SweetSpot: Jason Motte

Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.
The obvious answer here is: Well, of course, you do. Starters rarely throw complete games anymore in the postseason; in the past 10 postseasons we've had just 19 complete games. Only two starters have thrown more than one in that span: Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, with three apiece.

But what I'm really getting at: Can the Detroit Tigers reach and win the World Series without Jose Valverde closing games? Valverde had 35 of Detroit's 40 saves this season, but two disastrous outings against the A's and the Yankees clearly made Jim Leyland lose confidence in him.

So far that hasn't mattered, as Phil Coke has closed out the past two wins. Coke has a good arm -- and as we saw last night when he struck out Raul Ibanez, the ability to put away left-handed batters with that nasty slider -- but he didn't have a good season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 11 allowed more walks plus hits per inning than Coke. But maybe Leyland has discovered a hot hand. Sometimes that's all you need. Look at World Series champions during the wild-card era with some issues at closer.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA pair of disastrous outings appears to have cost Jose Valverde his role as Tigers closer.
2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Didn't pick up his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Remember, he wasn't perfect in the postseason, either. He gave up two runs in the ninth in Game 2 of the World Series as the Rangers won 2-1. And he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th on Josh Hamilton's home run in Game 6, only to be rescued in the bottom of the 10th when the Cardinals tied it up.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. When Jason Isringhausen got injured late in the season, the rookie got two saves the final week and then four in the postseason, as he pitched 9.2 scoreless innings.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie who started closing games after Dustin Hermanson got injured. Jenks had six saves in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, although the White Sox also threw four straight complete games in the ALCS.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A trade acquisition, Urbina eventually took over the closer role from Braden Looper. Jack McKeon used him extensively in the postseason -- 13 innings in 10 appearances (the Marlins played 17 games total). He did pick up four saves, although he also had two blown saves in the playoffs and allowed five runs in 13 innings.

2001 Diamondbacks: Byung-Hyun Kim. Kim had a good regular season and did pick up three saves before falling apart in the World Series, but this team rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson all the way.

The point being: You don't need your closer to be perfect to win it all. The Tigers lost Game 4 against the A's, but won Game 1 against the Yankees and certainly have a shot to win it all. It is worth noting that all the pitchers above had much better regular-season numbers than Coke. Valverde did pick up a save earlier against the A's, so another question: Since the wild-card era began, has a team won the World Series with different relievers closing out games?

Yes. Sort of.

In 1995, Mark Wohlers was Atlanta's closer. But after he allowed a home run and a double to begin the ninth in Game 4, Bobby Cox used lefty Pedro Borbon for the final three outs in a 5-2 game. Three other teams also won a World Series with more than one pitcher getting a save during their postseason runs, but the saves came in unique circumstances. Ramiro Mendoza got a save for the Yankees in 1999, coming in during the eighth inning of a 4-1 game and staying in for the ninth when it was 6-1. Looper got a save for the Marlins in 2003 in the 11th inning of an National League Championship Series game and Mark Buehrle got a save in the 14th inning of a World Series game for the White Sox.

What Leyland will have to do is rather unique in recent postseason annals. As Paul Swydan wrote today Insider on ESPN Insider, using multiple closers wasn't so unique prior to the wild-card era. Maybe Leyland sticks with Coke. I suspect we'll see Octavio Dotel or Joaquin Benoit at some point.

It won't be as easy as running Mariano Rivera out there, but it can done. It just requires a little thinking outside the box. And if any manager is capable of that, it's Leyland. Remember, this is a guy who with the Pirates once started a relief pitcher in a playoff game.

We just witnessed one of the most amazing games in postseason history. Whether this game will eventually earn itself a place alongside other legendary games remains to be seen -- after all, Cardinals-Nationals doesn’t quite have the same buzz to it as Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants -- but I can assure you this: None of us has ever seen this before.

No team had ever rallied from more than four runs down to win a sudden-death postseason game, and only two teams had done that -- the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the, yes, Washington Senators, and the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals made history in remarkable fashion.

Of course, that means, with the 9-7 loss, the Washington Nationals made history in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.

I had an entire post written, telling Nationals fans that winning in the postseason isn’t easy, that even holding a six-run lead is never easy, that playoff baseball makes your stomach churn and all that.

