Sunday, October 16, 2011
Cardinals bash bumbling Brewers
By David Schoenfield
I'm not going to suggest it was the single worst play in postseason history. Babe Ruth, for instance, once got caught stealing for the final out in Game 7 of the World Series, trailing by one run with the Yankees' cleanup hitter at the plate. Dropped fly balls and dropped pop-ups have led to winning runs in Game 7 of the World Series.
But when Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. tried to field a ground ball with his knee, then flip the bouncing baseball to second baseman Rickie Weeks with his glove, only to have the ball bounce in front of Weeks, and then to have Weeks see the ball go through his legs, with the runners moving up a base ... well, it was atrocious baseball at its worst. Two physical errors by Hairston, one mental error on Hairston for attempting the trick play in the first place when he had no shot to get the runner at second, and one mental error by Weeks for pulling up on the ball like a fourth grader taking infield practice.
So, no, I won't say it was the worst postseason play we've ever seen; that would be exaggeration just for effect. Plus, that play alone did not lose Game 6 of the National League Championship Series for the Brewers and prevent them from reaching the second World Series in franchise history. But, as the St. Louis Cardinals beat up Milwaukee 12-6 to win their 18th NL pennant, it symbolized a night that saw:
- Corey Hart boot a base hit in right field, just a few seconds before Hairston's triple blunder.
- Hart miss a cutoff man on a long-shot attempt to throw out Matt Holliday on a sacrifice fly to medium-deep right field, allowing runners to move up to second and third, with both scoring on Allen Craig's two-out pinch single in the third inning.
- Nyjer Morgan also miss a cutoff man, on a dubious attempt to throw out Albert Pujols going first to third on a base hit.
- Manager Ron Roenicke start Shaun Marcum, making Roenicke perhaps the only person around who had faith that Marcum would deliver a good start.
While Milwaukee's defense was questioned all season, it was also a questionable decision to stick with Marcum, who had been blistered in his two previous postseason starts and five of his past six starts going back to September. It's certainly understandable why Roenicke would believe in Marcum, who went 13-7 with a 3.54 ERA during the regular season. But Marcum clearly tired down the stretch, wasn't getting strikeouts and you had to question his mental state going back to the division series when he threw his glove up in the air after surrendering a home run to Paul Goldschmidt.
Sadly for the Brewers, his first inning was all too predictable: Four runs, capped by David Freese's three-run bomb to left on a first-pitch curveball (making Freese 7-for-9 with 10 RBIs in the series when swinging at the first pitch). For the Cardinals, it was another game in which they scored first, making them the first team to score first in all six games of a six-game series. Overall, St. Louis scored 11 runs in the first inning and four in the second.
There was a glimmer of hope for the Brewers in the bottom of the third when Jonathan Lucroy absolutely destroyed an Edwin Jackson fastball way over the fence in left-center to cut the lead to 5-4. But the Cardinals -- as they did all series -- just kept hitting and scored four in the top of third, as Albert Pujols lined a high fastball out to left off Chris Narveson, followed by the sac fly/missed cutoff man/two-run single string of events. Craig, hitting for Jackson, fought off a 94-mph fastball from LaTroy Hawkins, bouncing it over Hawkins' head and into center. Yuniesky Betancourt, shifted over in the hole toward third, had no shot at it; then again, it's Yuniesky Betancourt, and we saw balls all series going just out of his range.
But that pinch-hit was the finishing touch on a magical series for Tony La Russa. He saw the chance to score runs and took it, even if it meant removing Jackson from the game and using his bullpen for seven innings. Cardinals starters pitched just 24.2 innings in the series and allowed 19 runs. The bullpen, of course, was brilliant, pitching 28.2 innings and allowing seven runs. Three of those relievers were picked up during the season: Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski in the Colby Rasmus trade, and Arthur Rhodes off waivers after he was released by the Rangers.
The St. Louis pen, of course, had been maligned for much of the season, although it pitched much better after several early-season blown saves by former closer Ryan Franklin. But give La Russa credit for his willingness to adjust: Fernando Salas became the closer after Franklin, pitched well and saved 24 games. As Jason Motte got on a roll late in the season with his high-90s heat, La Russa made him the ninth-inning guy. Salas became a setup guy and then, as he did in this game, has become the team's long reliever of choice. So while most managers resort to using the back end of the bullpen early in games, even in loser-out games -- see Roenicke in this game, or Detroit's Jim Leyland in Game 6 of the ALCS -- La Russa can turn to a good pitcher who closed games earlier in the season.
Of course, the team the Cardinals will be facing in the World Series have a similar approach. Ron Washington has managed his Texas Rangers pitching staff in the postseason like La Russa: Turn over the game to the bullpen as soon as reasonably possible.
It should make for a fun World Series of tactical moves and decisions. Both teams have deep benches. The Cardinals have the red-hot Freese (12-for-22 with nine RBIs in the NLCS) and the Rangers have the red-hot Nelson Cruz (six home runs, 13 RBIs in the ALCS). What's perhaps most amazing of all: After losing on Aug. 24, the Cardinals were just 67-63. They were 11.5 games behind the Braves in the wild-card race.
Their season was over.
Almost over. They went 23-9 to make the playoffs on the final day as the Braves fell apart, a minor miracle essentially lost in all the attention given to the collapse of the Boston Red Sox.
Almost over. And now they're four wins away from a World Series title.
A great bullpen. David Freese delivering huge hits. Who saw this happening back in August?