The Fat Lady Clams Up

My fingers are still shaking, so forgive me if Jim Edmonds comes out looking like Jgh Udmghgns. After 12 innings, 344 pitches, countless momentum shifts, and ten of my fingernails chewed to the bone, St. Louis finally got what they came looking for: a Game 7. Winner gets World Serious, loser goes home. So while we try to buckle down and keep it together before 7 p.m. Central Time, let’s review how we got here and look at some of the day’s biggest matchups:

The Cardinals vs. Karma

Yesterday was the 22-year anniversary of the Cards’ last world championship, so there were bound to be some ghosts in the air. The question before the day started: in whose footsteps would St. Louis follow? Would they be like the 1987 Twins, who defeated them in the World Series, who won two at home, lost all three on the road, then came back to sweep the final two games in the Metrodome? Or would they be like the 1985 Dodgers, who St. Louis defeated in the NLCS, who won two at home, lost all three on the road — the last on a walk-off home run by a middle infielder — only to return home and lose yet another late lead in Game 6? There’s cosmic payback out there somewhere; but from where?

Munro vs. Clemens

Phil Garner will doubtlessly be ripped for starting Pete Munro in Game 6, and Munro’s performance — 4 earned runs, 8 hits, only 2.1 innings — gives his critics plenty of ammunition. Only a heroic 9+ inning scoreless streak by the Astros bullpen kept this from becoming a cakewalk for the Cardinals.

Indeed, one could easily look to the decision Jack McKeon made before Game 6 of last year’s World Series — when he pitched his ace on three day’s rest and drove a wooden stake through the heart of the opposition — as a model for Garner to follow. But I think Garner made the right call, despite yesterday’s loss. Rather than throwing both his top pitchers out there at partial strength, he now has his best pitcher, Roger Clemens, going in Game 7 on full strength. Advantage Astros. What’s more, it’s hard to argue with the decision to start Munro when, all things considered, the ‘Stros were right there at the end, this close to sneaking a win and having Clemens and Oswalt lined up to start the World Series.

Pujols vs. Beltran

In this week’s Sports Illustrated Tom Verducci calls the NLCS “a glorified game of H-O-R-S-E between Carlos Beltran and Albert Pujols.” With Big Play Al’s home run in the bottom of the first, he matched Beltran with his fourth jack in the past week. And like Beltran’s fourth homer, Pujols’ bomb seemed like a form of alchemy — he didn’t even take much of a swing, just sorta flicked it with his wrists, and the ball boomed into the bullpen in left center. Unreal.

Good Matt Morris vs. Bad Matt Morris

Cardinals fans have said it all year, before nearly every one of his starts — “you never know which Matt Morris you’re gonna get.” And yet you do know which Matt Morris you’re gonna get after about two innings or so. In Morris’ worst starts this year (those with a game score of 40 or below) he gave up 2.02 runs per inning over the first two frames. In Morris’ best starts (those with a game score of 60 or above) he gave up only 0.15 runs per inning. That’s a mammoth difference.

And after only a few pitches yesterday you could tell they didn’t get the Good Matt Morris. He only threw one decent curveball all day, and never showed off that egg-falling-off-a-table curve he has when he’s really on. I knew he was in trouble in the 2nd, when it took him eleven whole pitches to put away Brad Ausmus. In the 3rd inning he gave up a single, a double, and a run, and was spared further scoring only because of two b.b.’s hit at Edgar Renteria. Then in the 4th he gave up a “foul home run” off the bat of Mike Lamb and, one pitch later, a real one.

In short, Matt Morris wasn’t giving the Cardinals that stellar performance they had hoped for. In fact, I wouldn’t’ve complained if La Russa had yanked him for a pinch hitter when he batted with two on in the 3rd inning. But then something astonishing happened. With the Cardinals clinging to a thin one-run lead, Morris took the mound in the 5th inning to face Beltran, Bagwell, and Berkman — the longhorn version of Murderer’s Row — and he mowed ‘em down like it was nothing: seven pitches, three weak grounders, ho hum. It dawned on me later that it may have been Morris’ last inning in a Cardinal uniform. Not a bad memory to leave fans with.