I wrote that assuming they would hold on to the lead. Even after Gio Gonzalez once again lost the ability to throw a ball over home plate and the Cardinals scored three runs. Even after Edwin Jackson was for some reason summoned from the bullpen to pitch an inning and allowed a run. Even after Daniel Descalso homered in the eighth off Tyler Clippard to make the score 6-5. But when the Nationals added an insurance run in eighth, it felt like Nationals fans could finally breathe.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Descalso
AP Photo/Nick WassDaniel Descalso, right, drove home the tying runs, then scored the final one of the Cards' comeback.
On the other hand, as Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma -- a man apparently of few words -- said after delivering the go-ahead two-run single: "Never give up."


* * * *

Friend of mine after the game, not a Cardinals fan or Nationals fan: “If the Mariners ever lost a game like this, I'd be in a hospital.”

Postseason baseball is the most exhilarating ride in sports.

Postseason baseball is the cruelest of sports.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran is awesome. He singled in the first, walked and scored in the fourth, walked in the fifth when the Cardinals scored twice off Gonzalez, doubled in the seventh to move Jon Jay to third (Jay would score), doubled to deep right-center off Drew Storen leading off the ninth. What a game. Five plate appearances, five times on base. One of the great sudden-death game performances a hitter has had.

* * * *

Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Grady Little and company, Jose Mesa, the guy pitching in the Francisco Cabrera game (actually it was two, Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda), David Cone and Black Jack McDowell … and, yes, even Mariano Rivera. And now Drew Storen.

* * * *

Yadier Molina had a terrific at-bat in the ninth inning with two outs and Beltran on second. He was 2-for-18 in the series when he stepped in and had left the bases loaded in the fifth, flying out to right field on a 2-0 fastball from Gonzalez. The pitch sequence:

Slider low.
Fastball fouled back. (Fans standing, cheering, mustering strength to wave their red towels, two strikes away!)
Fastball outside.
A 96-mph fastball fouled away. (One strike away!)
A slider that dipped low. I don’t know how Molina held up. Tremendous pitch awareness and bat control.
Fastball high.

From the moment that Allen Craig struck out, Storen threw 12 pitches, any of which could have ended the game. Six pitches to Molina. Six more to David Freese, who also walked. The 13th pitch was a 94 mph fastball that Descalso ripped hard up the middle, off the glove of Ian Desmond, the ball bounding far enough into center field to easily score pinch runner Adron Chambers with the tying run.

* * * *

Kozma, a guy who hit .232 in Triple-A, playing only because of the September injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal, then lined a 2-2 fastball into right field to score two more runs. (Descalso had smartly stolen second base).

Washington manager Davey Johnson could have walked Kozma once Descalso stole second base. Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth inning, was due up next, although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had sent backup catcher Tony Cruz, the last player left on the bench, to the on-deck circle as a decoy. He’d be entering the game anyway for Molina, who had been run for. Kozma has been pretty hot, hitting .333 for the Cardinals during his September call-up and homering earlier in this season.

Johnson could have put Kozma on and pitched to Cruz, which would have served two purposes: Force Matheny to bat Cruz, a guy who hit .254/.267/.365 in 126 at-bats, but also a guy without an at-bat in nine days. More importantly, it would have likely forced Matheny to pull Motte. Matheny already used Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs, so that would have meant the Cardinals would be using, at best, their fifth-best reliever in the ninth.

Huge mistake by Johnson and I can only guess he was in such a state of shock he didn’t have time to think the situation through properly.

* * * *

Yes, the Nationals could have used Stephen Strasburg. That’s obvious. Whether that lost the series for them is debatable. But I’m pretty sure he would have helped somewhere along the line.

Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.

Cards hope Motte closes another one out

October, 5, 2012
The game was not important. The St. Louis Cardinals had clinched the poor-man's wild card the night before, and the Reds were already division champs. Heck, for this, their final regular-season game, the Cardinals featured a Triple-A lineup, with rookie Matt Carpenter batting cleanup. But after the team took the lead in the eighth inning, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny summoned his fireman, Jason Motte, to finish the game. With Motte recording all of the team's saves this year, who else would save it?

