The National League Division Series came to an end this night, in what was anticipated to be a tight, low-scoring affair. It managed the latter, more or less. Let’s look at how WPS sees it. (Statistics used for WPS calculation come, as always in this series, from FanGraphs.)
Game 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 F Pirates 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 Cardinals 0 2 0 0 0 1 0 3 X (Cardinals win series 3-2) WPS 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Pirates 9 13 5 5 6 17 21 15 1 Cardinals 5 27 3 17 3 13 2 6 X WPS Base: 168.3 Best Plays: 36.9 Last Play: 0.4 Grand Total: 205.6
The technical and objective reasons why this was not an exciting game are familiar by now. One team got an early multi-run lead, then held and expanded it; 1-2-3 innings smothered chances for excitement even without runs scoring. The average score for an inning is roughly around 26 or 27. This game beat that just twice.
The more intrinsic and subjective reason why this was not an exciting game is that it was very hard to believe, once St. Louis gave Adam Wainwright a 2-0 lead, that he would give it back. The buzz surrounding this game was about the great pitchers’ duel expected. Once Gerrit Cole slipped up—he did pitch well other than the one mistake he gave David Freese—it felt like the Cardinals had it nailed down. That feeling was not deceptive, not on this night.
A.J. Burnett, whose rotation turn it was, was reportedly quite miffed at not getting the nod. He didn’t even care to be available in relief, though this was explained as his not being “set up” for that role, which I suppose might be true. Still, it looked bad for him to reduce the Pirates to a “most hands on deck” status for the deciding game.
One can wonder whether his disappointment at being shunted aside tonight could color his judgment on the retirement he had been mulling over recently. He is a free agent, though, so he wouldn’t have to come back to Pittsburgh if he keeps playing. Indeed, a return now would be a surprise.
I noticed a pattern with balls and strikes continuing into this game, though perhaps less than in several others I’ve watched. Umpires appear to be calling the first-base sliver of the plate balls, and the space just off the third-base side strikes. This has been the case across several parks, with several different umpires.
Could TBS’s PitchTrax be miscalibrated, possibly at a software level since the hardware would be different in the different ballparks? Or have umpires always done this and I have, like Arthur Dent, been too wrapped up in myself to notice?
Some eye-opening defensive plays made an impact on this game. Chief among them were two Pittsburgh line drives that Matt Carpenter not only snagged at second, but turned into double plays. If Wainwright had a weakness this night, it was that he was giving up liners, eight out of his 26 balls in play. Carpenter turned two of them into four outs, snuffing out the Pirates in the second and eighth.
(The latter DP drew some controversy, as it looked like Jordy Mercer had gotten his foot back on first before the throw reached Matt Adams. Replay showed that Paul Nauert probably had made the right call after all. Next year, Bucs manager Clint Hurdle would have been burning a challenge on this one. Presumably it would have been “phone a friend,” since “poll the audience” wouldn’t have helped him much at Busch Stadium.)
Other defensive plays were eye-opening for the strange ways they failed to prevent hits. The Pirates got a two-out rally out of three infield balls. The first, Carpenter stumbled as he reined it in, taking a divot from the lip of the outfield grass, and his throw was just too late.
The second was a slow bouncer Pete Kozma (who had a remarkable dive on a liner earlier) was a little slow getting to and releasing. The third ball hit first base on its second bounce, befuddling Adams and the over-shifted Carpenter, and getting the Pirates’ lone run across. This was, aptly, the only way Pittsburgh could get to Wainwright.
Cole left after five innings for a pinch hitter, showing that Hurdle felt some of the same desperation about getting to Wainwright somehow that many fans did.
Relieving him was Justin Wilson, which made me wonder: why not start bringing in your relief aces, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, right here? You need the best pitching you can get, now, with the NLCS on Friday a moot point if you don’t win. It gives you a chance to get multiple innings out of them both, as well, and they’ll have a little recovery time before facing the Dodgers. Pitchers have roles nowadays, but the role of “saving the season” ought to supersede them.
My innovating strategizing had no effect on real life, of course. Wilson came in and gave up a run to make it 3-0, St. Louis. Melancon and Grilli both would enter the game in the eighth … and Melancon would cough up two runs before leaving, Grilli letting a third in. I’m guessing Theo Epstein won’t be calling me about the Chicago position after all.
Freese turned the clock back 23 months with his second-inning homer that put his team up, 2-0. That didn’t keep him from getting pulled in the eighth for defensive replacement Daniel Descalso. Fans love heroics, but managers still play their percentages. You can talk to Jose Lobaton about that, David.
The Pirates’ 1-2 hitters, Starling Marte and Neil Walker, were almost implausibly bad at the plate in this series. They combined to go 1-for-39 with two walks and a hit batter. Marte’s lone hit was a home run, but all this does is push their combined triple-slash to .026/.095/.103. When you have three consecutive spots in your batting order hitting like weak-swinging pitchers—and only one of them is the pitcher—your team is badly hobbled.
After a skein of complaints about how long these playoff games were taking, I should have been overjoyed at a contest that came in at two hours, forty minutes. Okay, I can appreciate the chance to finish up my writing and get to bed by midnight for a change. But for a fan who has a certain familial attachment to the Pirates, it won’t be too easy to sleep well tonight. The Pirates deserved better, and a lot of sympathetic fans across baseball feel the same way.
This takes nothing away from the Cardinals’ accomplishment, even if it does diminish the number of people who will celebrate it. St. Louis exhibited some great pitching, especially from Wainwright, giving up one run apiece in the three games they won. They earned their date with the Dodgers fair and square, and WPS Recap will be covering the Friday opener.
With, perhaps, a metaphorical tear in its eye.