The “Kirk Gibson made mistakes” meme is already a big part of the storyline of the Brewers-Diamondbacks series, but it’s worth crediting the Snakes’ skipper for sticking with what worked during the season and riding it to a decisive 8-1 Game 3 win on Tuesday night. In what could have turned out to be the D-backs’ last game of the season, Gibson reaped the benefits from more than a few things that helped Arizona shock everyone and show up in the postseason in the first place.
Like turning to a rookie starter in an elimination game. Make no mistake, Josh Collmenter can pitch in this league, and his good work in 2011 is a big part of the reason why the D-backs are here. Between Zach Duke’s ineffectiveness and Jason Marquis’ injury, they needed an organizational soldier to step up, and the 25-year-old did just that, delivering 15 quality starts in 24 turns.
On his way up through the farm system, Collmenter didn’t get here slathered with scouts’ drool and effusive praise of everything about him the way that the Rays’ Matt Moore did. Before the year, Collmenter didn’t even merit a top-30 mention from Baseball America on its prospect list, because a career minor-league track record of a 3.50 ERA and more than eight strikeouts per nine don’t mean much if your stuff is seen as pedestrian.
But after Tuesday night’s masterful seven-inning effort, Collmenter joined Moore on an exclusive list of two. According to Elias, Collmenter is just the second rookie starter in postseason history to go at least seven innings while allowing two hits or less. As ESPN researcher Mark Simon noted, from 1903-2010, no rookies did it, but in less than a week, we got to see it done twice.
Finesse right-handers generally don’t even get the benefit of their own term, like “crafty lefty” or “professional hitter.” “Strike thrower” becomes almost a dismissive, left-handed compliment for this kind of right-hander, which seems appropriate for Collmenter. He’ll never impress a speed gun any more than he did scouts. Instead, he’s someone whose fastball moves about as fast as your basic workmanlike lefty -- high 80s if he gets the benefit of a back wind, or with the AC in Chase Field cranked to max.
But part of what makes Collmenter such a funky foe is an over-the-top delivery that can sometimes make it seem as though the ball’s shooting out from behind his head, and mix that in with changeups and cutters. If you can upset hitters’ timing as effectively as Collmenter did all season and did again on Tuesday, you don’t need to impress those things. This isn’t the Olympics, it’s baseball, and Collmenter’s sterling start is just the latest proof there’s more than one way to skin the strike zone.
One of the other things that delivered a big win for the D-backs was Gibson’s continuing faith in another rookie, Paul Goldschmidt. Some risk-averse managers might have ducked controversy by turning to Lyle Overbay on the last legs of his career -- there’s little that Overbay hasn’t been reputed of doing over the course of his career, hitting for power (a little), playing good D (sometimes), being clutch or a good guy or all the other qualities that get appended to a player after he’s reached a certain age. For all that, Gibson stuck with talent, and Goldschmidt responded again in this series, hammering the grand slam in the fifth.
It’s the addition of these key rookies, and the courage to trust them in October, that helped put Arizona in this series in the first place, so it’s fitting that they’re responsible for delivering their first postseason win now. This kind of development isn’t exactly redemptive, however. The Diamondbacks still need to win two more games for this one blowout win to rise to that level. But it provides an important reminder that they belong. And if Kirk Gibson wins the National League Manager of the Year Award -- as seems likely -- then Tuesday night’s outcome seems like a nice reminder of that as well.
Up to a point, so Arizona can afford to bask now, for at least one night. Unfortunately, there’s always tomorrow, and a new set of questions. Before we even get there, though, there are ones to ask right now.
Like, why Gibson would use first David Hernandez and then J.J. Putz with a seven-run lead? The odds that the D-backs will need both of them on Wednesday in Game 4 are pretty close to 100 percent. Joe Saunders, nifty innings-eater that he may be over the full season’s six-month stretch, isn’t an overpowering ace or even a multi-trick pony a la Collmenter. Pitching at home this year, Saunders allows a run every other inning while allowing a WHIP pushing 1.5. So even on a night like Tuesday night, when so much for the D-backs went right, Gibson can give you cause for asking questions.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.