In wrapping up the final two outs of the win, Motte became only the seventh pitcher since writer Jerome Holtzman codified the save in 1960 (MLB officially adopted it in 1969) to ride to the rescue for all of his team's saves:

Year Team Pitcher Manager
2012 St. Louis Cardinals Jason Motte Mike Matheny
2008 Cincinnati Reds Francisco Cordero Dusty Baker
2008 San Diego Padres Trevor Hoffman Bud Black
2008 San Francisco Giants Brian Wilson Bruce Bochy
2002 San Francisco Giants Robb Nen Dusty Baker
1996 San Francisco Giants Rod Beck Dusty Baker
1974 Texas Rangers Steve Foucault Billy Martin

Only recently did Motte even realize that he was the team's saves lone ranger. "Zep (fellow reliever Marc Rzepczynski) told me the other day," he said. When asked if he knew how many closers had accomplished the "feat," Motte came nearly as close as one of his riding fastballs in on the batter's hands: "I don't know -- five?"

But save exclusivity is as much a function of the manager as it is the reliever, and Motte credits his rookie manager with inspiring confidence. "He [Matheny] is always telling me 'Keep your head up. You're the guy I want back out there.'"

Does that mean the first-year manager is loathe to use other options and open himself to second-guessing? That's possible, but given Matheny's company -- Dusty Baker, Billy Martin and Bruce Bochy -- relying on one closer hardly seems the crutch of a novice. Coincidentally, the man responsible for half of the exclusive-closer seasons -- Baker -- was in the opposite dugout from Motte and Matheny on Wednesday. (Though Baker has relied on Aroldis Chapman for 38 saves, he has also used six others this season.)

Single-suiting your closer doesn't appear to confer any sort of advantage or disadvantage (three of the teams won at least 84 games; four teams lost at least 88). But most of the time, the pitchers entrusted with the responsibility merit their role. League save percentage is typically around 67 percent, but the sole closers have been above-average in dispatching their duties:

Year Tm Pitcher Sv%
2012 St. Louis Cardinals Jason Motte 86%
2008 Cincinnati Reds Francisco Cordero 85%
2008 San Diego Padres Trevor Hoffman 88%
2008 San Francisco Giants Brian Wilson 87%
2002 San Francisco Giants Robb Nen 84%
1996 San Francisco Giants Rod Beck 83%
1974 Texas Rangers Steve Foucault 60%

Things were different back in the '70s (in more ways than one), and Steve Foucault's season wasn't quite as bad as his 60 percent save rate seemed (the league average was only 61 percent), partly because of the "save inflation" effect of so-called "Nen saves" (three-run lead, nobody on base in the ninth inning). For example, in 1974 Foucault had roughly the same average game leverage index (a stat that attempts to quantify pressure situations in which 1.00 is average) -- 1.82 -- as this year's most-pressured reliever, Addison Reed -- 1.89 -- yet he was tied for 16th in baseball. (And in fairness to Nen, he had the highest average gmLI in baseball in 2002.)

Could it be a matter of a lack of alternatives? That's possible, but occasionally the manager's most-trusted second option (by game LI, min. 25 innings pitched), had a comparable ERA and/or fielding-independent pitching ERA:

Year Closer gmLI ERA FIP Setup man gmLI ERA FIP
2012 Jason Motte 1.71 2.75 3.12 Edward Mujica 1.37 1.03 2.34
2008 F. Cordero 1.57 3.33 3.77 David Weathers 1.19 3.25 4.36
2008 T. Hoffman 1.84 3.77 3.99 Heath Bell 1.57 3.58 3.34
2008 Brian Wilson 2.04 4.62 3.93 Tyler Walker 1.57 4.56 4.24
2002 Robb Nen 2.02 2.20 1.97 Felix Rodriguez 1.45 4.17 3.66
1996 Rod Beck 1.77 3.34 4.04 Mark Dewey 1.16 4.21 4.86
1974 S. Foucault 1.82 2.24 2.77 Don Stanhouse 0.41 4.88 4.40

Baseball people are notoriously creatures of habit, so it may be as simple as a manager doing what works until it doesn't. In the Cardinals' case, Matheny recently settled on a seventh-eighth-ninth-inning cadence of Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Motte.

