NLCS: Mets vs. Cardinals: St. Louis Strikes Back

You want drama? We got drama. A day after I complained that only a small handful of plays had any substantial impact on Game 1 of the NLCS, the Mets and Cardinals delivered a roller-coaster ride with thrills for fans of both sides. St. Louis came out on top with a 9th inning rally against one of the best pitchers in baseball; they started the rally with a defensive replacement and drove it home with the guy who was once their 25th man.

The go-ahead run was a leadoff So Taguchi home run against Billy Wagner. Wagner does give up his fair share of clouts—about one per 10 innings, both this year and over the course of his career—but of all the Cardinals due up in the top of the 9th, Taguchi would have to be judged the least likely to connect. Taguchi was just the last in a line of unlikely heroes: former postseason hero Scott Spiezio tied the game with a two-run, 7th inning triple, and Yadier Molina went 3-for-5 with a double that put the Cards on the board in the 2nd.

Friday’s 9-6 final may have ended up in every way different from the Mets victory that preceded it, but it started out looking just the same. It was clear from the first few batters of the game that Chris Carpenter didn’t bring his best stuff, and he recorded only one out before allowing a three-run blast to Carlos Delgado. That wouldn’t be all of the scoring against Carpenter: between his own struggles and Jim Joyce’s meandering strike zone, he would give up two more runs, allowing six hits and four walks in only five innings.

Fortunately for St. Louis, John Maine was little better. After allowing Molina’s 2-run double in the second, Maine walked Pujols in the third—a safe bet, it would seem—only to cough up a 2-run homer to Jim Edmonds, allowing the Cards to tie the game at four. Willie Randolph pinch-hit for Maine in the bottom of the fourth (the Mets starter had walked five and sweated through 88 pitches) and pieced together the next five innings with a succession of short relievers.

Despite giving up the tying run in the 3rd, the Mets had win probability on their side until the 8th inning. Delgado’s second home run of the night, a solo shot in the 5th, reasserted the lead, and a Paul Lo Duca RBI double in the following frame provided an insurance run. The Cardinals would require the clutch hitting of Spiezio, Molina, and Taguchi to crawl back from the brink.

If every close postseason game must have a “he did what?” moment, memories of NLCS Game 2 will center on Randolph’s decision to leave Guillermo Mota in the game to face Spiezio. Mota pitched a scoreless inning in Game 1, and started Fridays’s 7th. After quickly retiring David Eckstein and Chris Duncan on four pitches, Mota had to throw eleven to Pujols—pitches five through 10 were fouled off—just to allow a single. He immediately walked Edmonds on four pitches, earning himself a visit from the dugout. Whether Roberto Hernandez was a better option can be debated endlessly (even though the answer is clearly “no”), but Hernandez was ready, and Willie chose to stick with his man on the mound. Four pitches later, Scott Spiezio had tripled, tying the game.

(Can we stop it with the postseason triples? It’s one thing when the offender is Curtis Granderson or Dave Roberts. But Russell Branyan? Spiezio? Triples are exciting, no doubt, but is it alright to object to something that so clearly defies the laws of nature?)

The momentum may have been in the Cardinals favor, but a purely statistical analysis would still have had to favor the Mets. With Aaron Heilman and Wagner available for the 8th and 9th, it would take all of Tony La Russa’s wiles (which, for better or worse, were apparent in abundance last night) to hold off the Mets offense.

Wagner didn’t just give up a leadoff home run to Taguchi, he went all the way with his Jose Mesa impression. Pujols double. Spiezio double. Encarnacion RBI single. Two outs, three runs, four hits—three for extra bases. Every closer has off nights, even in the postseason, and I suppose Wagner wanted to pack two of them into one outing.

As you might expect, the WPA scoreboard lit up a bit more in Game 2 than it did in Game 1. Taguchi’s home run was worth 34.1% to the Cardinals chances on its own; that one at-bat ranked Taguchi second behind Spiezio for game-wide impact. Spiezio totaled 45.6%; his game-tying double was worth 31.4%. Molina, with his early-game heroics, comes in 3rd among Cardinals at 24.6%; his 2nd inning RBI double improved the Cards chances by 17.7%. On the flip side, Carpenter was just as harmful as Taguchi was helpful: he hurt St. Louis 10.4% at the plate and 26.1% on the mound.

Carpenter’s pitching woes, however, were no match for those of the Mets relievers. Wagner’s forgettable outing dropped the Mets chances from 50% to about 3%, and Mota caused them to fall more than 30% a couple of innings earlier. By the numbers, the Mets should be winning this series on the strength of their offense and bullpen; they’ll lose it if all they have to offer is an offensive bullpen.

Using the method I outlined in my series preview, we can estimate the likelihood each team winning the series after splitting the first two games. Keep in mind that I’m not considering the pitching matchups for each game, or any but a very few specific roster changes. Using my estimates for team ability level (a .549 winning percentage for the Mets, .521 for the Cards), the Mets now have a 55.3% chance of taking the series.

If you prefer to use each teams regular-season Pythagorean winning percentage (.562 and .509), the Mets have a 60% chance. Rather use actual regular-season records? If you’re a Mets fan, I’ll bet you do, as even after losing Friday’s game, those numbers suggest the Mets have a 65.4% chance of advancing to the World Series. It’s not the slam-dunk it was after the Game 1 victory, but it’s better than looking the opposite in the face.

Saturday’s game, in St. Louis, offers Steve Trachsel versus Jeff Suppan. Will it be decent pitchers pitching wonderfully, or solid pitchers performing disastrously? This series has already shown plenty of both, and Game 3 could easily tilt either way.

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