Two on, one out, Cardinals lead 2-1 in the bottom of the second of Monday's National League Division Series Game 2 against the Nationals. Jaime Garcia's spot in the order's due up. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny sidled over to Garcia, said a few words, then told Skip Schumaker to grab a bat.
This was, to put it mildly, a seismic shock. Yes, Garcia had struggled with command, having yielded two hits and three walks in just two innings, and he had been fortunate to cede just a single run in those two frames. Still, the Cards were going to pinch hit for their number-two starter, with a one-run lead, in the second inning. These kinds of things just aren't done. Not even in the playoffs.
Matheny's move worked. Schumaker stung a Jordan Zimmermann pitch into the hole between short and third. Ian Desmond made a great play to get the force at second. But Schumaker's loud out scored the Cardinals' third run. Jon Jay followed with a run-scoring single, extending the St. Louis lead to 4-1. Given the offensive barrage that would follow, it's entirely possible that the Cardinals would have gone on to win regardless. But seizing the moment and bringing in someone better than the pitcher to hit in an early, high-leverage situation is the kind of move that can win games.
Later, we'd learn that Matheny pulled Garcia because of an injured pitching shoulder, not due to any sudden stroke of inspiration. But with the Cardinals now tied 1-1 in their NLDS matchup, the Yankees and Orioles also tied 1-1 in theirs, and more hotly contested series likely to come, the managers most willing to aggressively push buttons and challenge orthodoxy could up end swinging an inning, a game, or even a series.
The Cardinals didn't need much strategy or nuance after their four-run second inning, thanks to one of their biggest offensive outbursts of the season. After Jay and David Freese keyed the second with surgical opposite-field hits (by law, we're now required to show you this; Sorry 'bout that, Nelson Cruz), the Cards started simply mashing thereafter. Daniel Descalso cracked a solo homer to right in the fourth, earning a measure of redemption after Jayson Werth took another one away from him in Game 1, a catch that more or less saved the game for the Nationals. Carlos Beltran smoked two homers, giving him an amazing 13 in just 25 career playoff games.
Earlier, Allen Craig launched a solo shot of his own, sneaking in by the foul pole in left. Last month, I made a ludicrously early sports wager with a buddy who's an enormous Cardinals fan. He believes Allen Craig will win NL MVP in 2013. I do not. That's the bet. Sounds like a gimme, right? Ben takes one player and gets no odds (a sucker homer bet if ever there was one) while I get the entire field against him. But Craig has been a prolific power hitter throughout his minor league career, in a part-time role with the Cards last year, in a hero's turn in the 2011 playoffs, and again this season. Still, this year's 119 games played marked a career high, as Craig struggled with injuries and, at least early on, some questions about where he'd play every day. With Craig launching 22 homers, hitting .307/.354/.522 this year, and heading into 2013 as a 28-year-old everyday first baseman hitting in the middle of one of baseball's most potent lineups, a monster season may well be within reach. Before that happens, keep Craig in mind as a dark horse for some postseason awards this year.
The series shifts back to Washington tied 1-1 with a few questions lingering. Will Bryce Harper rein in the aggression which short-circuited the Nats' last chance for a rally Monday? (Also, what was up with Harper's eye black? No, not the jars of it he applied to deal with the bright St. Louis sun? I mean the fact that he wiped it all off once the sun set below his line of vision. You can't show up to a game smeared in 10 gallons of black war paint, then ditch it once the first cloud settles overhead. Own the damn thing, Bryce.) Should the Nationals be concerned about a bullpen that's shown cracks over the past two games, from Craig Stammen struggling to get anyone out to Sean Burnett getting rocked for four runs late in Monday's game? Will the Cardinals set up another big pinch-hitting opportunity early in a game — say, in a possible NLDS Game 5 — knowing that having a spare starter as good as Lance Lynn gives them the latitude to make that kind of move, even when no injuries are in play? And could Davey Johnson and the Nationals try to pull off a move or two of their own to capitalize on the playoffs' unique schedule and maybe steal a game themselves? Stay tuned.
Let's talk about Wei-Yin Chen's slider. The ESPN Stats and Info crew went into great detail on the pitch that helped lift the Orioles to a 3-2 win over the Yankees and a 1-1 tie in their ALDS tilt. A snippet:
Chen threw 21 sliders, matching his second-highest total of the year, and got a season-high seven outs with the pitch. The Yankees put nine of Chen's sliders in play, hitting eight on the ground and popping the other up on the infield.
