I had to rewind my TiVo a couple times to make sure it really happened – and sure enough, each time, there’s Yady Molina squeezing a curve ball from Adam Wainwright to clinch the NLCS and send the Cardinals onto the World Series.
Up until that ninth inning, it just didn’t seem like the Cards’ night. I mean, when Oliver Perez shows up large, channeling Oliver Perez c. 2004, tossing six innings of one-run ball, you don’t expect the Mets to lose. When Endy Chavez races back to the wall, takes a ten-foot vertical leap, and makes a goaltending, game-saving catch that would make Ben Wallace proud, you don’t expect the Mets to lose. When Cardinals-killer Carlos Beltran comes up with the bases juiced, an extra-base hit away from a date with the Tigers, the Shea crowd in a frenzy, you don’t expect the Mets to lose. You expect a reprise of 1986, with Anderson Hernandez playing the role of Ray Knight, rounding third with the winning run.
And yet it wasn’t meant to be. It was, instead, a more-than-you-bargained-for kinda night, full of surreal twists. First of all, the slugfest that we all predicted beforehand never materialized. (Rob Neyer had an amusing stat in Thursday’s column: of the 94 pitchers who’ve started a Game 7, Jeff Suppan had the 3rd worst lifetime ERA entering the game; Perez had the 2nd worst.) And of course Yadier Molina – the same guy whose swing had me convinced, one week into his major-league career, that he would never, ever hit the ball out of the park – went yard in the 9th to propel the Cards to victory. Very weird night.
Hell, it was a weird series. I mean, sure, there were the usual stalwarts. Beltran and Carlos Delgado combined for five home runs, and Albert Pujols (despite some overhyped lack of RBI production) put up a respectable .318/.483/.500 line. But there were also some surprising heroes (So Taguchi in Game 2, Jeff Weaver in Game 5, John Maine in Game 6) and some surprising goats (Chris Carpenter in Game 2, Billy Wagner later in the same game, David Wright basically all series). And who could have guessed that David Eckstein and Jeff Suppan, of all people, would hit as many home runs as Albert Pujols? That’s precisely what made this series so fun for me – it seemed to come from nowhere, particularly given where the Cardinals were three weeks ago, when they couldn’t buy a win down the stretch and the unkillable Astros were coming after them like Jason Voorhies at Camp Crystal Lake.
One of the biggest surprises was Tony La Russa, who I think turned in a star performance in the NLCS. Yes, he’s overrated by casual fans; no, he’s not a genius… But he’s been doing a remarkable job this October. Over the past decade, the Cards have faded in the playoffs, in part, I think, because TLR has stubbornly stuck with his veterans over players who might’ve done a better job.
I can still recall La Russa giving the biggest AB in Game 2 of the ’00 NLCS to Craig Paquette – Paquette struck out and the Cards lost by a run. Two years later, he had Matt Morris hit for himself in the 9th inning of a tie game because he didn’t trust any of his less established players out of the pen – Morris would go on to lose in the bottom of the 9th. In other words, La Russa “danced with them what brung ya,” seeming to favor reputation over productivity.
Yet somehow, astonishingly, over the past two weeks La Russa has transformed himself into a completely different postseason skipper. He’s adopted a ferociously bottom-line approach, trying to win now regardless of the personalities involved. Notice how hard he leaned on his no-name bullpen. (In the NLDS, as Larry Borowsky noted, Cards relievers got 26 outs to preserve the lead, and 24 of them were recorded by rookies. In the NLCS, 17 of 18 outs in defense of a lead were recorded by rookies.)
Notice how La Russa went with the untested Anthony Reyes in Game 4 rather than the more “experienced” Jason Marquis. Or how he benched Scott Rolen for Game 2. Or how he kept vets like Jorge Sosa off the playoff roster entirely.
These moves might seem like common sense to you, but trust me, they’re out of character for the Tony La Russa I’ve come to know. In the past, TLR would have stuck with old standbys like Rick White or Jeff Fassero, even in key situations. Not so this time around, and it’s one of the key reasons his team is taking a plane to Detroit as I write this.
A few other notes:
– I’ve been listening to a lot of sports talk radio this week (I know, I’m a masochist), and the consensus seems to be that the Mets had lost the series because they were without their top two starters, Pedro and El Duque. Maybe the consensus is right. But two points to keep in mind:
(1) Injuries are to be expected this time of the year. Every team has ‘em, including the Cardinals, and it’s not all that helpful to compare the real-life Mets to some imaginary Mets team unhampered by injury or exhaustion. Part of the reason I think it’s so difficult to predict postseason series, apart from the obvious small sample sizes, is that fatigue does funny things to ballplayers, in ways that we’re unable to grasp very accurately.