"Those outs (in the seventh and eighth) are just as important [as the ninth]," Motte said. "Sometimes those guys come in and face 3-4-5, then we get a couple of runs, and I get the save. And people say, 'Hey, ooh, you got the save,'" he says with mocking hands in the air. "But if not for the work those guys did, I'm not doing what I'm doing."

And, to be available for a save situation, as Motte notes, "A lot of it's just timing." But sometimes the timing backfires. The down side of using one pitcher for every possible save situation -- including the three-run leads -- is that he is unavailable for the times when you really need him, as Matheny found out to his chagrin recently in Chicago. Motte had pitched in the previous three games -- including the "save" in a 5-0 win over the hapless Astros. Until then, Motte had been the only pitcher who Matheny trusted to even attempt a save in the ninth inning or later. (Fernando Salas blew the save.)

To Matheny's credit, he has occasionally used Motte in the eighth inning for high-leverage plate appearances. Much is made of relievers knowing their roles, and though Motte concedes that it's important, "I just worry about getting the guy at the plate; it doesn't matter what inning." He adds, "It sounds cliché, but I just want to win."

If the Cardinals get past Friday's play-in game and perhaps repeat what they did in last year's playoffs, they'll lean on Motte again. How many consecutive games could he pitch? "Well, I felt fine for that game (on Sept. 21). Sometimes you go out there and you want to throw a thousand [mph], but hitting your spots is as important as speed. I can feel really good, but if I throw it middle-middle these guys are going to hit it. Slider low and away? Got it."

Cardinals' unhappy formula for failure

September, 16, 2012

If there’s one takeaway where the defending world champs are concerned, it’s this: Even wounded, these Cardinals could still fly. Most teams, you scratch a No. 1 starter, a leadoff man and a cleanup hitter, and you might expect them to be long since dead in the water. But even without Chris Carpenter, without Rafael Furcal, without Lance Berkman -- all of that in the post-Pujols era -- no matter how many blows the Cards take, they aren’t dead, not by a long shot.

The big question, though, isn’t why they’re still going, but why they’re not ahead just the same. With a record that is games worse than expected, they’re supposed to be able to lose games like Saturday night’s -- a 4-3 defeat in Los Angeles -- and not break a sweat. But that’s not where they are. Instead, they’ve fallen into a tie with the Dodgers for the National League’s last slot.

It isn’t supposed to have worked out this way. Allen Craig plated every run the Cardinals scored, a Pujolsian feat that also reflects a creeping problem for the Cards’ offense: The league-leading attack that had been scoring 5 runs per game before the All-Star break has dropped off to score 4.4 runs per game since. They were allowing 4.2 runs before the break, and they’re at 4.0 runs allowed per nine after, but because of the offense’s drop-off, the margins they get to work with have narrowed.

The first-half question over why the Cardinals weren’t doing as well as they should has become more persistent in the second half, and after a swing game like Saturday’s, the uncomfortable questions are unavoidable.

Is it the manager? Rookie manager Mike Matheny’s under fire, but he was tasked with the impossible task of following in Tony La Russa’s footsteps as the old mast heads down the road to Cooperstown. It’s easy to single out the Cardinals’ record in one-run games -- now 18-25 -- and assert that some better manager to be named later would do better than that.

But that’s looking for a fall guy, and Matheny may not really deserve that, save as a matter of expectations as the first-year skipper managing a defending world champ. Any suggestion that La Russa might be the Cardinals’ missing man most missed might have needed one particular proof this night: Would the bullpen deliver? Love it or hate it, that’s the gold standard by which most managers get judged by many commentators and fans, because ’pen management is the one task that’s transparent to the public.

After getting a good game from Jaime Garcia, without getting too clever playing matchup games Matheny ran through his crew in straightforward style: Edward Mujica to Mitchell Boggs to Jason Motte ... and Motte blew it, giving up a two-out double in the ninth to Luis Cruz for the tie, then gave up the game-losing single to Juan Rivera.

There was no special brand of genius involved, just a scripted set-up gone wrong: Closer tasked with closing, leaves the door open, then sees it blown off its hinges. If Matheny’s to be judged, it’s by exactly the same standard that Casey Stengel suggested back in the day, in happier circumstances after winning the 1958 World Series: “I couldna dunnit without the players.”

