Before moving on to the Championship Series round, let us take a very brief look at the Division Series through the WPS lens.
There have now been 80 Division Series, if one counts the first round of the strike-year 1981 playoffs in that category. The ones played this year were decidedly average: none of the four finished in the top 20, or the bottom 25, in cumulative WPS score. Of the 318 games played in all those series, Game Three between the Red Sox and Rays—Jose Lobaton‘s walk-off—came in as the 19th most exciting. Game One between the Pirates and Cardinals, the A.J. Burnett meltdown, came in as the fifth least exciting.
In case you want the series numbers:
Total WPS Avg. WPS Det/Oak (5 gms.) 1554.8 311.0 TB/Bos (4 gms.) 1481.5 370.4 Pit/StL (5 gms.) 1208.3 241.7 LAD/Atl (4 gms.) 1061.0 265.3
(Median WPS score for a game is 305-310. Mean averages should exceed that, as there is more room on the high end of the scale than the low end.)
One more observation: none of the 18 games in the LDS round went into extra innings. Neither did either Wild Card game, or the AL tiebreaker. That can no longer be said about this postseason.
Game 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 F Dodgers 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 Cardinals 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 (Cardinals lead series 1-0) WPS 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Dodgers 27 10 46 6 10 18 8 24 13 62 28 33 13 Cardinals 5 5 35 12 6 7 20 10 28 13 28 13 48 WPS Base: 524.9 Best Plays: 85.3 Last Play: 30.0 Grand Total: 640.2
It doesn’t take a deep statistical system to identify this as a great game. But it’s nice to have independent confirmation.
The script was feeling remarkably familiar. One team sends a young and fairly inexperienced pitcher in against the other side’s ace. The ace is mowing batters down, and when the younger hurler gives up a two-spot, it feels like the game may already be over. It happened that way in both deciding games of the ALDS, and when Joe Kelly gave up a two-run single to Juan Uribe (one batter after bobbling a comebacker that could have been an inning-ending 1-2-3 DP), it was easy to expect Zach Greinke, untouched through two, to cruise to victory.
But a funny thing happened along the way. Kelly got a two-out base hit in the third, the first baserunner against Greinke. Matt Carpenter walked, and Carlos Beltran hit a wall-banging double through the attempted catch by Andre Ethier, tying the game. Just as you see the pattern forming, it’s broken. That’s baseball.
Two notes on that sequence. First, this was Ethier’s first full game back from his injury: he had only pinch-hitting work in the NLDS. If he was still slowed by his ankle, it could have made a big difference on this ball that he couldn’t quite bring in.
Second, Kelly had a nice bounce-back inning after he helped his cause by starting the rally, retiring the side on seven pitches. The TV broadcast booth was of the opinion that a pitcher getting a hit gets him into the game, sharpens his pitching. I think I have found a topic for research in the weeks to come.
The game fell into a fresh defensive lull after that. St. Louis made a bit of noise in the seventh with Yadier Molina‘s leadoff single, but when Jon Jay bunted, Greinke pounced on it and threw without hesitation to second, getting the force by a step and a slide. David Freese hit a liner to right, near the gap, but Yasiel Puig ran it down and threw to first in time to double off Jay.
The Dodgers replied in the eighth by getting their leadoff man aboard, as Adrian Gonzalez walked. He then walked again, back to the dugout. Don Mattingly pulled him for pinch-runner Dee Gordon, in what immediately loomed as an error of over-managing. Giving up your cleanup hitter to start the ninth doesn’t just threaten disaster in extra innings. There’s a pretty fair chance his spot will come up in the 10th, likely with men on or two outs or both. Having a bench bat instead of a slugger in that situation costs more than a pinch-runner is likely to gain.
The initial price of Mattingly’s move was charged promptly, as Gordon was erased on a fielder’s choice, and the inning ended a double play later. There would be further prices to come.
The Cardinals invoked the memory of Tony LaRussa by using three relief pitchers to get through the seventh and eighth innings. They played it a bit smarter by bringing closer Trevor Rosenthal in for the ninth, and having him pitch two. Burning through the bullpen unsettles me, because of the problems it can cause in the kind of game this one became.
The Dodgers’ bullpen moves after Greinke’s eight innings were much more questionable. Mattingly apparently subscribes to the school saying you don’t bring in your closer in a home game until he has a save situation. This kind of move makes sabermetricians want to hit their heads against a wall, or, if they’re thinking more clearly and nastily, want to hit managers’ heads against a wall. Four relievers would go to the bump for L.A. before Kenley Jansen ever threw a warm-up pitch. Maybe I could okay that for Brian Wilson in the ninth, but not the rest.
In the top of the 10th, it looked like that point could soon become moot. Mark Ellis hit a one-out liner into the right gap that Jay couldn’t cut off, turning a risky double attempt at most into an easy triple. Rosenthal intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez to get to Adri—oh, right, he was out of the game. It was Michael Young batting cleanup instead. His fly into the right gap was taken by Beltran (Jay smartly giving way), and his peg to the plate was well in time to gun down Ellis.
There’s only the technical problem that Molina missed the tag. Just about every other part of his body came in contact with Ellis’ in the collision, but his glove did not. Gerry Davis called Ellis out anyway. Expanded instant replay is still six months away.
The game stretched into the 12th, when the Dodgers rallied again. Carl Crawford hit a single, Ellis sacrificed him over, and again Ramirez got the free pass to get to Young. And again Young hit into a double play, this one a more standard 6-3. We can never know what Gonzalez would have done in those two situations, but it literally could not have been worse than what Young did. The wrongness of Mattingly’s move doesn’t really depend on these results, but it’s nicely underscored by them.
The accumulation of sub-par moves finally caught up to the Dodgers in the bottom of the 13th. Reliever Chris Withrow put two men on with one out, and Mattingly finally had to bring in Jansen, not for a save, not to start an inning, but to douse a blaze if he could. And he couldn’t. Beltran lined a ball into the right-field corner, and the best ballgame so far this postseason ended with Beltran getting mobbed by celebrating teammates partway to second base.
Games don’t have to be crisply managed to be exciting, if that even matters at all. It’s the players who accomplish it, not the guys in the dugout. The Dodgers and Cardinals players put together a fine one, and they’ll be trying again in fewer than 15 hours as I write. I hope they aren’t as tired as I, and any fellow East Coasters who watched to the end, are liable to be.