For example, is Chris Carpenter the player he was at midseason, or, after 500 innings of competitive ball over the last two years, is he a different player altogether? Was David Wright more like the guy who was hitting .337/.404/.611 at the end of June, or was he too wiped out this autumn to approach those levels? Who knows? The important thing, as Dayn Perry pointed out in his column for Fox Sports yesterday, is that “health, in baseball, is a definable skill.” For lack of it, there’s no use hand-wringing about bad luck or what might’ve been.
(2) Strangely enough, this series didn’t seem to hinge on the lack of good arms from the Mets. The Mets’ staff allowed 4 runs per game in the NLCS – down from the 4.51 runs per game they allowed during the regular season (and the Cardinals, despite the presence of Juan Encarnacion in the cleanup spot, were an above-average NL offense). What’s more, in the Mets’ four losses they scored 6 runs, 0 runs, 2 runs, and 1 run. That 9-6 loss certainly hurt, and quite likely could have been alleviated with Duque or Pedro manning the hill, but those other games illustrate a simple inability to score runs, regardless of the pitcher. At the end of the day, that’s what did them in.
– Have you been reading Keith Law’s blog for ESPN.com during the playoffs? It’s hilarious. Not to say it’s a worthless read – it’s full of great insights – but the tone is ridiculously cranky, like something out of Herzog’s letters (as in Bellow’s Herzog, not Whitey Herzog). According to Law, every event in the series seems like it was the byproduct of some screw-up, folly, or poor decision. Consider how he opens up his NLCS wrap-up:
The Mets paid the ultimate price for their inability to get the Cardinals’ worst hitter out, and the National League’s best team was toppled by its sixth- or seventh-best team, giving us Fox’s worst nightmare of a World Series — and a pretty sizable mismatch to boot. Yadier Molina is a terrible hitter who had his Brian Doyle moment, fluking into a good series and hitting the series-clinching homer on a hanging changeup from Aaron Heilman in the ninth inning.
What a downer it must have been for Law, having to watch a bad player hit a bad pitch against a Mets club doing a bad job against a bad team. Or check out how he commemorates the game’s final out, a terrific, knee-buckling Charlie from Adam Wainwright:
Wainwright then did the nearly-impossible by walking Paul Lo Duca — who’d been averaging 0.8 pitches per plate appearance in the series — but then froze Beltran on another curve, one that just about everyone knew was coming and that still managed to turn Beltran into a $17 million-a-year statue.
I don’t buy that hogwash that says sabermetricians don’t enjoy baseball – most statheads I know positively savor the game – but Law gives the impression that this baseball-watching business is just a giant drag, at least when it doesn’t conform to the predictable Strat-o-Matic version of the game he’s got going on in his head.
So now we have a World Series that virtually no one predicted – on ESPN.com, all 16 experts said the Tigers would lose in the first round, and 15 of 16 predicted the Cardinals would do the same. And according to some people, we also have a World Series that no one even wants. Not to beat a dead horse, but as Law put it in a blog entry a few nights ago: “we’re going to see that rematch of 1968 that no one outside of Missouri or Michigan was clamoring for.”
Okay, I’ll admit: Tigers vs. Cardinals is not Yankees vs. Dodgers, or Red Sox vs. Cubs. And I’m sure Fox would’ve preferred a team from the New York metro area in the Series. But I think it’s a bit much to say no one outside of Missouri or Michigan will be into these games. Both teams are chock full of history and lore, and the Cards have a player who’s a bonafide household name in Albert Pujols.
What’s more, the Cardinals routinely draw some of the highest ratings on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (in 2005 they finished 2nd only to the Red Sox), and they sell more merchandise than almost anyone. In 2001 (the last time such a survey was undertaken), Gallup asked people to name their favorite team. The Cardinals finished 4th, behind the Yankees, Braves, and Red Sox, but just ahead of the Mets. If anything, it’s fair to say that there are far more Cardinals fans outside of Missouri than there are Mets fans outside of New York.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the ’06 World Series will rake in the viewers – ratings have been slipping across the board throughout these playoffs, regardless of the team. But you can bet that quite a number of us out there will care about the outcome.