One last strike. That’s the refrain that kept running through my head last night as the St. Louis Cardinals stepped to the brink of elimination. Twice. Again. I may even have spoken the words out loud once or twice, an idle prayer for reprise to fill the tense seconds.
“And a foul ball out of play and now the Cardinals down to their last strike,” said Dick Stockton as Drew Storen went 2-2 on Yadier Molina. The situation was certainly familiar, but the likelihood of another 11th hour comeback seemed more than a little unlikely.
“Good pitch in on the fists. Freese getting the fastball and fouls it…so it’s one ball and two strikes and again the Cardinals down to their last strike.” Dick Stockton again and this time the protagonist was familiar as well as the situation. Still, how many times do the Nationals and Cardinals pick up that same game in the top of the 9th inning, St. Louis down 7-5 and Washington exits with the win?
As with Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, though, it was only this iteration of that 9th inning that mattered, and Molina and Freese both passed that final strike along, walking back-to-back to load the bases for the offensive engines of this NLDS, Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.
Descalso’s first-pitch, 2-run single tied the score. Kozma followed with a 2-run single of his own that put the Cardinals up – for the first time since Game 3 – 9-7. Jason Motte retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning to send the Cardinals back to the NLCS.
I, of course, am a Cardinals fan, but not an unreasonable one. I picked the Redbirds to win the NL Wild Card, but was far from confident in the team’s ability to actually do it. My confidence was such that I picked the Washington Nationals to win not only the NLDS (before their opponent was set), but the NL pennant as well. Shows what I know.
The rational mind understands that the 2012 Cardinals are not the same team as the one that stormed back to squeak into the 2011 postseason, then went all the way in highly entertaining fashion. Tony La Russa is gone. Dave Duncan is gone. Albert Pujols is gone. Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal went down with injuries before the season ended. Jaime Garcia went down in Game 2 of this series. Edwin Jackson was pitching for the Cardinals’ NLDS opponent. Octavio Dotel was playing in the ALDS and Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas – critical to the Cardinals’ success in 2011 – have been unreliable in leverage situations and consequently marginalized in large part this postseason.
On the other hand, Allen Craig and David Freese have continued to hit this October, Carlos Beltran has nearly singlehandedly replaced the production of Pujols and Berkman thus far and Descalso and Kozma have come through when the heart of the Cardinals’ order has not…and at times when it has, too. Chris Carpenter continues to add to his postseason legend, while Kyle Lohse has been a completely different pitcher than the one who allowed 11 earned runs in 12.2 innings in 3 postseason starts in 2011 (he has allowed only 3 ER in 12.2 innings pitched in 2 starts in the Wild Card and NLDS rounds in 2012). The bullpen has again been an asset, but the names and faces have changed almost entirely. Whereas 2011 was the domain of Dotel, Salas, Rzepczynski, Arthur Rhodes, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte, in 2012 the road to Motte has been paved with Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly.*
*Lance Lynn has also contributed out of the bullpen in the 2012 postseason, but with Garcia’s injury and Jake Westbrook’s unavailability – also due to injury – Lynn will be starting going forward.
In spite of the loss of franchise icons and future Hall of Famers, though, and despite the inevitable roster changes that every MLB team undergoes season-to-season, this 2012 team has proven remarkably similar to its 2011 counterpart in at least one way. The team remains a very tough out in postseason play. They have their work cut out for them in the next series, facing a San Francisco Giants team that has similarly defied expectations in recent seasons to win the 2010 World Series and advance to this year’s NLCS after losing their only two home games to open their NLDS matchup against Cincinnati.
As though I learned nothing from last season (that rational mind again), I continue to doubt this Cardinals team. And they continue to prove me wrong. I worried when they let Game 1 slip away thanks to a questionable pitching matchup in the late innings. I worried again when they failed to close out Washington in Game 4. I obviously worried when Adam Wainwright got shelled, ceding 6 runs in 2.1 innings in Game 5. Even after the Cardinals had pulled to within a run, I worried that it would be too little, too late. And now I worry about San Francisco. A team that shouldn’t still be playing is a frightening opponent in October, but I guess the Giants fans are subject to the same concern. Here’s hoping the Cardinals continue to prove me wrong.
Other Thoughts on the Division Series
- Five Alive! – After the wave of sweeps baseball fans endured just a couple seasons ago in the first round – prompting thoughtful fans to question whether it wouldn’t be better to reduce the number of playoff teams – it was delightful to see all 4 NLDS series go 5 games. For those of you scoring at home, when you take the two Wild Card games into consideration, we have already witnessed 12 elimination games in the 2012 postseason. Even in an eventful 2011 postseason, there were only 13 elimination games played…total.
- Aces being Aces – While no one will dispute that Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia are outstanding pitchers, their postseason performance has largely failed to live up to the standards of excellence and consistency they have set in the regular season during their careers. Take a look at the numbers:
Career: 1553.2 IP 3.40 ERA 1.17 WHIP 8.4 K/9 2.7 BB/9
Postseason pre-2012: 42 IP 5.57 ERA 1.55 WHIP 10.3 K/9 4.3 BB/9
Career: 2564.1 IP 3.50 ERA 1.22 WHIP 7.8 K/9 2.7 BB/9
Postseason pre-2012: 86 IP 4.81 ERA 1.62 WHIP 8.7 K/9 4.8 BB/9
Now look at their respective performances in the 2012 ALDS:
Verlander: 16.2 IP 0.56 ERA 0.75 WHIP 22 K 5 BB 7 H 1 ER 2 W
Sabathia: 17.2 1.53 ERA 0.85 WHIP 16 K 3 BB 12 H 3 ER 2 W
And to think, we may get to see these two face off twice in the ALCS.
- Let’s Go Oakland! – This warrants a separate post entirely (one I will hopefully write), but I want to take a moment here to commemorate just what a spectacular season the Oakland A’s had and just how special the end of the season/postseason were to behold at O.co Coliseum. As someone who has been to a lot of sparsely-attended A’s games over the past 6 seasons, to see the place come alive for the final series of the regular season and the three home games of the ALDS was incredible. I went to 5 games between Monday 10/1 and Thursday 10/11 and every one of them was packed, every one of them was loud and every one of them was awesome. Thank you A’s and thank you A’s fans.