So the Cards followed the Yankees’ lead and posted a 10-7 win of their own in Game 1 of the NLCS. The final score surprised exactly no one — with Brandon Backe vs. Woody Williams on the hill (not to be confused with Bob Gibson vs. Denny McLain), we all expected the runs to come fast and furious, and they did. Here’s my take:
- Maybe my sense of proportion was knocked silly by the pandemonium in the Bronx on Tuesday night, but the St. Louis crowd seemed dead tonight, at least for the first half of the game. Actually, that’s not fair — dead implies that the crowd didn’t care. They seemed more tense than anything else, like they were watching a guy build a house of cards and didn’t want to unsteady him.
I don’t blame ’em; it was an awfully tense game to watch. Nearly everyone ceded this game to St. Louis at the outset — you had Brandon Backe, who pitched half the season in New Orleans, going into hostile territory against one of the more potent lineups of this era (or any other). When a gift like that falls in your lap, you feel like the only thing you can do is drop it. Everything else is what you would expect.
So when Carlos Beltran drilled one into the rightfield stands and made the score 2-0 while most fans were still half a bite into their first hot dog, you can bet the folks in Redbird Nation were having visions of the Ghosts of NLCS Past (the Cards got shelled at Busch in the openers of both the ’00 and ’02 championship series). The jittery mood didn’t lift until the Cards broke things open in the fifth, when they got the merry-go-round going and everyone could finally relax a little.
- I hate to bring this up, because I don’t want to get into John Kruk/Harold Reynolds territory, but the Cardinals won this game mostly because they were more versatile than the Astros. The Astros offense showed up as expected, launching four home runs — three of them with men on base. On most nights that would be enough.
But the Cards simply had more weapons. They not only cranked out five extra-base hits of their own, they also benefited from better baserunning, better plate discipline, better relief, and better defense. Whereas the Astros were 100% reliant on the long ball, the Cards were aggressive on the basepaths (Renteria, Rolen, and Womack all had big heads-up baserunning plays); they moved runners over (and not just by bunting — three of their walks moved runners into scoring position); and they played solid D.
The Astros, on the other hand, couldn’t string together any rallies and they were sloppy in the field. In the first inning, Berkman played Walker’s line-out into a triple (which reminded me of Candy Maldonado’s misadventures in right in the ’87 NLCS). Then in the sixth Reggie Sanders singled up the middle past a wooden Jeff Kent, and later that inning Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Bagwell made a tag-team error to make the score 7-4. I suggested before this series began that defense would be a problem for the Astros, especially without Adam Everett at short. And unfortunately for them, the Cardinals are not a team you want to be giving extra outs.
- The Cards were good enough to win, but they were also lucky. Not only did they get all those gifts from the Astros defense, I also thought the Astro pitchers were getting pinched by home-plate ump Tim Welke. What’s more, the Cards had an unusual number of goofy-looking hits.
Take Larry Walker. In the bottom of the 8th he came up with a chance to hit for the first cycle in postseason history. But I’m sorta relieved he didn’t do it, because it would have been one of the sickliest cycles of all time. His first-inning triple either knuckled on Berkman or got lost in the lights. His fifth-inning double was a broken-bat shot that cue-balled its way into foul territory. And his single the next inning was a dying quail that floated in front of Vizcaino.
None of these hits looked huge, but the impact of each was very huge. It was that kinda night for the Cards. Oh, sure, the pundits tomorrow will be using this game as an example of the Cards ferocious hitting attack, but to me it seemed like an awful lot of balls just happened to bounce their way.
- Phil Garner will probably be accused of overmanaging, just as he was in the NLDS. The key moment came in the bottom of the fifth, with the ‘Stros clinging to a 4-3 lead, runners on first and second, two outs, Rolen up. Now, Backe had made Rolen look silly his first two appearances. In his second AB, Rolen took strike three right down the pike, which told me that either Rolen wasn’t timing Backe correctly, or else he was pulling off the plate, hoping for a walk rather than jumping on a good pitch (plate discipline is fine and all as long as you’re not watching fat pitches go by for called third strikes).