To Matheny’s credit, he managed other elective tasks just fine on Saturday night. Swapping around in the middle infield midgame is the Cardinals’ lot. Early on they paid the penalty of making Daniel Descalso a shortstop as a matter of need: His first error in the first inning created the Dodgers’ first score. With second baseman Descalso playing short and converted outfielder Skip Schumaker starting at second, the Cards have been sacrificing defense to put their best available players in the lineup. Is that on Matheny? No more than the subsequently regretted decision to dump key utilityman Tyler Greene on the Astros.

With a lead six frames into the game, out came Schumaker, in came good-glove Pete Kozma at shortstop, and Descalso slid back to his natural position. Lineup management isn’t particle physics. Inveterate tinkerer La Russa may be history in every sense of the word, but this sort of lineup tinkering can still go on without him as Matheny tries to compensate for losing Furcal.

Given the Cardinals’ increasingly narrow margins, watching every run, every opportunity, forces Matheny to make tough calls. You can’t really blame him for the choices he made, given the options he had. No less than the bullpen blowing the game, you can’t blame him too badly for having Descalso at short. The agony for the Cardinals right now is that it’s adding up to just enough to lose.

Jason MotteHarry How/Getty ImagesWell that Jason Motte might cover his face after blowing the save on Saturday night.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

There are few events in baseball more exciting than Opening Day. Or Opening Night. Er … let’s just go directly to some observations from the Cardinals’ 4-1 victory over the Marlins, ushering in Marlins Park in disappointing fashion for the home crowd onlookers.

  • Kyle Lohse was brilliant, of course, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning and reminding everyone of Bob Feller's Opening Day no-hitter. Lohse said after the game that the no-hitter "probably did cross my mind after the fifth inning." He doesn’t throw hard, keeping hitters off-balance with a little slider and a changeup that he kept at the knees at night. Lohse had the best season of his career in 2011, although there was some luck built into it: He allowed a .269 average on balls in play, well below his career mark of .302. There’s nothing in the numbers that suggests he was doing something different -- his ground-ball rate matched his career and his line-drive rate was actually 1.1 percent higher than his career mark. Everyone expects some regression in 2012, but his first start was more 2011. No walks on the night and through six he threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of the 18 batters he faced. Hitters should know Lohse will come right after them when the bases are empty. He walked only 10 hitters last season in 469 plate appearances with nobody on; with runners, he walked 32 in 306 plate appearances.
  • Josh Johnson allowed 10 hits for only the second time in his career. While a few of the hits were bleeders and bloopers, he did leave some pitches over the middle of the plate. We can’t read too much into the start other than that he threw 91 pitches, avoided the blister issue that popped up in spring training and has his first start under his belt. Undoubtedly, he was pumped up pitching the first game in the club’s new park in his first start since last May. There's no reason not to expect better results moving forward.
  • There was miscommunication in the early innings between Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes as both pulled up on Carlos Beltran’s little trickler, allowing the ball to roll into left field. In the sixth inning with two runners on and Lohse up in a bunt situation, Johnson made sure to step off the mound and talk with Ramirez. That stuff will sort itself out, but the Marlins’ defense is an issue to keep an eye on. The Cardinals legged out two doubles to Logan Morrison in left field on balls that weren’t really even in the gaps. As Orel Hershiser said during the broadcast, "A lot of scouts are writing notes down about the arm of Logan Morrison." It doesn’t help that Morrison is still battling a sore knee that kept him out most of spring training, but he was a liability out there in 2011 even when healthy. According to the defensive runs saved metric, Morrison was 26 runs worse than the average left fielder -- the worst mark in the majors (only Raul Ibanez was in the same vicinity) and a whopping 46 runs worse than Brett Gardner’s majors-leading 23 DRS. There is a lot of ground to cover in deep left-center and center in the new park. In Emilio Bonifacio, the Marlins have an inexperienced center fielder (only 29 games started there in his career entering the season). Chris Coghlan, their other center fielder, rated minus-13 runs in 2011, the worst figure in the majors.
  • [+] EnlargeKyle Lohse
    AP Photo/Lynne SladkyOpening night of the 2012 season found Kyle Lohse (26) looking a lot like his 2011 self.

