So it was Jasper, Indiana native Scott Rolen — who grew up a Cardinals fan and longed for moments like last night — who came through in the clutch, pounded a first-pitch fastball over the wall in left, and sent the Cardinals on their way to their first NL pennant in 17 years. No analysis last night, just celebration, with this cast of heroes:
His catch of Brad Ausmus’ drive in the 2nd inning — sprinting, diving, grinding up turf with his belly — is one of the best he’s ever made, and that means something with Jedmonds. If he doesn’t catch that ball it’s 3-zip Astros and they very well might be packing their bags for Boston right now. (Oh, and it was a shame Edmonds picked up an error the next inning. As usual, Fox missed what really happened on that play — the throw had a chance to nail Beltran, but it hit Beltran on the arm before skittering away into the visitor’s dugout. Edmonds, Rolen, and Suppan all played the ball properly, but it was just one of those things.)
Jeff Suppan outdueled Roger Clemens last night. You know that, I know that, but I don’t care — I’m gonna say it again because I like the way it rolls off the tongue: Jeff. Suppan. Outdueled. Roger. Clemens.
I never thought I’d be able to write that after four innings. Suppan was only down a run, but he was juggling chainsaws from the get-go — there was the lead-off homer by Bidge, the long drive by Ausmus, the HBP leading off the top of the 4th. Meanwhile, Rocket was buzzsawing through St. Louis’ lineup. He wasn’t vintage-era Roger Clemens, but he was hitting his spots with a sizzling, mid-90′s fastball. I thought the ‘Stros were going to be able to ride that all the way into Lidge Time.
But just as he did in Game 4 against the Dodgers and Game 3 against the Astros, Suppan got stronger as the game wore on. Against L.A. he set down the last 14 guys he faced; on Saturday he set down the last 10 he faced; and last night it was the final nine. In his three starts this series he gave up only 10 hits and held opponents to a .152 batting average.
Oh, and he also drove in the first Cardinals’ run with a lovely suicide squeeze. Not bad, Mr. Soup Can.
Did you guys know Roger Cedeno had 200 at-bats this year? He’s been virtually anonymous all season long, with nothing on his resume for the last six months. And yet he finally showed up, deep into October, by getting a lead-off single in the 6th and scoring the tying run off Clemens.
But as much as Cedeno deserves our praise, St. Louis should also give props to the Astros’ middle infielders. The Cards must have hit a good four or five seeing-eye singles this game, nearly all of them just out of the reach of the cigar-store Indians stationed up the middle (that would be Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino). I said last week that even in a short series your biggest flaws will catch up to you. With Adam Everett on the bench, infield defense is a serious flaw for the ‘Stros, and it bit them last night.
If it were up to me, I’d have followed King Solomon’s advice and simply split the series MVP trophy right down the middle — half would go to Beltran, the other half to Bert Pujols. But of course it was Pujols who got the bigger hit last night — a two-out, two-strike laser off of Clemens to tie the score in the bottom of the 6th.
Pujols is the only hitter in the Cardinals lineup who doesn’t worry me with two strikes. I mean, when he falls behind in the count 0-2 he’s slugging .575. When he falls behind 1-2 (that was the count when he hit his double) he’s slugging an outrageous .712. .712! How do you pitch to a guy like that?
How many of you thought of McGwire’s #62 when Rolen’s drive landed a couple feet above the wall and a couple feet right of the foul pole? Rolen’s blast will go down as one of the biggest homers in franchise history — up there with Ozzie’s and Jack Clark’s shots in the ’85 NLCS and Kenny Boyer’s grand slam in Game 4 of the ’64 Series.
Rolen’s homer was set up by the good looks St. Louis’ hitters got off of Roger Clemens early on. Pujols had six-pitch at-bats his first two times against the Rocket, and Rolen had an eight-pitch AB in the 4th before flying out deep to right center. By the time those two guys came up in the 6th, they had Clemens timed just right. And because Clemens refused to adjust — he kept going to his fastball all night long — it was only a matter of time before the big boys struck.
The Cardinals Bullpen
The real story of this series after the three games down South is how the bullpen advantage had tilted heavily in Houston’s favor. While Wheeler and Lidge were befuddling Cardinal hitters, Julian Tavarez was losing his cool and Izzy was getting bombed by Jeff Kent. But after Kent’s homer, Cards relievers collected themselves and shut down the Astros, allowing only one run over the final 10 innings of relief in St. Louis.
The poster child for this newly composed unit was, of course, Tavarez. How he pulled himself together to pitch these last two days is beyond me. He was pretty lucky last night — all three guys he faced got good wood off him — but he still made quick work of the Killer B’s, his last out a grounder that ricocheted off his broken left hand. With the glove off, Tavarez’s hand looked pretty gruesome, so swollen you could practically twist it into balloon animals. This wasn’t exactly Schilling-esque (after all, Tavarez’s broken hand was his own damn fault), but it was gutsy in its own way.
In fact, the Cards played a seriously gritty game all night long. Bodies were flying around like there was no tomorrow (and for most of the game it felt like there wouldn’t be). Not only did Edmonds lay out to catch Ausmus’ drive, but Renteria was swarming all over the field, and Tony Womack — gimpy back and all — went tearing into right field to make the first out in the ninth. There was certainly no tightness on this team — heck, the Cards’ legs looked as fresh as they did back in April.
The Houston Astros
These teams were so evenly matched that I honestly felt like whoever won last night was the better team. I didn’t think that going into this series — after all, St. Louis was 13 games better than them for six months, so one week of baseball wasn’t going to change my mind about their superiority.
But man, Houston played some great ball. When one samurai warrior defeats another, he doesn’t gloat over him; he thanks him for giving him a worthy competition, for bringing out his best. These Astros brought out the best in St. Louis.
Tony La Russa
He had been in the playoffs four times with the Cardinals — three times in the NLCS — and fallen short every time. If the Cards had lost last night, TLR would probably take with him a reputation as a good-but-not-great manager who lacked the tactical smarts to get St. Louis into the World Series.
Not anymore. La Russa did a great job this series. I’ve griped about some of his calls, but much more often than not he pulled the right strings. And his team is now 112-61 on the year. Wow.
The St. Louis Fans
Midwesterners like to play things close to the vest. Some people have even said that the Midwest (home of David Letterman, the Coen Brothers, and Devo) invented the particular form of late-20th century deadpan that was the dominant mood in the country for so many years. Not surprisingly, then, it takes a lot to get St. Louis uncorked.
Well, St. Lou showed up loud and proud last night. They were raucous early on, but really got going when Jedmonds pulled off his feat of derring-do in the 2nd inning. They were going nuts then, they damn near tore the house down when Rolen went yard, and they kept going nuts long after the game was over. Here’s an interesting tidbit: after the game the Busch Stadium jumbotron showed Pujols celebrating in the clubhouse and the crowd went berserk. Then they put Walt Jocketty up on the jumbotron and the crowd went even more berzerk! Those are some good fans.
So now we’re … let’s see, where are we? Oh yeah, right: the World Series.