So the question is: should Garner have let Backe face Rolen, or was he right to bring in Chad Qualls? We know what happened — Qualls promptly gave up the game-tying hit to Rolen — but I think it’s too easy to say that Backe would have done better. For one, Backe looked like he may have been tiring. He was up to 93 pitches, and had just surrendered a long double to the base of the wall by pitcher Woody Williams.
Which tells me that if Garner made a mistake with Backe, it was letting him pitch on three days’ rest to begin with. I mean, he was gonna have to go with Pete Munro in Game 1 or 2 anyway — why not hold off on Backe ’til Game 2, when he was more likely to bring his A game? (Some might say that Backe did bring his A game tonight — after all, he set down eight Cardinals in a row at one point. But look at his final numbers: 4.2 innings, 4 earned runs, 8 baserunners. If that’s his A game then he’s being graded on a serious curve.)
- I also thought La Russa did a little overmanaging of his own, particularly with the way he handled his bullpen. Four relievers to get the final six outs? That’s just managing out of fear. And why yank Danny Haren so soon? He had just carved up Bagwell and looked like he had live stuff (just as he did against L.A.), and yet La Russa only let him pitch to two batters. Maybe he wanted to let his other relievers get some work; who knows.
Earlier in the game, however, I thought TLR undermanaged, when he let Woody Williams bat in the bottom of the fifth with none on and one out. The Cards were losing 4-2 and at the time I said they’d need at least 6 runs to win. I thought it made sense to try to score right then and there and take their chances with their well-rested middle relief.
On one hand I was right — the Cards, in fact, needed 8 runs to win, and letting your pitcher bat in the 5th wasn’t the best way to put runs on the board. But I was wrong in that (a) Woody smoked a double into the gap, obviating the need for a pinch hitter; and (b) he ended up pitching a 1-2-3 sixth against the heart of the Astros’ order, which was better than any of their subsequent relievers could do.
- How bummed are you that Fox is handling these games? Their production values this postseason have been abysmal — worse even than a typical Fox Sports Midwest broadcast in the regular season (which is odd, because you’d think they’d be using many of the same producers and camera people). But I’ve been shocked at how many shots they’ve missed and how many times they’ve come back late from commercial breaks.
What’s worse, the NLCS got stuck with Fox’s jayvee squad of announcers: Thom Brennaman, Steve Lyons, and Bob Brenly. Brennaman and Brenly are Human Cliche Generators, and Lyons is nothing but a yapping dog — more Rex Hudler than Rex Hudler himself, if you can believe it. Tonight he kept talking about the Astros issuing Pujols “the old unintentional intentional walk.” Sorry, Steve — it’s an intentional unintentional walk, not the other way around (could you imagine someone accidentally walking someone intentionally?).
But that pales in comparison to Lyons’ line from the ALDS, when the Yankees had no one out, runners on first and second, down by four in the 8th: “Even the Yankees would rather not see a home run here.” The idea was that a three-run homer would stop the Yanks’ momentum dead in its tracks, which has to be the single dumbest thought ever uttered by a so-called baseball analyst. The next day three separate friends e-mailed me making fun of Lyons. My friend Brian reminded me that Lyons is the same guy who “once made the last out of the game for the Red Sox, trailing by a run, by trying to steal third with Wade Boggs, who was literally batting over .400 at the time, standing in the batter’s box, bewildered.”
And what do you all think of the Diamond Cam, Fox’s latest innovation that gives the viewer a worm’s-eye view of the action? To me it adds nothing to the broadcast (my friend Bread says it lets us know “what it would be like to be a piece of dirt on the infield”), but I don’t mind Fox testing out new camera techniques to see what might work.
- Lastly, I’m beginning to think that Albert Pujols might be a pretty decent player. Tonight he reached base four times, including a laser to the opposite field to tie the score in the bottom of the first. My brother Sean says Pujols is acquiring “a Bonds-like aura” — i.e., you either walk him or suffer the consequences. That means he should be on base even more often, which means the outcome of this series may well depend on the productivity of Scott Rolen. If Rolen can play through his knee and calf problems and come close to the player he was the first five months of the season, then it’ll put the Astros in the uncomfortable position — familiar to anyone who’s faced the Cardinals this season — of picking their poisons.