  • Giancarlo Stanton found out about those center-field dimensions, hitting two deep balls out there that were caught, a towering fly to the warning track in the fifth inning and a deep fly to right-center in the seventh that Jon Jay made a nice running catch on. It’s obviously too early to report on how the park will play, and it might play differently when the roof is open versus closed.
  • Jason Motte threw some 99 mph smokebombs to finish it off. A bit of a step up from Ryan Franklin.
  • For a while, Lohse had us thinking about the best Opening Day starts. Via Baseball-Reference.com, here are the best Game 1 starts since 1918:
    Walter Johnson, Senators, 1926: 111 (15 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 K)
    Lon Warneke, Cubs, 1934: 96 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 13 K)
    Bob Veale, Pirates, 1965: 95 (10 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K)
    Mel Harder, Indians, 1935: 95 (14 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 6 K)
    Johnny Vander Meer, Reds, 1943: 91 (11 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 3 K)

    Six pitchers scored a 90: Bob Feller twice (including his 1940 no-hitter in which he walked five and struck out eight), Tom Glavine, Bob Gibson, Clint Brown and Johnson again with a 13-inning effort in 1919. The best recent effort was Felix Hernandez striking out 12 in eight shutout innings in 2007. Camilo Pascual holds the Opening Day record with 15 strikeouts for the Twins in 1960. Randy Johnson twice fanned 14 for the Mariners.

  • Opening Night down. Opening Day up next. Good times have arrived.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
As a little follow-up to Wednesday's post on Ryan Madson being a risky signing, I wanted to add a few more comments. It's important to note that the Phillies, with an aging roster, have a more urgent need to win now. Thus, if they believe Madson to be an integral key to their chances of winning the World Series, they should be more willing to take on the long-term risk for an immediate return. And it may be a necessary evil to overpay to secure Madson's services.

The question then becomes: Do they need Madson? The two parts to that question: (A) Is there an obvious internal solution if Madson leaves? (B) Do you need a great closer to win the World Series?

For the first part, the answer is probably no, although Antonio Bastardo was dominant in a set-up role for most of last season before tiring down the stretch and Michael Stutes showed potential as a solid middle guy. Either could probably do a passable job as the closer, but maybe not enough to make Charlie Manuel comfortable (although don't forget the Phillies reached the World Series in 2009 despite Brad Lidge going 0-7 with an ERA over 7.00).

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera aside, a great closer doesn't necessarily produce great results in the postseason.
For the second part, I want to begin with a somewhat arbitrary list of the best closers over the past 15 seasons -- those who did it year after year, the kind of closer you'd be theoritically comfortable giving a long-term contract of around $40 million:

1. Mariano Rivera: Four World Series titles (plus one as a set-up guy).
2. Trevor Hoffman: Reached one World Series (lost).
3. Billy Wagner: Never reached World Series.
4. Joe Nathan: Never reached World Series.
5. Francisco Rodriguez: Won one World Series (as a set-up guy).
6. Jonathan Papelbon: Won one World Series.
7. Francisco Cordero: Never reached World Series (in fact, has never appeared in a postseason game).
8. Robb Nen: Reached two World Series, won one.
9. Troy Percival: Won one World Series (only year in postseason).
10. Armando Benitez: Reached one World Series (lost).

Leaving Rivera aside for a moment due to his one-of-a-kind status (and keep in mind he blew potential series-closing saves against the Indians in 1997, the Diamondbacks in 2001 and the Red Sox in 2004), here's the postseason record of the other nine guys: 40 saves, 25 blown saves. Even removing Benitez (a couple of his blown saves came as a set-up guy), you get 36 saves and 19 blown saves. In other words -- even the best closers have failed a third of the time in the postseason. There's no guarantee Madson would be any different from this group.

Now ... that doesn't mean you don't need or want a good closer to win a World Series. If we combine the regular-season statistics of the past 10 World Series champion closers, we get a 2.12 ERA with 261 saves and 25 blown saves. In the postseason, the 10 relievers went a combined 4-1, with a 1.26 ERA and 49 saves in 56 opportunities. This group of relievers were terrific during the regular season and pretty dominant in the postseason.

