When it Rains it Pujols

I admit, I stole that title from a homemade sign held up by a fan at last night’s game. But it’s perfectly apt. Game 2 of the NLCS was simply a wetter version of Game 1 — lots of homers, poor “fundamentals” from the Astros, a short outing by an unheralded Houston starter followed by shoddy relief work, and more pyrotechnics from the heart of the St. Louis order.

A few impressions:

  • I went to college in Worcester, Massachusetts, and back then we had a name for cold, ceaseless, driving rain: “Worcestering.” It’s miserable stuff; the Fox cameras showed a close-up of my mom and brother at one point, and while my brother looked positively bedraggled, my mom looked like she was being eaten by her parka. But they got in nine good innings anyway, despite the Worcestering, which was huge for the Cardinals. Had the game been postponed, Clemens and Oswalt would have started Games 2 and 3, essentially negating the competitive advantage the Cards got by watching Braves/Astros go five games.

    I don’t know what the numbers say, but I would guess that rainy conditions increase scoring in baseball. That’s the opposite of football, where wet, muddy conditions dampen offense. The reason: baseball is the one team sport where the defense controls the ball. Considering ball control is the first thing to go in a driving rain, you would think that defense and pitching would be down and offense would be up.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think the weather affected last night’s game much. Scoring was about what you’d expect, and I didn’t notice fielders pulling up short (for fear of slipping) or balls dying in the soggy grass and allowing baserunners to move up. In fact, the one time these elements came into play — when Vizcaino tried to take an extra base on a ball into the left-centerfield gap — Reggie Sanders made an agile play to gun him out. (Consider this a byproduct of the Larry Walker trade: Sanders, who moved over from right to make room for Walker, is an excellent leftfielder, and there’s no chance Ray Lankford or John Mabry would have made the same play on Vizcaino’s gap job.)

  • Carlos Beltran’s home run on the third pitch of the game was utterly ho-hum — I’m starting to think of those Beltran homers like a cover charge, an ante for playing the game. It’s really a shame that Beltran won’t finish in the top ten in the MVP balloting in either league. In fact, I rarely even see his cumulative AL/NL stats printed anywhere (a legacy of the days before interleague play). So for your browsing enjoyment, here they are: 121 runs, 36 doubles, 9 triples, 38 homers, 104 RBIs, 92 walks, 42 swipes, 3 caught stealing, .367 OBP, .548 slugging. And he plays a Gold Glove centerfield. And — let’s just admit it — he’s a handsome devil too.
  • How did Matt Morris look? Awful. He was running the gauntlet from his first pitch to his last, allowing 11 baserunners in only five innings — two homers, five walks (despite a garage-door-sized strike zone from Gary Darling), and, to complete his abstract-expressionist splatterfest, a wild pitch and a balk. He also made a potentially serious blunder in the 3rd, when he failed to cover first during a run-down of Jeff Bagwell. Had Womack not had enough speed to chase down Bags on his own, it would have been first and third Astros, two outs, with Matt Morris standing on the mound dumbfounded.

    Morris has a rep in St. Louis as a guy who’s, well, one sandwich short of a picnic. That might be okay if you have a 100-mph heater, but for a guy like Morris, who’s in the Moyer/Maddux mind-control stage of his career, that’s awfully dangerous. But somehow he wriggled out of trouble all night long (including a five-pitch walk to pitcher Pete Munro that had me one digit away from phoning the paramedics), and was actually in position to be the winning pitcher until Ensberg tied it in the seveth. So the Cards got poor pitching from their starter, but you know what they say — sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

  • For the first four innings of last night’s game, Pete Munro did a very convincing impression of Jose Lima. Like Lima last week, he was another flutterball specialist hitting the corners and handcuffing the heart of the Cardinals’ order. The Cards had their chances here and there, but they couldn’t get the big hit … until there were two outs in the bottom of the fifth. From that point onward the Cards got nothing but big hits (indeed, they got five more hits the rest of the way and four of them left the park).
  • It was this critical juncture that Phil Garner will be replaying in his sleep. I don’t know what it is about this postseason, but you can call it the Year of the Goofy Pitching Changes. Garner, who made some head-scratching moves in Game 1, is now trying to out-Gardenhire Ron Gardenhire with a second straight night of bad decisions.

