Bochy guess fails to win upper hand

October 14, 1998|By Bill Conlin | Bill Conlin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN DIEGO -- Bruce Bochy doubled down with twos on Monday night. He drew a pair of face cards and busted twice.

Bruce Bochy bought orange juice futures after a freeze and sold short.

The San Diego Padres manager treated the 4-2 lead he got from deep reserve John Vander Wal's two-run homer in the sixth as if it were the six-spot the Atlanta Braves hung on his bullpen Sunday night in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

We would be telling you the Padres' crap-shooting skipper is smarter than a treeful of owls if the calculated gamble he made in the seventh inning had worked.

Bochy brought in ace right-hander Kevin Brown, formerly penciled in as the Game 6 starter, after left-handed reliever Mark Langston walked Ozzie Guillen, the only hitter Bochy let him face. Brown rode the crescendo of cheers the way a California condor rides a column of rising air. There was a long way for him to fall.

And we would be a little harder on Bochy had not Atlanta's Bobby Cox used his ace, Greg Maddux, to make his first relief appearance since his early Chicago Cubs days in 1987 to save the Braves from their own bullpen collapse.

Cox got away with his gamble. Maddux protected a 7-6 victory. He rolled a natural after Greg Myers' two-run pinch homer with nobody out in the ninth trimmed the Braves' lead to one. Maddux will start Game 7 tomorrow, if there is one. He will not be asked, one presumes, to relieve himself.

Bochy's Botch blew up in his face with gruesome results. It will go down in baseball history as a classic example of a manager who got too greedy. Bruce disrupted the normal rhythm of one of baseball's best bullpens with a move that amounted to a resounding vote of no-confidence in the men who set the table for Trevor Hoffman, a man who has blown just one save in 54 tries.

Bochy told San Diego broadcaster Jerry Coleman several hours before the game that if starting pitcher Andy Ashby's pitch count got too high and the score was in the Padres' favor, he would not hesitate to bring in his ace right-hander to get him to Hoffman territory.

He wanted to win this game on home turf, expending as many of his bullets as necessary, then not have to play again until Saturday.

Well, wouldn't you feel good about using the most dominating pitcher in the postseason to set up the game's No. 1 reliever? The Padres would fling champagne, recover yesterday from their hangovers, play a little toss today, work out tomorrow in Qualcomm Stadium -- sorry again, Jack Murphy -- then fly to New York or Cleveland for the first two games of the World Series. They would be well-rested pennant winners.

Now, it almost seems as if they are the team down, 3-2, in the series. There has been such a palpable momentum shift, even when Michael Tucker's single tied the score at 2-2 in the sixth, it seemed the Padres were playing from behind. After Ken Caminiti's two-run homer off John Smoltz in the first, the Braves carried the game to the Padres.

So this is what happens when you treat a game of baseball as if it were the Battle of the Bulge, as if there would be no way for the normal foot soldiers to handle a Braves team that was in the chokehold of a 3-0 series deficit before the six-run seventh Sunday that wrapped Bochy's suddenly vulnerable bullpen in a cloud of suspicion.

You go to your sharpshooter, bring a high-strung racehorse of a pitcher into a situation in which his adrenalin must have been raging like a river. The man whose superb, 11-strikeout shutout in Game 2 hinted at the possibility of a Padres sweep was dialing up his fastball at 96 to 98 mph. But the movement was not there, a clue that on this night, Brown's 6-0 record against the Braves in his last eight starts was a mirage. He was overthrowing.

"You've got to swing at a pitch in the strike zone against him," said Tucker, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Brown in Game 2. "I was hoping maybe I could get a pitch to drive up the gap that maybe could score Ryan from first. I knew I hit it good. I just hope it got some elevation "

It was elevated right over the right-field fence.

Tucker's sudden clap of thunder in the eighth stuffed the cheers back down 58,988 throats, turning them instead into a Greek chorus of disbelief. The fastball he hit was straighter than Newt Gingrich's sexual politics.

Dovetailing off Brown's failed rescue is the question of when he will get the ball again. In the orderly baseball world Bochy confronted after Game 4's loss, he had a 3-1 lead and the fact that no team in a best-of-seven format has ever come back from losing the first three. He had the Unsinkable Kevin Brown lined up to pitch today on five days' rest.

It was a dominant position.

Brown threw 41 pitches. But people around the Padres say that on his throwing day between starts, Brown sometimes serves as many as 70 all-out pitches on the side. But that is not the same as going after Andres Galarraga in a saucer overflowing with people waving white hankies and screaming themselves hoarse.

Bochy will flop him with Sterling Hitchcock. The Braves have to love a Tommy Glavine-Hitchcock matchup in their Little Horror of Chops for Game 6. And if they can get to a Game 7 -- a dream matchup between Maddux and Brown that will rivet America's attention -- the Braves will have managed one of the great comebacks in sports history.

"Sure, it didn't work out, and I take responsibility for that," Bochy said manfully. "But with Kevin out there, I have all the confidence in the world."

In a Game 5 that dripped drama at every pore, the Game 6 pitcher, Kevin Brown, sucked up an L. Greg Maddux, the Game 7 pitcher, if there is one, got the save. He got the great Tony Gwynn for the final out.

Go figure.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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