NLCS: Mets vs. Cardinals: Jeff Suppan, Series MVP

Nobody knew what to expect in Game 7 of the NLCS, and they were right. When your leading contenders for the series MVP award are Yadier Molina and Jeff Suppan (who actually won it), something strange is going on–even stranger than the presence of an 83-win team in the World Series.

Suppan, for the second time in as many starts, got the results he needed, putting the Cardinals in a position to win the deciding game 3-1. He pitched into the eighth, and despite walking five and hitting a batter, didn’t allow a hit after the first inning. Suppan didn’t factor the decision–that honor went to Randy Flores–but in practical terms, he won the game for St. Louis.

In terms practical or technical, Aaron Heilman lost the game for the Mets. I wrote after Game 2 that Willie Randolph’s decision to let Guillermo Mota pitch to Scott Spiezio would haunt him. For better or worse, that choice has been outranked by Heilman’s 2-inning outing; with Billy Wagner (not to mention five or six other guys) in the bullpen, Heilman coughed up a home run, a game, a series, and a season.

That 9th-inning HR came off the bat of a hero nearly as unlikely as So Taguchi, who struck the deciding blow in Game 2 off of Wagner. After a Jim Edmonds strikeout and a Scott Rolen single in the 9th inning, Molina sent a fly ball far enough over Endy Chavez‘s head to give the Cards a 3-1 lead, one that Adam Wainwright would try and fail to give back in the bottom half of the inning. Molina finished the series batting .348 and slugging .556; he who has 16 HRs in nearly 1000 career ABs went deep twice in the NLCS.

It took an astonishing play in the 6th inning from Chavez, though, to push the tie game so far. With one out and Edmonds on first, Rolen hit a fly ball that easily cleared the fence–but didn’t exceed the reach of Endy’s glove. Chavez was prevailed upon for perhaps the first post-defensive-play curtain call in NLCS history, and the Mets stayed in the game until Molina finally found a way to get one past the Mets leftfielder.

While Molina’s HR was the WPA moment of the game, increasing the Cardinals chances of winning from 50% to 92%, the Chavez catch had nearly as great an impact. The effect of a double play to preserve the tie was a mere 7.8%–after all, Endy simply contributed the last two outs in a middle inning. WPA doesn’t tell us (unless we ask, that is) what would’ve happened had his glove been a little to the right, to the left, or below the ball.

Had Rolen’s fly ball become a four-bagger, the Mets chances would’ve plummeted from 49.6% to 22.9%. In other words, the difference between Chavez’s outstanding play and the result of him not making the play was a cool 34.5%, more than anyone besides Molina contributed to Game 7. A 3-1 score wouldn’t have put the game out of reach with twelve Mets outs left on the board, but it would’ve drastically changed the complexion of the final innings.

Lost in the late-inning fireworks was the performance of Oliver Perez. I’m as guilty as anyone of underestimating Ollie: I spent half of my morning explaining to a Mets fan friend all the better ways Randolph could line up his staff in Game 7. As it turned out, Perez was clearly the MVP of the game for the Mets, contributing 26.7% to his team’s chances. Only five other Mets had positive WPA totals, and the sum of their accomplishments was still less than Oliver’s. Thursday night’s excellent outing doesn’t necessarily make him a better pitcher, but it will certainly make him a more coveted one this offseason.

Drawing general themes and–heaven forbid–morals from this series will require more reflection than I can give it on a post-game deadline, but the most striking thread running through the series is the comparison of the bullpens. The Mets arguably had the best bullpen in the league, while the Cards were relying on a rookie closer and Tony LaRussa’s wiles. Aside from Josh Hancock‘s Game 4 implosion, the St. Louis bullpen was far superior, even when not aided by TLR’s meddling. It only takes a couple of bad innings to ruin the reputation of a relief corps; unfortunately, the Mets found themselves at the wrong end of those in the NLCS.

Also a surprise, the Cardinals outscored the Mets in the series, 27-26. The vaunted Mets offense never truly woke up, and against Jeff Weaver (and Suppan, tonight, with his slew of free baserunners) they certainly had their chances. It’s the fluke of a small sample, but Omar Minaya can’t rest easy when none of his high-priced hitters outperformed Yadi Molina.

The Cardinals have now beaten two “better” regular-season teams in the playoffs. Now they have just one day off to prepare to face yet another superior team in the Detroit Tigers, who have had a week to rest after their sweep of the Oakland A’s. Molina may not slug .550 in the World Series, but after these seven games against the Mets, it’d be foolish to deny that St. Louis has a shot at the title.

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