    Mistake #1: Bringing in “Hanging” Chad Harville to face Scott Rolen in the bottom of the fifth. Forget about pulling Munro — he had only thrown 80 pitches and looked okay to me, but frankly Garner knows his durability better than I do, and I’m not in a position to question his know-how in this area. But I can question the guy he brought in.

    The best options against the righthanded-hitting Rolen were Dan Miceli and Dan Wheeler — both of them allowed only a .188 batting average against righties. Wheeler, who looked especially sharp on Wednesday (and last night) would have been my choice. Miceli made sense too, although one could argue against him based on his performance against Pujols and Rolen in the 8th. But he’s still preferable to Harville, who was weaker all year against righthanded sticks. But for the second night in a row Garner pulled the wrong levers early on, and for the second night in a row the Fox cameras cut to a starter in the Houston dugout, sadly aware that he just went from somebody back to nobody in the blink of an eye.

    Mistake #2: Letting Brad Lidge rot in the bullpen. This one is so obvious that I feel bad bringing it up, but why in the world Garner let Dan Miceli face Pujols/Rolen/Edmonds in the bottom of the 8th is beyond me. One week ago I was watching Game 2 of the Braves/Astros divisional series, and I saw Garner call on Lidge with one out in the seventh inning. At that moment I knew the Astros were forces to be reckoned with, because the move told me that Garner had learned from Jedi masters Joe Torre and Jack McKeon, that he was willing to bring in his top reliever wherever and whenever he was needed, “by the book” be damned.

    But perhaps because the Astros ended up losing that game (in part due to a subpar performance from Lidge), Garner has completely retreated from that strategy. Last night the ‘Stros got close enough to have the tying run on deck in the last inning. Last night they were tied heading into the bottom of the 8th. And for some reason Garner let Brad Lidge — as in Light’s Out Lidge, better than the Great Gagne this year — pitch exactly zero innings in these contests. Mystifying.

    Last week I wrote at Redbird Nation:

    If there’s one common mistake we see from managers in the postseason, it’s this: they sit around, and they wait for their teams to lose. They get attached to a particular pitcher, or they get attached to playing the book, and meanwhile they’re getting mugged by a cutthroat guy like Torre or McKeon who knows that his job is to win now, today, immediately.

    I can’t think of a better description of what afflicted Garner last night. It goes to show that the motivational types — the rah-rah managers who get their teams to believe in themselves — are rarely the guys who are good with tactics, strategy, chess moves. Sparky Anderson, Dusty Baker, Harvey Kuenn: they all had (or have) this problem. They manage from the gut, not the head. And it’s very rare when you find a guy who excels at both, like finding a guy who can hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases. And unfortunately for Houston, Phil Garner is no Carlos Beltran.

  • But I don’t want to blame the entire game on these managerial manoeuvres in the dark. First of all, whether Garner brought in the wrong guys or not, the Cards hitters still stepped up big time — four gigantic homers from their 2-3-4 men, including two no-doubters from Scott Rolen. (Is it safe to say he’s over his injury?)

    The Astros, on the other hand, displayed very poor execution for the second night in a row. They left countless runners on base, threw the ball away on a pickoff throw, laid down a bad bunt, and lost three guys on the basepaths (Bagwell picked off by Matheny, Vizcaino thrown out by Sanders, and Ensberg caught stealing on a botched hit-and-run).

    The Cardinals didn’t make any mistakes like that, left only four runners on base, and played a flawless game in the field. Now, one could argue that these are marginal differences, that the Astros were this close to taking one of these games. But one could just as easily argue that these differences are the opposite of marginal — that they are, in fact, what made the Cardinals a 105-win team and the Astros a 92-win wild card.

  • I was going to say that this game was virtually a must-win game for both teams. But that’s silly, not so much because it’s not true, but because it’s basically true of every game in a short series. If the Cardinals had lost this game, the series would be tied — but home-field advantage would shift to the Astros, and they’d be getting three of their next five starts from the double-headed Royer Clemwalt monster. As it stands, however, the Cards took care of business at home, and now they can either finish off the Astros in the Juice Box, or come back with a chance to wrap things up at Busch. In other words, they’re in a good place.
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