Monday, October 24, 2011
World Series Weekend: A Tale of Two Games
By Jonah Keri
Two historic performances. Two stirring victories. And a World Series nowhere closer to being decided than it was three days ago.
The Cardinals struck first, routing the Rangers 16-7 in Game 3 before settling for a weekend split that left the series tied 2-2. For a while, the story of Game 3 figured to be almost anything other than Albert Pujols.
First, it was Allen Craig. The hero of Game 1 and near-hero of Game 2 strode to the plate in the first inning of Game 3 with one out. His first two times up in the series, he'd laced nearly identical outside fastballs from Alexi Ogando for RBI singles, giving the Cardinals the lead both times and proving to be the game-winner in Game 1. This time Craig got the start, with the series shifting to Arlington and American League rules allowing for an extra hitter. Yorvit Torrealba flashed the sign, Rangers starter Matt Harrison delivered and missed his spot by a foot. Craig blasted a long homer to left. Make it three at-bats, three hits, three runs knocked in for Craig. 1-0 Cardinals.
That was the only run scored through the first three innings of the game, as Harrison and Kyle Lohse threatened to treat us to a third straight pitcher's duel, this one far more unlikely given the lesser pedigree of the two starters. We were told that Matt Harrison had "calm eyes," and that Michael Young (and Derek Jeter) "play the game the right way," whatever any of that means. Then, after an Albert Pujols single to start the fourth inning, first-base umpire Ron Kulpa served up the worst call of this postseason.
Matt Holliday hit a ground ball that looked like a sure double play. After the Rangers got the force at second, Ian Kinsler fired to first, but well off-line. Mike Napoli, pressed into service at first base when the Rangers opted to catch Torrealba and play Michael Young at DH, snagged the throw, then tagged Holliday a step before he arrived at first. Standing no more than 10 feet away, Kulpa immediately made the call: Safe. It was an unthinkably bad call, the worst in any playoff game since The Don Denkinger Incident of '85 and one that could have easily been set straight with a 15-second review. Too bad baseball's attitude toward instant replay and other in-game, rule-enforcing technology remains stuck in the 19th century.
It's tough to play what-ifs in baseball. Pitchers pitch differently from the stretch than they do from the windup. Harrison may have become rattled, or simply changed his approach to combat a threat that wasn't supposed to happen. We can't assume that every event following Kulpa's gaffe would have played out the same way, whether or not Holliday was ruled safe. What we do know is that the inning changed entirely once Holliday was awarded first base. Lance Berkman slashed a single, then David Freese drove in the Cards' second run with a double to right. The defense would soon melt down, led by a Napoli error, and St. Louis would tack on four runs in an inning in which they might have scored none had the right call been made. (And if you do want to play what-ifs, Freese's line drive might have been caught had Kulpa called Holliday out, since the liner flew to the spot where Napoli would have been standing with Berkman on first and two outs, but not with him leaving Berkman unheld with first and second and one out.)
Kulpa's mistake may have changed the tenor of the game, but Pujols ensured that no Denkinger-level infamy would ever ensue. After singling in his second and third at-bats of the game, Pujols came up again in the sixth. The Kulpa inning had triggered a wave of scoring by both teams, with the Rangers offense coming alive against an overmatched Lohse, Nelson Cruz launching yet another postseason homer, and Texas trimming the Cardinals' lead to 8-6. Then with two on and one out, Pujols did this to a baseball.
With one swing, the following things became clear:
1. Alexi Ogando can no longer be trusted as a shutdown reliever. After throwing just 72 innings (and just three starts) over two levels of minor league ball and the majors last year, Ogando moved to the starting rotation this spring. After putting up big first-half numbers (strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 3:1, more than six innings per start) to go with some good fortune on balls in play, Ogando's luck and performance regressed in the second half. Fearing their man might be fatigued, the Rangers moved Ogando to the bullpen for the playoffs then worked the hell out of him, bringing him into high-leverage spots in nearly every game. In Game 3, the only batter he retired of the seven he faced, oddly, was his nemesis Craig (though Elvis Andrus' error on a routine grounder wasn't Ogando's fault). The bigger lesson here is that relief pitchers in general are unpredictable. Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas, Scott Feldman, and Jason Motte have all struggled in the past few games, after looking unbeatable at various points earlier in the playoffs. Bottom line: All relievers, even Mariano Rivera, fail sooner or later.
2. Pujols had earned a ridiculous reputation for coming up small in the World Series, with critics pointing to his .222/.391/.388 career line in World Series games, while conveniently ignoring his big numbers in other playoff contests, and the preposterously small sample of games on which they were drawing. But after two more homers before the night was through (tying Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players ever to homer three times in a World Series game), Pujols ended the game with a career World Series line of .310/.442/.651. Clearly lesson learned, and no one will ever judge a player based on a very small sample size again.
