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Kapler pushes right buttons in biggest game as Giants manager

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Gabe Kapler

LOS ANGELES -- Gabe Kapler waited by the Giants' dugout entrance, a huge smile on his face as his players approached. When rookie closer Camilo Doval got through the rest of the handshake line, Kapler gave him a big hug, then turned to congratulate Buster Posey.

After the most stressful game of his managing career -- a 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Division Series -- he looked like someone who was having a ton of fun. Thirty minutes later, as he leaned on that same dugout rail in an empty ballpark, the smile was still on his face. This had to have been an incredibly fun game to manage, right? 

"Uhhh," Kapler said, pausing. "I wouldn't classify it like that."

These nights are only fun if you win, and sometimes, even then, you're so drained that you're not fully able to enjoy the ride. Perhaps in the offseason Kapler will pour a nice glass of scotch, sit back in his downtown San Francisco apartment and rewatch Game 3 of the NLDS, nodding at the decisions that went right along the way. But in the aftermath, he was still sort of stressed out by them. 

This was Kapler's toughest test as a big league manager, but he couldn't have possibly passed with a higher grade. At every turn, he seemed to push the right button.

Kapler and his staff could have put Kris Bryant at third base and shuffled the rest of the lineup, but they stuck with slumping veteran Evan Longoria and watched as he snapped a 1-for-35 with a solo homer off Max Scherzer that was the only run in the 1-0 victory at Dodger Stadium. Kapler said he felt a lot of Longoria's recent issues had been because some bad calls went against him and put him in tough counts. He thought the swings didn't match the numbers. 

 

The staff had any number of ways to go with the outfield, but Kapler chose Steven Duggar to make his first postseason start. He could not have seen the windiest night in Dodger Stadium history coming, but when the hot dog wrappers started whipping around the outfield, Duggar was the perfect man to be patrolling center. He caught the final out, of course, but the more impressive play came in the sixth, when Chris Taylor hit a ball 372 feet to right-center with a runner on. The wind caught it and the ball took off toward the track like a sliced tee shot, but Duggar made it look easy. 

"I grew up here, so I don't remember a lot of nights at Dodger Stadium where the wind was blowing like that," Kapler said. "Super strange. I thought as a result, our outfielders really played a great game."

Those decisions were made before the game, and there has never been much doubt about this staff's ability to crunch the numbers, check in with the entire roster, and put out the best possible lineup. But a manager's reputation is made or broken during postseason games, not before them, and for all Kapler has accomplished this season, the jury is still out in that regard. 

That's not because he has made odd moves so far. It's because he hasn't had to do much, period. Logan Webb carried the heavy load in Game 1 and Game 2 was a blowout. But in a one-run game, every decision Kapler made had to be the right one, and you couldn't argue with Monday's results. 

Alex Wood was as tough as expected, but Kapler pulled him in the fifth, turning to Tyler Rogers for the top of the Dodgers' lineup. It was the earliest the setup man had ever entered a big league game. The question at that point was not whether Rogers would come out for the sixth, it was if he would be allowed to pitch the seventh, too. 

Rogers ended up facing eight batters across parts of three innings, getting through the heart of the order as it came up for a third time. That's been an area of concern with Wood, so the staff didn't take any chances. When Rogers started to run out of gas, Kapler faced his toughest decision. Jake McGee and Dominic Leone were both warming up, and the Dodgers had three straight right-handed hitters coming up.

 

Kapler huddled with his coaches in the dugout. The decision was to go with McGee, who was fresher and has more swing-and-miss stuff. He struck out Austin Barnes before Brandon Crawford saved the day with a leaping catch.

"I can't swear that was an easy one," Kapler said. "Rogers did a great job for us. He also gave up some hard contact and also had some balls sneak through. So maybe at that point Rogers has done his job and you want to give the ball to somebody else. I think at that point you're thinking about Dom Leone and you're talking about Jake McGee, and I really felt comfortable with Jake's ability to get swings and misses. 

"Mookie Betts is a pretty even split guy, so you know there's a chance you're going to end up facing Mookie there, and while I have full confidence that both Dom and Jake can handle those type of situations, I felt like McGee was the right guy to try to get a punchout and then potentially record the second out, as well. Betts put a really nice swing on that ball. Craw made a really great play."

The leaping grab got the lead to the eighth, and at that point Kapler had already burned two of his three best relievers, two guys who combined for 43 saves during the regular season and almost always pitched the eighth and ninth. So he simply turned to rookie Camilo Doval for six outs in a one-run game at Dodger Stadium. Kapler didn't blink. Doval didn't, either. After the eighth, Kapler approached the 24-year-old.

"I got it, Papi," Doval said. "I'm ready."

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Doval got three more outs, clinching a virtually flawless night for the bullpen. Kapler's three best options in the bullpen combined for 4 1/3 innings to close it out. 

"I don't think you necessarily want to do it that way," Kapler said. "But the game kind of dictated it to some degree."

Kapler has said all year that "everything is on the table," and he repeated the mantra in the 24 hours before Game 3 whenever asked about his pitching plans. While this particular path wasn't ideal, Kapler did say it was discussed in pregame meetings. Why? "Because we talk about everything," he replied. 

When Kapler took over as manager, he knew his team could not match some others in the National League in terms of pure talent. But last spring, he vowed to out-prepare every opponent, and in the tightest spots Tuesday, Kapler and his staff made the right decisions. Aside from Ron Wotus, this was the biggest game any of them had ever managed or coached. They treated it that way.

"This one would be just as important as a clincher," Kapler said. "And that's how we were viewing it."

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