Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Pujols' heads-up play turns Game 4

By David Schoenfield


We pretty much know everything about baseball players. We know how they hit at home and on the road, how they hit in clutch situations and in night games and against finesse pitchers and with two outs and runners in scoring position. We know how well they can hit sliders away, what their line-drive percentage is, their ability to turn the double play, how often they go first to third and how often runners go first to third on them. We can compare them to others and determine their value. We can predict with a good amount of accuracy how they'll perform next season.

But for the infinite amount of data points we track and digest and break down, there is a lot we can't measure that still goes into winning and losing baseball games. And thank goodness for that. Albert Pujols made one of those plays Wednesday in Game 4 of the Phillies-Cardinals National League Division Series, a play remarkable in its instinct and awareness, a play I can't imagine another first baseman even attempting. (Maybe I'm wrong there; I don't know. Maybe Keith Hernandez would have made such a play back in the day, or Don Mattingly.)

Chase Utley had walked leading off the sixth. Hunter Pence grounded deep in the hole to shortstop. It was going to be a bang-bang play at first. Utley kept going as he rounded second, but Pujols somehow sensed Utley's hustle, left the bag early when accepting the throw and gunned down Utley at third base. Pujols had magically turned a possible first-and-third situation with no outs into a far less dangerous situation. Edwin Jackson then retired Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino to preserve the Cardinals' 3-2 lead, which David Freese padded with a two-run blast to center field in the bottom of the inning.

Pujols chose risk over risk-averse. Maybe the smart play would have been to stretch for the throw and hope it nailed Pence. Certainly, the sabermetric take would be to take the out, especially with the strikeout-prone Howard on deck. Pujols opened up the potential for a big inning if he didn't make the play.

But this is where we throw the numbers aside and simply applaud Pujols for a great play. He doesn't have time to study the run probability factors as he sees Utley darting for third base. Instead, he made a play. Isn't that what October baseball is supposed to be about? (Also: I liked Utley's calculated gamble; he was trying to make a play as well. For him, it didn't work out, and maybe he'll be criticized and second-guessed, but for a team struggling to score runs, getting to third base would have been a key base in a one-run game.)

* * * *

What a series this has been. It deserves a Game 5, and we'll get it back in Philadelphia, with aces Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter facing off. It was nice to see Matt Holliday back in the St. Louis lineup (he went 1-for-3 with two runs scored Wednesday), although I'm not really sure he's any better at the plate right now than Allen Craig until he proves he can drive the ball.

One big difference for the teams is clearly the bench strength. While Tony La Russa has Craig or Holliday, plus Ryan Theriot or Skip Schumaker, the Phillies are basically left with Raul Ibanez or John Mayberry, whoever doesn't start in left, and unlikely Game 3 hero Ben Francisco (not sure why Charlie Manuel didn't hit Francisco or Mayberry for Ibanez against Arthur Rhodes leading off the seventh).

La Russa was able to get the matchups he wanted in Game 4 -- Rhodes against Ibanez and then Marc Rzepczynski against Ryan Howard in the eighth.

Howard struck out with the tying run on second, and if Game 5 is close, you know La Russa will save his two left-handed relievers for him (and maybe even Jaime Garcia for an out if needed). Howard is 0-for-11 with six strikeouts since his two-run single in the first inning of Game 2, and it seems imperative he do some sort of damage off Carpenter since he looks pretty helpless against lefties right now.

Of course, maybe the Phillies won't need many runs to back Halladay. Maybe they'll need only one. Maybe Albert Pujols will go yard. Maybe Chase Utley will do something. You can analyze and talk about odds and percentages, but it's October: We don't know what will happen. Somebody will have to make a play.