Monkey Off Their Backs: Astros reach the World Series

Roy Oswalt pitched like he was pissed off he had to fly to St. Louis this week. Or maybe he was trying to take a wrecking ball to Busch Stadium a few weeks ahead of schedule. Whatever it was, the man looked, for a few innings there, like he might just go Don Larsen on us. He was just absolutely ferocious.

Last night’s game wasn’t the kind of subtle gem that might be spun by Greg Maddux, or Brad Radke, or Bret Saberhagen in his twilight years. It was more elemental than that: a little guy rearing back and throwing fastball after deadly fastball, a huge number of them in the mid- to high-90s. Whenever Fox showed replays of Cardinals hitters taking their swings, you’d see them either back on their heels, or pitched forward, or balanced on the sides of their shoes – anywhere but near the baseball. Oswalt only struck out six – not an unusually high number – but it was still a great piece of minimalist art, brutally simple. The Cards had a couple chances, but really, as long as Oswalt was on the mound you never really felt like they were in it.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. The Astros, you see, were supposed to come out flat, demoralized, exhausted, dead. At least that’s what they said in chat rooms and on sports call-in shows all day Tuesday and Wednesday. After Pujols’ ninth-inning blow down in Minute Maid, Dave Schoenfeld suggested that the Astros were behind the 8 ball even though they held a 3-2 advantage in games. Bill Simmons declared them “finished,” categorizing them as Dead Men Walking. Nate Silver, writing on behalf of the Cardinals’ chances, said, “if there were ever a series governed by momentum, morale, destiny, and the rest of the things that statheads hate to talk about, it is this one.” And even Joe Sheehan, who’s lately become the self-appointed spokesperson for the anti-character-wins-championships crowd, chimed in by saying, “it’s hard to name teams that gave up this kind of dramatic home run and held on to win the series.”

I’m not sure when this idea took hold, that teams were incapable of coming back from “stomach punch” losses in the postseason. Perhaps it started way back during the 1929 World Series, when the Cubs blew an 8-0 lead in Game 4, ended up losing 10-8, then got polished off by the Athletics soon after. But my guess is that the Dead Man Walking myth took root in the mid- to late-‘80s, when an unusual number of series fit that template (and, perhaps not incidentally, when an unusual number of those aforementioned writers came of age). 1985: the Cards got Don Denkingered by the Royals, then barely showed up for Game 7. 1986: the Angels got Dave Henderson’d by the Red Sox, then forgot to show up for Games 6 and 7. Then in the World Series that year, the Sox lost just about the biggest heartbreaker of all time in Game 6 before falling in Game 7. Two years later, 1988: the A’s got Kirk Gibsoned by the Dodgers and managed only one measly win the entire series.

So maybe Sheehan has a point. Maybe it really is hard to name teams that dramatically coughed up leads and went on to win the series. But of course, there’s a reason for that. We scarcely remember the big, dramatic homers hit by losing teams because they’re not part of the narrative. But there are plenty of cases of teams that got their asses handed to them in a pivotal postseason game, then came back to take the series. For example:

1911 World Series, Giants vs. Athletics. Ahead 3 games to 1, the A’s (one strike away from clinching!) give up two runs in the bottom of the ninth and one in the tenth to fall to the Giants. They bounce back the next day to win it all.

1947 World Series, Yanks vs. Bums. In a pivotal Game 4, Yankees’ starter Bill Bevens loses both a no-hitter and the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It’s supposed to break the Yankees’ back. Instead they win the next game and eventually the series.

1972 ALCS, A’s vs. Tigers. The A’s have a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the 10th when three different relievers cough up the game. The team is so demoralized they win the next afternoon, on the road no less.

1975 World Series, Reds vs. Red Sox. You know what happens here: the Reds are up by three with four outs to go to clinch the title; first they give up a three-run pinch homer to journeyman Bernie Carbo, then they lose it in the 12th on a dinger by Carlton Fisk. No matter. They close out the series the next night.

1999 NLCS, Braves vs. Mets. In Game 5, the Tomahawks lead going into the bottom of the 15th inning, but they surrender a walk-off “grand slam single” to Robin Ventura. They win the next game to take the series.

2001 World Series, D’backs vs. Yanks. The Diamondbacks fall behind 3 games to 2 on two bottom-of-the-ninth, game-saving homers on consecutive nights off of Byung-Hyun Kim. They rally to win the series back in Arizona.

