last 8 games vs. Braves
.303 BA, 40 HR, 124 RBI
.200 BA, 2 HR, 6 RBI
.298 BA, 19 HR, 96 RBI
.118 BA, 1 HR, 4 RBI
.301 BA, 32 HR, 120 RBI
.138 BA, 0 HR, 0 RBI