BUT ... the list includes two rookies, a midseason trade acquisition, a 24th-round draft pick and two converted minor league catchers. Closers can come from anywhere and World Series closers tend to be guys on a hot streak as much as a proven commodity. Here's the list of those 10:

2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Converted minor-league catcher. Became the team's third closer of the season in late August. Stats: 5-2, 2.25 ERA, 9 saves.

2010 Giants: Brian Wilson. A 24th-round draft pick who spent two years in middle relief and held on to his closer's job despite a 4.62 ERA in his first year in the position in 2008. Stats: 3-3, 1.81 ERA, 48 saves.

2009 Yankees: Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer of all time. Stats: 3-3, 1.76 ERA, 44 saves.

2008 Phillies: Brad Lidge. Acquired from Astros for prospect Michael Bourn. Stats: 2-0, 1.95 ERA, 41 saves.

2007 Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon. Fourth-round pick, became the team's closer his first full season. Stats: 1-3, 1.85 ERA, 37 saves.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. A rookie reliever pressed into closing games when veteran Jason Isringhausen became unavailable due to injury. Stats: 2-1, 3.12 ERA, 3 saves.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie, he had six saves during the regular season after Dustin Hermanson was injured. Stats: 1-1, 2.75 ERA, 6 saves.

2004 Red Sox: Keith Foulke. A free-agent signing in 2004 after saving 43 games with the A's in 2003. Stats: 5-3, 2.17 ERA, 32 saves.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A midseason trade acquistion from the Rangers for a prospect named ... Adrian Gonzalez. Stats: 3-0, 1.41 ERA, 6 saves (with Marlins).

2002 Angels: Troy Percival. Veteran closer had converted from catcher in the minor leagues. Stats: 4-1, 1.92 ERA, 40 saves.

Does this mean the Phillies shouldn't sign Madson or the Red Sox shouldn't sign Papelbon? Not necessarily; I think the question is more: Is the money that would be spent for a good closer worth it? You need a good closer to win a World Series, but there's no guarantee your good closer will actually push you to a World Series title, if that makes sense. It's a little bit of a luck thing to a certain extent -- hope you get lucky and that a rookie steps up at the right time (Wainwright, Jenks) or that your good middle reliever elevates his game in October (Motte) or that your GM can make a deal if necessary (Urbina). Sometimes it's merely hoping that a guy who is consistent has the season of his life (Lidge).

Me? If money is an issue, I'd try and spend the $40 million in other places.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
CardinalsSteve Mitchell/US PresswireThe St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their 11th World Series title, beating the Texas Rangers in Game 7.

ST. LOUIS -- You fight through the monotony of fielding practice in spring training. The sore elbows, the back pain, the starts when you leave your fastball in the bullpen, and maybe a surgery or two at some point in your career.

Chris Carpenter missed an entire season with shoulder surgery. He missed another season after injuring his elbow on Opening Day and undergoing Tommy John surgery. When the St. Louis Cardinals reached the World Series in 2004, he couldn’t pitch due to nerve problem in his right biceps.

A couple days ago, Tony La Russa wasn’t sure if Carpenter would be able to pitch Game 7. For one thing, the Cardinals had to win Game 6. La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan didn’t officially decide to go with Carpenter until Friday, going with their staff ace on three days’ rest.

There was a time, of course, when that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Christy Mathewson once tossed three shutouts in the World Series over a six-day span. Sandy Koufax pitched a three-hit shutout in 1965 on two days’ rest. Jack Morris’ famous 10-inning shutout in 1991 came on three days’ rest.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
Jeff Curry/US PresswireOn short rest, Chris Carpenter gave up two runs on six hits in six innings to win the clincher.
But Carpenter had only done that once before in his career -- three weeks ago, in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. He lasted three innings. It wasn’t pretty. He said he’d learned a few things from that experience. La Russa made the call: Go with the big guy, the 6-foot-6, 36-year-old veteran from New Hampshire with a scruffy growth of beard, and on this day, in the biggest game of his career, a toolbox full of pitches.

The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers 6-2 in a Game 7 of the World Series that couldn’t match the impossible drama and excitement of Game 6. The Rangers played hard, but their pitching staff simply ran out of gas, exemplified by the Cardinals’ fifth inning, when they scored two runs without getting the ball out of the infield -- without even getting a hit. Rangers pitchers walked three batters and hit two more, turning a 3-2 game into a 5-2 deficit. Critics will put a lot of blame on manager Ron Washington for the Rangers’ defeat, and deservedly so, but in the end the Rangers simply couldn’t throw enough strikes and couldn’t get the final out they needed in Game 6.