3. Pujols also set a World Series record with 14 total bases in a game. In keeping with the small-sample meme, we've been barraged by articles, tweets, and on-air commentary about players making or losing tens of millions of dollars based on the results of one pitch or one swing. Fair enough. According to my calculations, Albert Pujols' Game 3 performance means he now stands to make the GDP of the entire planet.
4. Pujols truly is El Hombre. Sorry, did we say El Hombre? We meant "El Hambre," as McCarver called him after the sixth-inning blast. The O.C. Register's Sam Miller reminds us that "El Hambre" means "the famine."
The story of Texas' 4-0 shutout in Game 4 was much simpler: defined by one moment, and one pitching effort for the ages.
Derek Holland supplied the pitching heroics. The 25-year-old lefty did go 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA in his first full season in the Rangers rotation this year. He also twirled four shutouts, tied with James Shields for most in the American League. But he'd had a mixed playoff track record in his short career, mixing 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Yankees in last year's ALCS and an effective start in this year's ALDS against the Rays with ugly performances against Tampa Bay and San Francisco last year and a blowup start against the Tigers this postseason. His claim to fame outside of Texas prior to last night's game was being the only Columbus Blue Jackets fan Peter Gammons had ever met, and for his tremendous nickname, The Dutch Oven.
But Holland showed the form that spurred him to those four shutouts this season, turning in arguably the second-best start by any pitcher this October, behind only Chris Carpenter's 1-0 complete-game shutout to knock out the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS. Holland tossed 8 1/3 monster innings, striking out seven and allowing just two hits to Lance Berkman, along with two walks and just one out that actually got out of the infield. He got help from some generous inside strike calls (courtesy of wait for it Ron Kulpa!) and the usual sparkling defense by Adrian Beltre. But he was also just dealing, mixing a fastball that flashed 95 mph all the way through his 116-pitch outing, along with a biting slider that netted multiple strikeouts, more than once by darting down to batters' ankles. The life on Holland's fastball also made his curve and occasional changeup that much tougher to pick up, leading to lots of weak contact, as well as nine swinging strikes. This was, without question, the greatest postseason pitching performance by a player whose nickname evokes farts ever.
The signature moment of Game 4, other than the mound conference with Holland walking off to wild applause, was Mike Napoli's Earl Weaver Special in the sixth. McCarver's peculiar raves notwithstanding, Edwin Jackson had pitched about as lousy a game as one can possibly pitch by allowing one run through 5 1/3, yielding seven walks, and producing a Game Score of just 46. Still, the Cards had a chance to escape the sixth down just one run, without charging more runs to Jackson's tally. But with the deadly Napoli due up next, Tony La Russa replaced Jackson with, arguably, his sixth- or seventh-best reliever. Mitch Boggs had tossed a shutout inning in Game 3, but only after ceding four runs over five innings earlier in the playoffs, and showing less-impressive results than several other Cardinals relievers this year. Oddly, during a postseason in which La Russa has almost always done everything in his power to get the absolute best matchup in high-leverage situations, he called on Boggs this time.
You can trace the roots of this move back to Saturday night's Game 3. The Rangers' offensive outburst knocked Lohse out of the game early, meaning La Russa would need to use multiple relievers just to finish the game, let alone play the usual Cardinals Matchup Mania. What was curious was which relievers were used, and how. After six innings, St. Louis led 12-6 — certainly not an insurmountable lead, but one big enough to feel comfortable giving work to your more underworked bullpen guys, both to make sure they're not rusty later, and especially to save your best arms for when they're needed later in the series. Yet after Lynn recorded one out in the seventh, La Russa turned to Octavio Dotel, who, as we've mentioned before, murders right-handed hitters and owns the highest strikeout rate among all relief pitchers with more than 800 innings at nearly 11 Ks per 9 IP. Dotel tossed 1 2/3 innings, all but ensuring he'd get either no work or minimal work in Game 4. With Lynn tossing 47 pitches in Game 3, Dotel tossing nearly two innings, and Salas getting lit up, La Russa had somehow managed to severely deplete his stock of righty relievers, despite carrying a huge 'pen featuring eight different arms. Why Jake Westbrook — a starting pitcher all year who could have thrown multiple innings and needed the work having not thrown all World Series — didn't pitch in lieu of Dotel on Saturday made little sense. Instead of Dotel vs. Napoli in a gigantic Game 4 spot, we then got Boggs instead. Oops.
Looking ahead to Game 5, we now know that Yadier Molina's playing badly hurt, that no one should ever throw half-groined Josh Hamilton a changeup, and we're reminded why Mitch Moreland shouldn't start any more games, his lousy bat not making up for his defensive superiority at first over Young. We remember that both teams' bullpens, while deep, are still vulnerable, and that C.J. Wilson stands to make $700 million on the free-agent market if he can produce his first quality start of the playoffs.
We look forward to a killer best-of-three duel, with open minds, full hearts, and of course, clear eyes.