The Cardinals vs. the Jitters

Pujols’ first-inning homer had a Nembutal-like effect on my nerves, but the Cards still seemed pretty tight in the early going. Reggie Sanders threw a ball into the infield that missed the cut-off man by two miles, Scott Rolen bobbled an early grounder, and Tony Womack botched a double-play ball. And in general the Cards looked like they were pressing. The biggest sin was Albert Pujols’ mad dash home in the 4th, when only a lousy throw kept him from being gunned out by 20 feet.

On most days Albert is an uncannily good baserunner — the type of guy who take the maximum number of extra bases with the minimum number of penalties. But yesterday it was the opposite. His gaffe was particularly frustrating when you consider that he (a) ran through the stop sign held up by third-base coach Jose Oquendo and (b) left Jim Edmonds stranded in the on-deck circle.

It was at that moment that I got genuinely scared for this team. The Cardinals just weren’t playing what I’ve come to know as “Cardinal baseball.” All season long the Cards were excellent at driving runners home from scoring position. Yesterday St. Louis had 13 baserunners through 5 innings but only 4 runs. All year long they’ve been tremendous at preserving leads (72-16 when scoring first). Yesterday St. Louis coughed up yet another late-inning lead. Combined with Tavarez’s meltdown the other day, you sorta got the impression that maybe this Cards machine was on the fritz for good. But of course all that changed later …

Renteria vs. the Goat Horns

Did Edgar Renteria show up to play or what? Not only did he bang out three hits (entering this game he was only 1-for-17 in the series), he looked sprightlier than I’ve seen him all year. Seriously. He was going up, down, grabbing balls to his left and to his right, showing the kind of range he had when he was 25. And after he went deep in the hole and just missed gunning out Jeff Kent at first, he looked to the sky and howled with anger. Never in his six years in the Lou — not even when he hit that three-run walk-off homer against the Cubs — have I seen that kind of raw energy from Edgar. Now, I’m not one who believes guys need to wear their emotions on their sleeves to prove they’re really playing, but it was nice to see anyway.

Beltran vs. the World

Speaking of emotions, one of the frustrating things about getting beat by Carlos Beltran is that he rarely shows any. He’s like Robert Patrick in T2 — he kills you without breaking a sweat.

After Beltran’s continued greatness yesterday — he hit two balls off the wall and reached base four times — the question must be asked: is he having the best postseason series of all time? I think he probably is. His line (.476/.739/1.190) holds up against Lou Gehrig’s from the 1928 World Series, but he’s done it over two more games, plus showed off the kind of baserunning and glovework that I’m sure Larrupin’ Lou did not. What about Barry Bonds’ wrecking ball of a performance against the Angels in ’02? Again, I’d take Beltran, who has more total bases and even a higher OBP than Bonds did in that series. I’m wringing my brain trying to come up with comparables — Reggie in ’77, Juan Gone in ’96, Brock in ’67 and ’68 — but I think Beltran bests them all. I guess the only more valuable postseason performances have come from pitchers.

NLCS vs. ALCS

Heading into yesterday most media types were treating the NLCS as a mere warm-up act for the main attraction over in the American League. For example, the front page of ESPN.com, loosely translated, looked something like this for most of the day:

SOX-YANKEES
DIVINE WARFARE
ARMAGEDDON
APOCALYPSE

*cards vs. astros at 4pm eastern

But I can’t really blame the media for focusing on that “other” series — more people were interested in those two AL teams, plus they have a better backstory (86 years of Peloponnesian hatred), a better unfolding story (Lazarus vs. Darth Vader), and more striking images. (Can you believe that bloody sock? On a Red Sox player, no less?) So only the most hardened cultural communist would demand “equal time” for the National League.

And yet after yesterday I think we’re starting to catch up to the drama up East. We’ve now had walk-off homers in back-to-back games, and we’re going to a Game 7 tonight (only the second time since 1973 — last year was the other — when both league championship series went the distance). All in all I’d say this is shaping up as the best postseason since 1986. So yeah, they might be playing a less frenzied, more Mid-American version of Sox vs. Yanks, but it’s much more than Hal’s Autobody vs. Chico’s Bail Bonds out in some cow pasture.

St. Louis’ Bullpen vs. Houston’s Bullpen

Until the ninth inning it looked like we might have our first game of the series with a modicum of bullpen sanity. You had Kiko Calero making quick work of the Astros lineup, and Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler (whose face reminds me of a young Thrill Clark) one-upping them for Houston. And then Jason Isringhausen marred the string of scoreless innings by doing his best imitation of Tom Niedenfuer. The pitch he threw to Bagwell was the exact same as the one he threw to Kent two nights earlier — a flat, first-pitch fastball that didn’t run in enough on the hitter.