He went to his slider more as the game went on. The first time through the order, Chen threw his slider just 11 percent of the time (four sliders out of 36 pitches). He doubled his slider usage the next two-plus times through the order, accounting for 22 percent of his pitches in that stretch.
More than the sheer number of sliders he threw, Chen thrived against the Yankees Monday night because of where, how, and when he threw that pitch, and all his other offerings. With absolutely no hype behind him coming into the season and a number-five starter job on a last-place team as the likely best-case scenario, the 27-year-old Taiwanese import managed to crack the Opening Day rotation. By the time the season was done, he had worked his way up to number-two starter on one of the most unlikely playoff teams of the past decade. That season-long success came from that same ability to change speeds and locations.
Take Chen's battle with Russell Martin in the sixth. Here's how the pitch sequence went:
• 83-mph low-and-outside changeup that dies as it reaches the plate (ball one)
• 92-mph fastball clips the inside corner (strike one)
• 92-mph fastball on the outside corner causes Martin to swing himself out of his shoes (strike two)
• 92-mph fastball, low and inside (ball two)
• 85-mph changeup down the middle, fouled off (still 2-2)
• 92-mph fastball, knee-high, should be called strike three (called ball three instead)
• 79-mph, big, breaking slider on the outside corner
That final pitch got hit right to J.J. Hardy, who watched the ball helplessly roll through his legs. So what should have been a strikeout first and a ground out second instead became a Yankees baserunner. Still, Chen repeated similar patterns all night, finishing with 6⅓ innings pitched, two runs (one earned), eight hits, three strikeouts, and one walk. It was the kind of solid if unspectacular performance that gave the O's a chance to win late, something they did with sociopathic efficiency all year long. Chris Davis's two-run single in the third and Mark Reynolds's RBI single in the sixth gave Baltimore its 76th lead after seven innings this season. For the 76th time, that lead stood up: After getting torched in the ninth inning of Game 1, O's closer Jim Johnson retired the Yankees 1-2-3 this time, ending the game by striking out Alex Rodriguez on a filthy 96-mph sinker that New York's number-three hitter missed by about a foot.
A-Rod's spot in the order has become one of the biggest topics for debate as the series moves to New York. Plagued by injuries, Rodriguez hit just five homers in his final 51 regular-season games this year while uncharacteristically striking out nearly three times as often as he walked during that stretch. Among hitters with 300 or more plate appearances this year for the Yankees, A-Rod substantially out-hit just two teammates, 40-year-old Raul Ibanez and OBP-lacking catcher Russell Martin. On the other hand, the number-three spot in a batting order is overrated and multiple other Yankees (especially Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira) have had down years offensively, too. If Rodriguez's true talent lies at the power-starved level he showed in the second half, the Yankees might gain a tiny benefit from moving him down a few spots in the order. But the bigger issue for this team, both now and into next year, will be finding an elite offensive player to pair with Robinson Cano and to cover for the Yankees' aging and declining lineup. A lineup that scored 804 runs this year — their lowest total since 2008, which was also the last time they failed to make the playoffs
Other story lines to watch:
• Mark Reynolds's defense. A nuclear disaster at third base, Reynolds has looked a lot better since crossing to the other side of the diamond to play first this year, including on this robbery of Curtis Granderson in Game 1 of the ALDS. But Reynolds showed Monday that he still lacks experience at the job. After Derek Jeter led off the game with a single, Ichiro hit a chopper headed straight for Robert Andino. Instead of letting the ball roll to the second baseman, Reynolds ranged far to his right, tried to barehand the grounder, and booted it. The O's squirmed out of trouble when Andino pulled off a spectacular double play one batter later. Still, the Orioles ranked among the worst defensive teams in baseball this year, even though they are a little better now with both Reynolds and the now-injured Wilson Betemit moving their butchery off third base. It's easy to imagine a defensive miscue proving more costly at some point later this postseason.
• John Smoltz's mastery of the craft of broadcasting. As Johnson got set to fire a 2-2 pitch to A-Rod with two outs in the ninth, Smoltz dropped this pearl of wisdom on Johnson, and America: "Breathe! Don't forget, you've gotta breathe."