If the Los Angeles Dodgers are Hollywood’s team, then the script was in place: Clayton Kershaw, baseball’s best player in 2013, would dominate the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers would find a way to win Game 7, and then Kershaw would be in line to start Game 1 of the World Series. There, much like Sandy Koufax in 1965 or Orel Hershiser in 1988, he would carry the Dodgers to a championship, the best pitcher in the game living up to the moment.
Sorry, Hollywood: The Dodgers aren’t taking the Oscar home this year.
In a stunning Game 6, the Cardinals hit around Kershaw like he was a Class A pitcher making a token appearance in a meaningless spring training game. Instead of Cy Young, the Cardinals got Anthony Young. The third inning was an inning for the ages for the Cardinals, a horror show for the Dodgers. The Cardinals scored four runs as Kershaw threw 48 pitches -- it was the first time a team batted around against Kershaw since 2009. The National League pennant will once again be raised in St. Louis thanks to big names like Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina and unsung role players like Shane Robinson, who delivered the big hit in the inning.
Oh, yes, Michael Wacha: The rookie can flat-out pitch.
(For the obsessive historians out there, a reminder of Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, when a 20-year-old kid named Jim Palmer beat Koufax 6-0, in what would be the final game of Koufax’s career. Dodgers fans at least take solace in that Kershaw is not going to retire.)
The final score read 9-0, as Kershaw, perhaps mentally and physically shot after that third inning, allowed three straight hits to start the fifth and was done after 98 pitches. All three batters would score, giving him a final line of seven runs and 10 hits in four innings, just the fifth time in his career he has allowed seven or more runs.
Much of the immediate reaction on Twitter was to rip Yasiel Puig, who made two ill-advised throws in the third inning, but the throws ultimately had no impact in the chain of events. The inning was about the Cardinals’ hitters and their ability to fight off good pitches -- they fouled off 12 of those 48 pitches -- and their season-long ability to produce with runners in scoring position. They hit .330 with RISP, an all-time record, and while some will subscribe that number to luck or simply write it off as the kind of fluke thing can happen in baseball, it’s also clear that it happened as well due to skill and approach. In this day when hitters swing from their heels no matter the count or situation, willing to trade strikeouts -- lots of strikeouts -- for home runs, the Cardinals excel at that old-school stat that everyone loves to denigrate: batting average.
They put the ball in play and that leads to more hits. They had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors this season -- as they also did in 2011, when they won the World Series -- and if there’s a trend to watch in the playoffs these days, it’s that: not striking out. Since 2009, teams that had the lower strikeout rate in the regular season have won 23 of 29 postseason series. The statisticians may argue that the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions; maybe they’re right. But tell that to the Cardinals.
You saw all that in the third inning. They cut down on their swings. They go for base hits, content to trust the next guy in the order to drive in the run if necessary. They had just four swinging strikes out of those 48 pitches. Matt Carpenter got the rally going with one out with a marvelous 11-pitch at-bat, fouling off eight pitches before finally doubling on a slider. Yes, the Cardinals had a couple breaks in there: One hit bounced over the glove of second baseman Mark Ellis and Kershaw appeared to strike out Matt Adams on a 3-2 fastball at the knees. If he gets that call, it’s 2-0. Instead, Robinson hit a two-run single and it's 4-0 and the champagne was rolled outside the St. Louis clubhouse.
As for Wacha, we’ve been writing about him a lot lately. He pitched seven innings and allowed two hits. Going back to his final start of the regular season, when he had a no-hit bid broken up with two outs in the eighth, he’s made four starts, allowed one run and opponents are hitting .093.
And here’s more good news for the Cardinals: Clinching in Game 6 means Adam Wainwright will be ready to start Game 1 of the World Series and, since it doesn’t start until Wednesday, Wacha will be ready for Game 2.
Wainwright and Wacha and hitting with guys on base. It's a wonderful combination, isn't it?