I was upset all right, but if there’s one guy I’d have chosen to beat me, it’s Bagwell, who is, after all, practically synonymous with Astros baseball. And besides, Izzy made right by punching out Berkman for the third out (a literal game-saver with Lidge in the wings), then rolling through the Astros in Inning Ten.

All along, while the managers were trotting both Izzy and Lidge out to the hill, the Fox broadcasters were freaking out, as if these closers were delicate newborn fawns instead of men from the same species as Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle. Clearly they can handle the stress on their arms — and besides, flags fly forever — so calm down, Fox.

Lidge vs. Miceli

Brad Lidge is doing something I didn’t think was possible — he’s trying to out-Gagne Eric Gagne. I mean, the guy is all but unhittable. Literally. He’s pitched 8 innings against St. Louis this series, one hit, fourteen strikeouts. Good God.

So here’s my question: why didn’t Garner bring him out to pitch the bottom of the 12th? If he was just totally out of gas, then I understand. But he didn’t look to be out of gas; he’d only thrown 32 pitches; and he’d proven that he could get out the heart of the order with shocking ease. Besides, there was no one left on Garner’s bench anyway, so you don’t lose much at the plate by having him hit in the top of the 12th. I mean, if you’re gonna commit to a guy, commit to him, especially given the ineptitude of your other option, Mr. Dan Miceli. I’m glad Garner didn’t heed my advice, but I thought he shrank from the call of duty at the most critical time.

But here’s the thing: regardless of how many innings he pitched, I have no doubt Lidge will be available to pitch Game 7, probably for two innings or more, and probably with no loss of effectiveness. He’s that good.

Tavarez vs. the Scary Demons in his Head

I don’t think I need to persuade anyone of this, but I’ll say it anyway: Tavarez is nuts. Even during yesterday’s game my parents (who were at the game) said he was running off the mound between innings, screaming like a banshee, and generally looking like he might have a nervous breakdown.

And yet, damn, that skinny em-effer turned in one beauty of a performance yesterday. His pitching was the very opposite of his demeanor away from the mound: composed, controlled, even elegant. I don’t know what gods he prayed to to get his head on straight, but he quelled the Astros when St. Louis needed him most. I still think he’s nuts, but I also can’t help but have sympathy for someone who seems so troubled, and I’m very happy for him right now.

Jim Edmonds vs. Dan Miceli

This was the matchup the Cards wanted. And just as velocity equals distance divided by time, Jim Edmonds facing Dan Miceli (lefty vs. righty, high-ball hitter vs. high-ball pitcher) equals very good things for the Cardinals.

Carlos Beltran has been so good this series that there’s been an almost unstated passing of the torch this series, as if he’s now acquired the title “best centerfielder in baseball” from Jim Edmonds. Edmonds, of course, has been the best CFer these past five years, and he was clearly better than Beltran this year (he’s my #2 pick for MVP after Bonds). So it was nice to see Edmonds remind everyone that, hey, he can bang a little too.

If the Cards can take tonight’s game, you’ll be able to run into any St. Louisan in any bar across the country, or sit next to them on any plane ride, and ask them, “where were you when Edmonds hit that homer?” Me, I was watching the game in my living room, and after Edmonds got all of it, I sat there relieved and content, with the calm of a Tibetan monk. About four seconds later I blew out my vocal cords.

Suppan vs. Clemens

Tonight. This is what St. Louis wanted heading into yesterday — a shot against the big guy in Game 7. There are probably some talking heads out there who’ll say that the series will come down to “who wants it more,” and they may even trot out the Astros’ NLCS troubles of yore, or perhaps the three times in the La Russa Era that the Cards made the Final Four but fell short of the Big Dance. But tonight’s game should have very little to do with desire and grit and very much to do with the bite on Clemens’ split-fingered fastball. It’ll be fun to watch.

Of course, if you’re a Red Sox fan you may be rooting for the Astros, just so you can take it to Clemens and exorcise all your demons at once. But remember, the Cardinals have played a starring role in Boston’s drought as well — twice they beat the Sox in a Game 7, in 1946 and 1967. It could be a rematch for the ages: Pesky/Slaughter, Lonborg/Gibson, Albert/Manny … Let’s make it happen.

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