MILWAUKEE With just two outs remaining in Tuesday nights game and the Brewers down one run with runners on first and second, manager Ron Roenicke knew he had to gamble.
The Brewers were already one man down on the night, with shortstop Alex Gonzalez still on paternity leave. If Roenicke made a move, hed have to shuffle up the infield.
So he made the same roll of the dice that has seem to work out nearly every time hes tried it this season: He called on backup catcher George Kottaras.
Four pitches later, with a 2-2 count, Kottaras stared down Dodgers closer Javy Guerra, the NL leader in saves coming into the night. And as Guerras fifth pitch of the at-bat, a slider, crossed the plate, Kottaras let it rip into the gap.
Suddenly, pinch hitting Kottaras didnt seem like much of a gamble at all.
Its a situation Kottaras has become relatively comfortable with as comfortable as you can get pinch hitting in the bottom of the ninth, at least. With Jonathan Lucroy handling the catching duties four out of every five games, Kottaras has had plenty of opportunities to come off the bench.
And this season, more than any other before it, hes cashed in on the teams willingness to gamble with him. Wednesday night, in the Brewers second game of the series, Roenicke called on Kottaras yet again with a runner in scoring position and the game on the line. And he responded by taking a solid five-pitch walk, making way for Ryan Brauns winning sac fly.
In just 12 at-bats this season, Kottaras has five hits three of which are home runs. Count his double on Tuesday night and Kottaras is averaging an amazing three bases per hit in the seasons first twelve games, while hitting at a .417 clip.
"We didnt really expect this," Lucroy said on Wednesday. "Its tough to get in there once every five days or pinch hit and get big knocks it really is. But George is good enough to do it. Its tough to expect because its extraordinary."
Its been tough to expect a whole lot out of the Brewers catchers in the past 15 years or so, as the carousel at the Milwaukee backstop spot has spun around several times. Since Mike Matheny left his perch behind the plate after the 1998 season, Milwaukee has used a bevy of catchers to fill in, including journeymen Raul Casanova, Chad Moeller, Henry Blanco, Damian Miller, Jason Kendall and others.
But now, with Kottaras bat blazing hot off the bench and Lucroy solid to start the season with a renewed contract in tow, the Brewers look to be set at catcher for the foreseeable future.
"Theyre a really nice combination," Roenicke said with a smile.
And thats how Lucroy sees it, too. After being called up in 2010 the same year Kottaras was picked up off of waivers from Boston Lucroy was able to split time at catcher with Kottaras, helping Lucroys quick transition to the big leagues following an early injury to then-catcher Gregg Zaun. Two years later, with Lucroy the No. 1 backstop and Kottaras catching for pitcher Randy Wolf every five games, Lucroy can stay fresh and the rest of the team doesnt need to worry about a letdown with Kottaras in his spot in the lineup.
"I feel very confident with him in the game," Lucroy said. "He picked me up (Tuesday) night. I didnt get the job done before him, so he came in and got the job done. Thats what we do. We pick each other up."
Having two solid catchers, especially ones that hit on opposite sides of the plate, is a rarity for any baseball team. But with Lucroy and Kottaras off to their best starts as pros, its an advantage that the Brewers will gladly take in 2012, especially with an offense that has struggled at times this season.
Kottaras knows his role as backup catcher, and with Lucroys extension fresh, its unlikely that hell break into the starting lineup for much more than a few spot starts. For now, hell continue to come into games and help Roenicke roll the dice.
But as Kottaras stood on second base in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday, watching as Mat Gamel slid under a tag to win in walk-off fashion, the backup catcher showed again that hes been a safe bet so far in 2012.
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