Tied in Texas

The big picture says this series has gone according to script — Houston’s shaky starters didn’t last long in Games 1 and 2, allowing the Cards to bomb the Astros’ inferior middle relief and take the first two in the Lou. Then the series moved South, where the ‘Stros won the two games started by their aces, Clemens and Oswalt.

Yet surprisingly enough, it wasn’t Oswalt who slammed the door on St. Louis today. He was off all afternoon, surrendering 5 runs and 12 baserunners in only 6 innings. And Ossy’s fastball was so flat that he didn’t strike out anyone. So for the fourth time this series it came down to a battle of relievers — but for the first time it was the St. Louis bullpen coughing up a lead. Kiko Calero and Julian Tavarez got tagged for three runs (including two more homers, bringing the Astros’ playoff total to an astonishing 24), while Wheeler and Lidge came in to tranquilize the Cardinal bats. And that was all she wrote. Here are a few of my notes:

  • Robb at Random Redbird Reasoning called it before the game — he pointed out that Roy Oswalt, so superior in almost every facet of the game, is vulnerable as long as you get to him early. Check out this pair of stats:
                                  AVG   OBP   SLG
    Oswalt, pitches 1 to 15      .330  .379  .495
    Oswalt, pitches 16 and up    .251  .305  .364

    After 15 pitches today the Cards were up 2-0 on a Pujols homer and had Rolen standing on second with a double. Unfortunately the Cards didn’t deliver the knockout blow early on, allowing Oswalt –like Clemens yesterday — to eventually find his rhythm.

    The Cards’ management frequently talks about taking “tough at-bats,” which is a pretty good indicator of the team’s success at the plate. Despite yesterday’s loss, for example, Tony La Russa said he admired his team’s ability to be patient and to work the count against Clemens. Conversely, he reprimanded the Cards last week for swinging from the heels and taking poor at-bats against Jose Lima. You don’t normally think of the Cardinals as a saber-friendly team, but it’s the type of thing that La Russa and hitting coach Mitchell Page have harped on all year long (unlike, say, Angels’ hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, who thinks there’s something unmanly about going deep into the count).

    Today, the Cards got it half-right. Our first 15 batters had seven at-bats where they saw five or more pitches against Oswalt. But the last 14 batters against Oswalt had only one such at-bat, including six one-pitch outs. I don’t know if the Cards got greedy and went for the jugular, but it was pretty noticeable. Here’s how it broke down:

    First 15 hitters vs. Oswalt    65 pitches
    Last 14 hitters vs. Oswalt     32 pitches

    Not coincidentally, it was during those last 14 plate appearances that Oswalt settled down. And although he was never sharp all day, he pitched just well enough to build a bridge to Wheeler and Lidge.

  • The only good thing you can say about Jason Marquis is that he got the leadoff hitter out his first three innings, otherwise it may have been an Astros rout. Marquis was reportedly upset that he was demoted to the 4-spot in the Cards playoff rotation, but today he further justified that decision. For the second start in a row he failed to make it past the 4th inning; and unlike the NLDS against L.A., he was facing an offense that gave him and his supporting staff much less room for error.

    Marquis’ blah performance lends credence to the idea that he’s either fatigued or too excitable for his own good. I said before this series began that the Cards’ fortunes might ride on the back of Marquis’ sinker, and so far, unfortunately, I’ve been right. He was given a big lead and he blew it. All of which makes the Cards miss Chris Carpenter more than ever — although, as Thom Brennaman pointed out, they won’t get any sympathy tears from the Astros, who are without both Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte. If those two were healthy, this series — dare I say it? –might well be over.