Last night’s Cards-Astros game was in that forgotten tradition (a tradition I rather enjoy, for it says that people, and not Fate, play baseball games). Sure, Pujols’ homer will be remembered, in much the way Fisk’s is. But Brad Lidge won’t take his place alongside such goats as Ralph Branca, Mitch Williams, or Donnie Moore, for one simple reason: his team won. And history is written by the winners, doncha know?

*******

If history were written by the losers, one of its contributors would certainly be Mark Mulder. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Mulder looked sharp early on, breezing through the first two innings on only 20 pitches. At that point you had to be thinking that we were in store for another Grade A pitchers duel, like most of the games in this series.

And then the wheels fell off. Mulder started getting everything up, and paid for it dearly. At the beginning of the game he kept everything on the ground, while at the end he served up this sequence – fly out to right, no-doubt homer to left, fly out to deep left, single to right, fly out to deep left again, fly out to deep right (by the pitcher), fly out to left, single to center, base on balls, evening over.

The Astros said after Game 2, in which Mulder pitch a workmanlike game despite taking the loss, that they were too patient with the Cards’ lefty. They thought he wouldn’t have great command after taking a line drive off his biceps in the NLDS. Tonight they went right at him (the same way Oswalt went right at the Cards’ hitters), and Mulder simply did not, and perhaps does not, have the kind of stuff to blow past hitters. Case in point: Oswalt got ten swinging strikes tonight. Mulder got two.

In a way this was the closing chapter to a story which began back on December 18th of last year. That’s when Cards’ GM Walt Jocketty traded away his best minor-league hitter, one of his two best young pitchers, and one of his top relievers in exchange for Mark Mulder. Many people thought it was too much to unload for such an unreliable pitcher, but I’m convinced Jocketty knew exactly how much talent he was giving up. He just didn’t care about next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. He cared about this year. Specifically, he wanted a big-game pitcher who could win games in the playoffs, on the biggest stage. If he had to give up a hitting prodigy like Daric Barton or a young flamethrower like Danny Haren to get him, he was fine with that, as long as it paid immediate dividends. He was going all in.

Tonight it became pretty clear that Jocketty lost that bet. Mulder didn’t just lack stuff, he lacked focus, composure, grit, and all that other stuff that scouts and pundits squawk about all the time. In the third inning he made a critical mistake when he zonked out and failed to cover the bag on a roller to the right side. Rather than one on, one out, and the pitcher up, Mulder found himself in a two-on, no-out jam. Two pitches later he took a come-backer to the mound on a bunt by Oswalt. Granted the ball was chopped high in the air, but Mulder had time to nab the slow-footed Ausmus at third. But once again he zonked out, faked toward second (God knows why), before throwing to first. Two pitches after that he threw the ball in the dirt about ten feet off of home plate to give the Stros the lead they’d never relinquish. He made some other mistakes the next inning – like a hanger to Jason Lane that the Astros rightfielder hit into next week – but those were failures of execution. The other mistakes seemed like failures of nerve, totally atypical of a so-called “big game” pitcher.

(Of course, when Mulder exited the game the Busch crowd behind the home-team dugout gave him a standing O. I immediately thought of a satirical piece that ran last week at theBrushback.com, which had an “adorable” Cards fan saying “I’m gonna wear my Cardinal-red sweatshirt and bring some pom-poms and cheer with all my might—except when the Astros are up. They won’t get anything from me except the usual polite standing ovation.”)

Once again, though, we saw that it was the Cardinals who made the kinds of distracted, sloppy mistakes that the “demoralized” Astros were supposed to have made. It wasn’t just Mulder. Edmonds charged a base hit and had it glance off his glove for a run, and Julian Tavarez bounced a pitch a good five feet out of the strike zone. Meanwhile the Astros were getting crisp defense, executing squeeze plays, producing up and down the lineup. Flat they were not.

*******

There was, however, one other guy who had a sloppy night, and that was second base umpire Greg Gibson. He missed a call in the fifth inning which, in retrospect, probably didn’t mean much, but at the time was huge. Grudzielanek and Molina both reached to start the inning, then Nunez hit a ball back to the mound that Oswalt misplayed and threw wide into second. Everett was pulled off the bag and clearly missed tagging Molina. It should have been no out, bases juiced, with John Rodriguez at the plate. But of course we’ll never know what would have happened because Gibson whiffed on the call.

