Why the Cardinals lost to the Dodgersby Larry Borowsky
October 12, 2009
Not much to talk about here. The Cardinals carried two serious vulnerabilities into the tournament, and both got exposed in short order against playoff-caliber competition. As I noted in the series preview, the St. Louis lineup—even with midseason reinforcements Matt Holliday and Mark DeRosa—was routinely held to three runs or fewer over the last 40-plus games of the schedule. Sure enough, the Cards scored three or fewer in every game of the NLDS. And Ryan Franklin’s ominous spate of September blown saves continued into October. More on that in a moment.
The Cardinals’ main advantage in the series—starting pitching—didn’t manifest, as Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro both turned in subpar performances. The team defense, another strength, also underperformed. And the middle of the St. Louis order never delivered, as the Dodgers pitched around Albert Pujols and retired Holliday every time he batted with men on base. On two occasions, Holliday came up in the first inning with a chance to do damage—sacks jammed and nobody out in Game One, men on first and second with one out in Game Three. In both cases the Dodgers busted Holliday inside with fastballs; he struck out looking in Game One and dribbled it back to the mound in Game Three.
When L.A. did pitch to Pujols, they handled him well; he never squared up a pitch and drove it. The Cards’ only bright spot in the entire series was Adam Wainwright, whose dominant Game Two outing produced the highest game score (78) of the playoffs so far.
With so little to discuss, I may as well unpack the series’ pivotal sequence. The Cardinals carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth in Game Two and were poised to even the series 1-1 heading back to St. Louis. Franklin appeared to have converted the save, but Holliday dropped James Loney’s two-out liner and allowed the tying run to reach second with two outs. With Casey Blake coming to bat, the Cardinals convened at the mound for a quick conference, of which Franklin later said this at his MLB Blog: “‘Dunc’ came out and told me not to give him anything good to hit. If I walk him, that's fine.”
Whoa. If you walk Blake—the winning run—that’s fine? Why so much respect for Casey Blake? Presumably because he came into the at-bat 6-for-13 lifetime against Franklin, with two doubles and a homer. Charged with avoiding a mistake, Franklin threw only one type of pitch—his bread-and-butter, the cut fastball—to one location, the rough vicinity of the outside corner. The first offering was well off the plate; the second caught the corner for a called strike. The 1-1 pitch would have been a ball outside, but Blake waved at it and missed to fall behind 1-2. At this point, the Cards might have considered actively trying to get Blake out, instead of hoping he would do it himself . . . a curveball, maybe? A slider? Something off the inside corner? No, no and no; Franklin didn’t vary the pattern at all. He stuck with the cutter and the outside corner. The pitch/fX values are nearly identical for every pitch in the at-bat—every delivery at 91 mph, with a 4-inch break and 8 to 10 inches of movement.
If you understood the Cardinals’ approach, you might applaud it as disciplined. If you didn’t, you might find it just a wee bit defensive. Blake survived six two-strike cutters, drew a walk and eventually scored the winning run.
The idea was to win the game against Ronnie Belliard, who until that point had been a reliable out with men on base and had flailed barrenly at Carpenter and Wainwright’s curveballs. Hopefully, Franklin started him with a curve; Belliard whacked it into center for the game-tying single. The Cards then tiptoed around another vaguely unnerving hitter (Russell Martin) to set up an easier matchup against Mark Loretta. . . .
... you pay your money, you take your chances.
That was the only inning during the three games in which the Dodgers were able to string together as many as four consecutive baserunners. On the whole, St. Louis did neutralize L.A.’s long-sequence offense—the Dodgers weren’t a whole lot better with men in scoring position (6-for-26) than the Cardinals (4-for-30). But the Dodgers—11th in the league in isolated power in 2009—showed an unexpected ability to strike quickly: Seven of their 13 runs scored on extra-base hits.
One final item: Until Game Two the Cardinals hadn’t lost a postseason game in which they led after eight innings since Game Six of the 1985 World Series—the Denkinger game.
The result left no doubt as to which team is better. Best of luck to L.A. in the NLCS.
Larry Borowsky is the author of Viva El Birdos, a St. Louis Cardinals blog, and welcomes questions and comments via email.