  • Carlos Beltran. I’m gonna be seeing that guy’s swing in my sleep. Really, I have nothing to add about his performance; it simply defies analysis. He’s in one of those white-hot zones that only a few athletes get to — guys like Bonds, Jordan, Tiger Woods — where there seems to be no disconnect between what he wants to do and what he does. The only thing that tempers my reaction to him is that there’s a guy in the Cardinals dugout who has just about matched him stroke for stroke. It’s too bad Beltran will probably sign elsewhere in the offseason, because it’d be fun to see him go toe-to-toe with Pujols in the same division for years to come.
  • How did La Russa do? He made one decision that I applaud, another that I really like, and one that I disagree with entirely. The good: pulling Jason Marquis when he did was a smart move. Biggio had just singled leading off the fifth, and Marquis was about to venture into the bee’s nest of Beltran, Bagwell, and Berkman. Marquis just couldn’t get those guys out today — literally. They were 4-4 off him with two doubles and two walks. To his credit, La Russa stanched the bleeding and went to Calero, a move which worked out swimmingly… at least for the rest of that inning.

    The other move I like was bringing in Isringhausen in the 8th inning. “The book” says you don’t bring in your closer unless you’re either ahead or, in rare cases, tied. But La Russa knew we needed our best pitcher on the mound to keep things tight, especially with Mount Rushmore due up in the ninth innings, and it was a good move to bring him in down by a run.

    In fact, I thought TLR could have brought in Izzy sooner, which brings us to the decision that I truly disliked. Julian Tavarez had no business being on a pitchers mound for more than three or four hitters. He started out okay — got Biggio to fly out, got ahead of Beltran 1-2, and even threw him a nasty sinker at the ankle-tops that damn near bounced in the dirt. The fact that Beltran hit it at all, much less drilled it over the wall in right, seemed to completely unhinge Tavarez.

    The next batter, Jeff Bagwell, walked on four pitches, the fourth one nearly taking off his head. (And although I can’t read Tavarez’s mind, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was intentional — or at least semi-intentional, a pouty attempt to scare the living daylights out of Bags.) Tavarez threw the next pitch to the backstop, then intentionally walked Berkman. He then got ahead in the count to Kent before drilling him in the kneecaps. If you’re keeping score, that’s 11 pitches after the home run to Beltran: 9 of them out of the strike zone, three of them that completely got away from Tavarez. What’s more, Tavarez was stomping around, gesticulating wildly, talking to himself, everything but committing hari-kari on the mound.

    If La Russa had yanked him there I’d have said it was one or two batters late. And when Tavarez’s first pitch to Morgan Ensberg sailed about two feet out of the strike zone, I really thought the hook was overdue. Now, of course, Tavarez eventually got the DP that ended the inning — and temporarily kept the Cards in the game — but the way I see it, La Russa got the right result but made the wrong choice. Tavarez basically completed a Hail Mary pass by getting Ensberg on a DP, and the way he came into the dugout (blind with rage) convinced me that he got by on luck alone.

    My brother agreed that Tavarez should have been pulled, but also said he didn’t like our alternative warming up in the bullpen, Cal Eldred. But what about Izzy? If it’s good enough to bring in Izzy in the 8th inning, down by a run, to face Vizcaino, Ausmus, and Bruntlett, why isn’t it good enough to bring him in in the 7th, down by a run, to face Bagwell, Berkman, and Kent? You’d still need another pitcher in case the game went into extra innings, but you worry about that if/when you’re tied.

    Again, it might be a moot point considering Beltran’s homer was the back-breaker anyway, but I really didn’t like Tavarez staying out there. As my brother Matt said, “Tavarez’s performance can be summed up in one word: unprofessional.” Put it together with Tavarez’s trash-talking a couple days ago (to be fair, it was pretty mild trash) and I’m beginning to remember the headcase I feared we were getting back in January.

  • On the other side of the ledger, Phil Garner, for the second day in a row, didn’t manage himself out of a potential win. The one poor decision he made — and frankly I don’t even know if the decision was his — was sending Biggio with two outs in the fifth with the Astros down by two. Naturally, Biggio was gunned out trying to steal. (And he was out — I slowed down the replay on my TiVo a couple times.) Steve Lyons defended the move by claiming it was a chance to get Biggio into scoring position. But my God, Lance Berkman was up — Biggio was already in scoring position, even on first base.

