Roenicke makes bad call to put Kotsay in center
ST. LOUIS -- Ron Roenicke has had a terrific season, managing the Milwaukee Brewers to a division title and a postseason series victory. He has set the right tone; he has made the right moves.
But Wednesday night, in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Roenicke pressed the wrong button. It was the button marked: "Mark Kotsay, center field."
Roenicke speaks often of putting players in positions where they can succeed. Putting Kotsay in center field, at this point in his career, places Kotsay in a position where he can fail. Kotsay is a widely respected veteran, but at 35, he no longer has the range to play center field. But that was where Roenicke put him Wednesday night, in place of Nyjer Morgan.
Asked before the game if this move amounted to trading defense for offense, Roenicke agreed.
"Yeah, I think it is," the manager said. "I think Kotsay going in there, I always feel good when Kotsay is in the lineup. Especially when we start him, he seems to have a big day; something always good seems to happen when he's in there. The numbers matched up good.
"I think, too, if Nyjer Morgan had been swinging the bat well, I wouldn't have even thought about this, but I think it's the right thing to do here."
As it turned out, Roenicke not only traded defense for offense, he also traded baserunning for offense.
This was the first game Kotsay had started since Sept. 25. He walked in the top of the first and was on second in a promising situation for the Brewers -- two on, one out, Prince Fielder up. Fielder hit a line drive to the left of center, not all that far away from Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay. Kotsay strayed too far toward third and when Jay caught the ball, Kotsay was doubled off second with relative ease.
"Got too far into no man's land, couldn't get back to the base," Kotsay said. That happens, although that error in judgment took Milwaukee out of a run-scoring situation and ended its half of the inning. But it wasn't as damaging as what happened in the bottom of the inning.
The ball found Kotsay almost immediately. With no outs and Rafael Furcal on second, Jay hit a line drive in front of Kotsay and to his left. Kotsay got a decent jump on the ball, but he could not cover enough ground to get to it, and his dive for the ball was not successful. This was a play that a Major League center fielder should make. This was a play that Carlos Gomez, for instance, would have made standing up and without breaking a sweat.
"Gomez is going to catch it," Roenicke said. "Gomez catches everything that's out there. He is a great defensive center fielder."
But Gomez was not an option to start center in this game, Roenicke said. The decision was between Kotsay and Morgan. The manager chose the lesser defender. It was not the correct choice.
There should have been one out and one on, a tolerable situation for a pitcher of Yovani Gallardo's ability. Instead, there was one run in and there was a runner on second with no outs. The entire shape of the inning was changed, and the outlook worsened as Gallardo temporarily lost his command. Eventually four runs scored in this inning and made all the difference in a 4-3 St. Louis victory.
"It was a ball that was just out of my reach," Kotsay said. "I gave every effort to get it and came up short, and they built momentum on that play."
None of what happened on this play is Mark Kotsay's fault. The primary responsibility for what happened lies with the manager, who filled out his lineup with a center fielder who would be least likely to cover enough ground to make this play.
You don't win like this in the postseason. This is not a series in June against the Cubs or the Astros. Roenicke had said before this game that, with Gallardo going against Cards ace Chris Carpenter, you could reasonably expect a close game.
If that's what you expect, you shouldn't sacrifice defense for offense. It is true that Kotsay eventually had a solo home run and two walks in four plate appearances. But his inability to catch that ball in the first inning outweighed the offensive contribution.
Ron Roenicke has been one of the major reasons that the 2011 Brewers have succeeded in winning a division, compiling the best regular-season record in the history of the franchise, winning the franchise's first postseason series in 29 years. He's a fine fellow. He's an ideal manager for a Milwaukee team, a sincerely modest man who cares far more about the collective good than his own ego.
But Wednesday night, Roenicke's decision to start Mark Kotsay in center field was one of the major reasons that the Brewers lost Game 3 of the 2011 NLCS and fell behind the Cardinals in this series.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.