A World of Pain

As a baseball fan, last night’s playoff games were pure heaven. In the American League you had two eternal rivals grinding away for 14 innings, throwing everything at each other but the kitchen sink. And in the National League you had something even more astonishing. After all the offense, all the Sturm und Drang, of the first four games, we were treated to a novel concept: an endless parade of 1-2-3 innings. It was so brisk and well-played that for awhile there it looked like Cards-Astros was going to end before Sox-Yankees, which began three hours earlier up in Boston. As a baseball fan, I loved it.

As a Cardinals fan, I’m in agony. I’m as depressed as I’ve been over a ballgame in years, if not several years, even decades. The experience was not unlike being smothered by a pillow for two and a half hours, then finished off with a knife to the gut.

Of course, the Cards aren’t dead, but their situation is now critical. It’s the first time since June 10th that they’re looking up at the team they’re chasing. And they must win out at home if they’re going to make it to the World Series. It can be done. No doubt it can be done, especially playing in the Red Sea of Busch Stadium and either Clemens and Oswalt on short rest, or Munro in Game 6 and all the marbles on Thursday night. (As I type this, Garner hasn’t decided how he’ll set his rotation.)

Last night’s game is still sort of a blur to me, but a few snapshots stand out: Scott Rolen doing his Brooks Robinson impression with a sprawling catch into foul territory, then gunning out Bagwell from his knees. Carlos Beltran matching, if not one-upping, Rolen with a running, diving snag to rob Edgar Renteria. Albert Pujols with a diving play of his own, flipping to Woody to nip Beltran at first. Reggie Sanders destroying the ball, 420 feet to dead center, that whimpered into Beltran’s glove on Tal’s Hill (that’s the new place where triples go to die). And then there was Brad Lidge squaring off against Pujols in the top of the ninth — their best against our best — and Lidge coming out on top.

But of course the one moment that’s singed into my brain forever is the ball taking off from the bat of Jeff F—ing Kent. It was one of those odd, frustrating moments that seemed both shocking and inevitable at the same time. When Kent headed home to mob his teammates he tossed his helmet aside, as if he was shedding all the pent-up emotions that had built up over the course of the game. That’s when I turned off my TV.

How did it all happen? Well, of course, Kent’s dramatics wouldn’t have been possible without the staggering performances of Brandon Backe and Woody Williams, who locked horns in one of the greatest pitching duels in postseason history. Seriously. It was up there with Morris-Smoltz in ’91, Blue-Palmer in ’74, Gooden-Scott in ’86. Heading into the ninth inning, both teams had only one hit each. One hit! And these are offensive juggernauts we’re talking about.

The shame of it is that the Cards wasted their second-best pitching performance of the entire year (the best was Morris against the Dodgers in early September). If you had told me that Woody would give up only one hit, and only one baserunner that made it to second base, I wouldn’t have even bothered watching tonight’s game. 99 times out of 100 that’s a win, right? Nope. Not last night. Not with young Brandon Backe, Houston’s version of Johnny Podres, on the mound.

Backe was amazing. And not fluky amazing either — his stuff was flat-out filthy. And yeah, the Cards had some quick innings against him (a ten-pitch 1st, an eleven-pitch 2nd, an eight-pitch 3rd), but it’s hard to complain about that too much. I mean, Backe was getting his breaking pitch over at will and hitting the corners like clockwork. I don’t think we took bad at-bats so much as ran into a pitcher twirling the game of his life.

The key moment for Backe was his showdown with Pujols in the 6th. The Cards had runners on first and second, two outs, and their franchise player at the dish. All year my brother Sean has been saying, “You watch — this whole season will rest on whether or not Pujols is the man.” Tonight he was not the man. He popped out on one pitch to end the sixth (now that was a poor AB), and for the second game in a row came up as the go-ahead run against Lidge in the 9th and came up short.

As atrocious as our 6-7-8 hitters have been against Houston (6-for-52; thank you, Edgar Renteria), we absolutely need our big boys to perform well to have a chance. Last night — for the first time all series — they did not. For a 105-win team, who busted up great pitchers day-in and day-out, it would be the irony of ironies to have our hopes founder against the likes of Brandon Backe.

As for Tony La Russa, like the day before, I admired two of his moves and disagreed strongly with a third. The good moves were (1) pinch-hitting John Mabry in the 8th (it took Woody out of the game, but you need to score runs before you can even think about winning), and (2) bringing in Izzy in a tie game in the 8th (finally, I thought, La Russa is learning exactly how to run his bullpen).

But the move that cost him — and cost him dearly — was walking Berkman intentionally to bring up Kent. I don’t say this in hindsight either. I thought it was a bad move at the time; I think it’s a bad move now. Consider: after Beltran stole a base and moved into scoring position (big surprise, huh?), the Cards faced one out, runner on second, and — this is key — two strikes on Lance Berkman. It was a 2-2 count and yet La Russa walked him anyway.

I can understand his reasoning. You get red-hot Berkman out of the way to face the inferior Jeff Kent, and you set up a force at second and third. However, there’s no way that Lance Berkman with two strikes is a better hitter than Jeff Kent. It’s not even close. Here were their season totals:

                                 AVG   OBP   SLG 
Lance Berkman after going 2-2   .213  .406  .353
Jeff Kent at 0-0 and beyond     .289  .348  .531

Add in the fact that you could still throw off the plate to Berkman, plus the fact that if you do get Berkman, you get to walk Kent and pitch to Morgan Ensberg (hitting .111 in the NLCS), and I think this is close to a no-brainer. If you want further proof, check out Jason Isringhausen after he gets hitters in a 2-2 hole: .155/.210/.241

I don’t care how smokin’ Berkman has been this series, the whole dynamic of an at bat changes when a hitter has two strikes. Izzy was already halfway to an out — why let Berkman off the hook?

Of course, this is not to say that Tony La Russa blew this game for the St. Louis Cardinals. We just plain got beat by a guy who has more homers than any second baseman in history. Them’s the breaks. But it’s getting beat by that other guy — the one with six lifetime wins, who spent half the year in AAA — that hurts so much worse.

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