    (By the way, after the throw was made to nail Biggio I thought to myself, “whoa, that’s the best throw Matheny has made all year!” But of course it wasn’t Matheny, but young Yady Molina. What a rifle he’s got.)

  • Am I wrong here, or was the game supposed to start at 4:15 EST? The first pitch was at 4:41 p.m., almost a half-hour late, presumably because Fox had to show us a wrap-up of all the games in the NFL first. I mean, look, I don’t mind that the NLCS is the ugly stepchild of this playoffs — hell, I even sorta like that the AL is getting all the hype (it allows the Yankees to grow more and more Voldemortish by the day). But delaying today’s game in favor of Bears/Redskins highlights? That’s embarrassing.

    Other than that, I didn’t mind Fox’s broadcast nearly as much as usual. Brenly was more informative and descriptive than usual, and Lyons and Brennaman were more critical, in a good way. They called out the lower half of the Astros’ lineup (even though Raul freaking Chavez had a ribbie today); they argued that the Cards should be pitching around Beltran more (I agree — dare Bagwell to beat us); and Lyons did a good job describing why Biggio was playing too far back to catch up to Mabry’s RBI single in the first. In fact, I thought Bidge was playing too far back on Rolen’s single three batters earlier.

    Oh, and one more thing I now like about Fox: Scooter, the pedagogic talking baseball. He used to annoy me, but I watched the game the other night with my three-year-old nephew, who’s nuts about Scooter. It’s the only time he paid any attention to the game. And, really, that’s who Scooter is for, right?

  • So how is the rest of the series shaping up? Let’s divvy it up. The bad news for Cardfans is that they still can’t get Beltran or Berkman out (combined they’re 14-for-28 with seven homers and fourteen runs scored); they’re getting poor performance from the bookends of their Murderer’s Row (Womack and Renteria are a putrid 3-for-31; if you’re not wearing your wrist calculator, that works out to .097); and lastly, Garner seems to have found a savior in set-up man Dan Wheeler. He’s yet to allow a run in 7 postseason innings. And while you don’t expect that to continue, Garner will probably keep running him out there until he fails. At this point that might not come on the Cardinals’ watch.

    Now for the silver linings. People will tell you that the Astros have grabbed the “momentum” in this series, but to me momentum is nothing more than tomorrow’s starting pitcher. And the Astros will give the ball to Brandon Backe once again for Game 5. Backe has been sharp lately, but beatable, especially against the Cardinals bats.

    What’s more, the Astros still aren’t out of the woods with their wobbly rotation alignment. They’ve got Backe tomorrow night, but for Game 6 they either have to throw Pete Munro (not attractive for them) or Roger Clemens on three days’ rest (and we know his record under those conditions is spotty). And if they do throw Clemens and this thing goes seven games, then they’ll have to use Oswalt on short rest — and he’s only done that once in his career, in the NLDS, with decidedly mixed results. The ‘Stros can’t be feeling too confident about that scenario, especially given the way Ossy pitched today.

    Furthermore, just as Berkman and Beltran are going bat-bonkers on the Cards pitching staff, the Cards have done a number on Houston as well. The Astros have scored 22 runs this series; we’ve scored 22. They have Beltran and Berkman; we have Pujols and Walker (whose hitting this postseason — .353/.436/.824 — was the sole reason the Cards landed him after they led their division by 10.5 games).

    In other words, it’s power against power, our Murderer’s Row against their Killer Bees. I’d like to say it’ll be fun to see who wins, but my experience watching these games — pacing, sweating, cursing, losing whole years off my life — isn’t exactly fun. I mean, Game 5 on Monday night is probably the most important game for the Cardinals in 17 years. Fun? I’m terrified!

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