It wasn’t so much that he called an out on a phantom tag; it’s that he was in horrible position to make any kind of call – blocked by Molina, which meant he needed an x-ray to judge the play properly. But he didn’t ask for help from any of the other umps. He just stood his ground and said Everett made the tag.

Sandy Alderson, MLB’s VP of Operations, was supposed to have tightened up the umpire corps. Their work was supposed to have been more collaborative, more consistent procedurally. But these playoffs – with the disgraceful jobs by Gibson, Phil Cuzzi, Doug Eddings, and Ron Kulpa – are turning major-league baseball into the NBA, a funhouse mirror of distorted game-calling that takes the focus off the competition on the field.

Again, the Astros deserved to win this game and this series, no question. They dominated the Cards in several different areas – which, if you think about it, is precisely why they didn’t need any extra help from the umps.

*******

Good pitching beats good hitting. You’ve heard that phrase a zillion times. And while it’s not really true (pitchers are not the dominant force in determining where and when each offensive event occurs), it can probably be said that great pitching beats good hitting, and that’s pretty much the entire story of this series.

(One side note: two years ago the Marlins won it all with a zesty game built on speed, and that offseason everybody and their brother wanted to import some fast Juan Pierre type onto their ballclub. I know, for example, that that’s why the Cards chased down Tony Womack the following Spring. Well, after this postseason, in which the slugging Yanks and Red Sox bowed out early, and the stingy White Sox and Astros made it to the World Series, you can bet that folks will pay through the nose for starting pitching. I mean, the Astros extracted Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran, and Jeff Bagwell from their lineup and they still made it to the Fall Classic, all on the strength of their pitching. So you free agent pitchers out there – A.J. Burnett, Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn, Jeff Weaver, Matt Morris, Paul Byrd, Scott Elarton, Esteban Loaiza – start setting aside extra room in your wallets. If you thought Russ Ortiz was overpaid, you ain’t seen nothing yet.)

We know, then, why the Astros won the NLCS: great pitching (Brad Lidge’s foibles notwithstanding). Why did the Cardinals lose it? Well, for the second season in a row, they went somnambulant in their final series. Last year in the World Series their hitters went .190/.261/.302 against the Red Sox, and this year they went .209/.281/.289 against the Astros. What happened? Is that fluke or design?

I don’t really know, but I do wonder if the Cardinals, who have one of the oldest teams in baseball, get worn down by the time they hit the middle of October. Is it a coincidence, for example, that the only Cards who had decent series – Pujols, Molina, Nunez, and Carpenter – are in their 20’s, while the ones who had truly atrocious series – Walker, Grudzielanek, Tavarez – are well into their 30’s? Larry Walker, who announced his retirement immediately after last night’s game, had a particularly miserable going-away party. He went only 3-28 with one extra base hit in the entire playoffs. In all likelihood his neck was bothering him so much that La Russa should have started Taguchi rather than Walker in right.

If age really accounts for the Cards’ downfall this season, then I think, once again, a chunk of the blame should be directed at GM Walt Jocketty. I just finished a rather lengthy study of Jocketty for the 2006 Hardball Times Annual (order it today!), and one thing that’s astonishingly clear is the extent to which he’s traded away young talent to land older, more established players. By and large these trades have worked well for him, but perhaps only to a point. For older players tend to wear down as the season goes on. And in both ’04 and ’05, there was a palpable sense that when the Cards met their Waterloo, they were just plumb out of gas.

*******

I don’t know if Fox is pleased with the World Series matchup or not, but we already know the storyline ahead of time, if not the ending: one team will end a decades-long title drought and the other will wander in the desert for yet another year. Kind of a drag when you think of it that way.

I don’t know when people became so preoccupied with winning championships as a way of exorcising years of shame, dishonor, and pain, but it seems to me a fairly recent phenomenon (baseball’s version of Lourdes). I was wondering last night if the Cardinals could legitimately apply to the outer circle of “blue balls” franchises, alongside the Cubs, Indians, Giants, and whomever loses this World Series. After all, they’ve now gone 23 years without a title, suffered through the death of Darryl Kile and the meltdowns of Rick Ankiel, and gone to four of the last ten league championship series without a single World Series win to show for it.

But for now I’d rather not compare scars with the Cubs, Giants, or Indians. For now I’d just prefer to see these games for what they are—a showdown between great athletes, rather than some soul-defining cosmic struggle. Tonight you had Roy Oswalt on the mound, demystified, unburdened, uncursed. He was just rearing back and firing, no monkeys on his back at all.

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