Monday, October 3, 2011
Three Strikes: Phillies-Cardinals edition
By Jayson Stark
As the Phillies and Cardinals head for Game 3 of their National League Division Series on Tuesday, Three Strikes takes a look at some of the plotlines weaving their way through this fascinating series.
Strike One -- Where We Stand
Tony La Russa, danger man that he is, took the biggest gamble of the NLDS on Sunday, had it blow up in his kisser and still came out looking like a genius.
"That's Tony," said one of his NL Central admirers Monday. "He's lucky and smart, all at the same time."
There's always a precise, ultralogical method to La Russa's madness. But the bottom line in Game 2 was that, when he ran Chris Carpenter out there on short rest for the first time Sunday, the manager needed that to go right.
And it went all wrong.
And that could have all but ended this series.
Instead, his team saved him, splicing together a remarkable comeback against Cliff Lee, stealing what might have been a season-saving game and leaving Carpenter in position to start a Game 5 for the ages Friday, on normal rest, against Roy Halladay.
Which left La Russa feeling like a guy who accidentally played the wrong numbers in the Powerball and wound up winning the jackpot anyhow.
But we'll let you in on a secret. When teams win games like the one the Cardinals won Sunday, it isn't so much the momentum and the confidence games like that breed that put their stamp on these postseason series.
It's the math. Yeah, the math.
"The most important thing was, it created a series," La Russa said Monday. "I mean, [if] we go down, 0-2, as optimistic as we are, that's a big, big hole. So it just got us excited."
And howwwwww excited should they be? Quite a bit, if history is any judge.
In the 48 division series since baseball adapted the current 2-2-1 format in 1999, 18 teams have lost the first two games of an LDS series on the road. Just two of those 18 -- the 2003 Red Sox and 1999 Red Sox -- recharged to win the series. That's 11 percent.
But eight teams have followed the Cardinals' script -- by winning Game 2 on the road after losing Game 1. And five of those teams went on to win the series. That's 62.5 percent.
So even though they may not have won Game 2 quite the way they envisioned, they've set themselves up perfectly to pull this off now. And that's the part that's gone exactly how the manager laid it out.
"What Tony's done," his "admirer" said, "is that he's put himself in the best pitching position he could be in without having Philadelphia's pitching. He said, 'What's my best chance to make this happen?' And the answer was to start Carpenter in Game 2 and be able to bring him back in Game 5. And that's exactly where they are right now."
Strike Two -- Jaime Garcia: Phillies' Kryptonite
La Russa also got massively second-guessed for not running Jaime Garcia out there in one of the first two games. But now that decision, too, is looking incredibly inspired.
Why? Because Garcia is probably the last pitcher the Phillies want to face in a game as pivotal as Game 3. Check out these tidbits:
• Garcia will enter this game with a 1.20 career ERA against the Phillies in four starts and two relief appearances. So how many active pitchers (who have started against them that many times) have a better ERA against the Phillies than Garcia? The correct answer is: NOBODY.
• But if you subtract Garcia's two relief appearances, which came back in 2008, you know what you find? His numbers against the Phillies get even better. In four starts against them in the past two seasons, he has allowed a TOTAL of three earned runs in 28 innings. That computes to a 0.96 ERA.
• In fact, Garcia has never made a start against the Phillies in which he allowed more than ONE earned run. And the only other active pitchers who have made four starts like that in a row against them are Hiroki Kuroda and Brad Penny -- neither of whom will be in attendance Tuesday.
But Garcia's success against the Phillies isn't just one of those things. He's a pitcher who matches up perfectly against the Phillies' lineup in several ways.
For one thing, he's left-handed. For another, he can off-speed them to death, which is, increasingly, the way teams shut them down. And finally, one scout said, "he's got a very unusual delivery for a left-hander."
"Most left-handers come from a lower slot," the scout said. "But he's a little higher. And it gives him this heavy, arm-side fade with his changeup and fastball, so he can be very tough on right-handed hitters, too. Right-handers have to take him to the opposite field, but that can be tough to do. And when he gets his breaking ball going, not a lot of left-handers can hit him."
So this scout's appraisal of the potentially precarious mess the Phillies have put themselves in by (A) losing Game 2, (B) having to face Garcia in Game 3 and (C) knowing they might have to deal with Carpenter (who had beaten the Phillies in five straight starts before Sunday) again in Game 5?
"I think they're in trouble," he said.
Strike Three -- In Other News ...
Other nuggets from this series:
• The chances of Matt Holliday doing anything more in this series than making a dramatic, Kirk Gibson-esque pinch-hitting appearance are dwindling. La Russa said Tuesday that Holliday's injured hand was in "significant pain" after his pinch-hit at-bat in Game 1. So La Russa said grimly: "It's more fun to be half-full than half-empty, but in this case, it's a little tougher to be optimistic."
• The Cardinals went 70-54 (a .565 winning percentage) and averaged 4.96 runs per game this year in games Halladay played. In the 38 regular-season games he missed, they went 20-18 (.526) and scored 3.87 runs per game.
• Charlie Manuel said he "probably" will start John Mayberry Jr. in left field Tuesday with a left-hander starting. Although Manuel has never conceded he has a platoon going with Raul Ibanez, Mayberry has been starting regularly against left-handed pitchers for weeks -- and has a .607 slugging percentage in 163 at-bats since getting called up on July 5. The only NL hitters who have been to the plate that many times since then and have a better slugging percentage than Mayberry are two guys you might have heard of -- Ryan Braun (.642) and Troy Tulowitzki (.618).
• Carpenter was only the second pitcher since 1995 to throw a complete game, then start a postseason game on short rest in his next start. The other didn't fare any better than he did. That was CC Sabathia, also in an NLDS Game 2 in Philadelphia (3 2/3 IP, 6 hits, 4 walks, 5 runs).
• Finally, Manuel made a point Monday of making the rounds in the Phillies' clubhouse, speaking with almost every significant member of his roster -- but not to talk about the urgency of winning Game 3. Instead, he mostly tried to make the players laugh, keep them loose and remind them how much they love playing in games like these.
"This is supposed to be a lot of fun," Manuel said. "We take it serious. But at the same time, I want us to be relaxed and focused on what we're doing. And we play better that way. And when we do that, that's what works for us."
There may not be another manager in baseball who uses the word "fun" more than Charlie Manuel. And it tells you a lot about him and about why his team always has tended to play so well in games like this.