On this night, however, the Cardinals made the big plays: David Freese with another clutch hit, a two-out stinging double into the gap in left-center to score two runs in the first (giving the World Series MVP a postseason record 21 RBIs); Allen Craig with a go-ahead home run in the third, fighting back from a 1-2 count to hit a 3-2 Matt Harrison fastball into the St. Louis bullpen in right-center; Craig later robbing Nelson Cruz of a home run.

But the key was Carpenter. "Dave had a real heart-to-heart with him to gauge just how ready he was to pitch just physically, not mentally, but physically," La Russa said before the game. He then added, "The last thing is ... what he means to our club. I think our guys feel better about him starting than anybody."

Carpenter pitched into the seventh and became the first pitcher to win two do-or-die games in one postseason, after also winning Game 5 of the division series. No, it won't quite go down alongside Mathewson and Koufax and Morris, but it was a terrific effort, especially since he almost didn’t get out of the first inning. The first four batters all reached base as Carpenter fell behind each hitter. But Ian Kinsler slipped while taking an aggressive secondary lead and Yadier Molina picked him off. The play proved enormously costly when Elvis Andrus walked and Josh Hamilton and Michael Young doubled to right field. Carpenter struck out Adrian Beltre and got Cruz to ground, maybe the two key at-bats of the game.

From there, the St. Louis' bullpen mowed down the Rangers, Busch Stadium getting louder and louder with each out, erupting when Arthur Rhodes retired Yorvit Torrealba and Octavio Dotel struck out Kinsler, raising the decibel level when Lance Lynn fanned Beltre to end the eighth, the anticipation building into a loud chant of "Let's Go Cards!" in the ninth and the crowd releasing into a deafening explosion of joy as Jason Motte recorded the final out on a fly ball to left field.

Maybe Game 7 was over as soon Freese hit his home run onto the grass in Game 6. Many people said it was. I didn't think that was the case; I thought the Rangers had a chance. You make your own breaks, but the Rangers sure didn't catch any: Craig steps in for the injured Matt Holliday and has a great game; that 3-2 pitch to Molina with the bases loaded in the fifth could have been called a strike and changed the momentum of the game.

But give credit to Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that could have given up in early September. A team that made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, that needed to beat Roy Halladay just to reach the National League Championship Series, that was down to its final strike twice in Game 6, and figured out how to win the World Series. A worthy champion and one to be remembered.

* * * *

Of course, this World Series will also be remembered for the many questionable decisions by Washington, moves that led to the Rangers suffering one of the most painful defeats in World Series history. Before we get to that, keep this in mind: Rangers pitchers walked 41 batters, a World Series record worst. They walked six more in Game 7. Too many walks, too many walks.

  • Washington didn't help matters by issuing another ill-timed intentional walk. I said it all series long: the intentional walks were going to come back to haunt the Rangers. A free pass to Lance Berkman hurt the Rangers in Game 6. In Game 7, Washington walked Freese with runners on second and third, which was followed by Scott Feldman's walk to Molina and then C.J. Wilson hitting Rafael Furcal to force in another run.
  • I didn't necessarily have a problem with using Feldman to start the fifth. The best option might have been Mike Adams, but Washington hasn't shown a lot of confidence in Adams' ability to go more than three outs. He was hoping Feldman could get him a couple innings. (Needless to say, using Alexi Ogando would have been a likely disaster).
  • Washington's decision to have Andrus bunt in the top of the fifth after Kinsler's leadoff single was odd. Down by one on the road, top of the order, giving up an out? Play for one, get none. Carpenter got Hamilton to pop out to third on a 3-1 fastball -- Freese made a nice catch as he leaned over the dugout railing and stumbled to the ground -- and struck out Young on a 1-2 cut fastball.
  • In the bottom of the fourth, St. Louis up 3-2, Molina and Furcal singled with one out, bringing up Skip Schumaker and Carpenter. Washington had Feldman warming up, but it made sense to leave in Harrison at that point since Schumaker is a career .210 hitter against left-handers. Schumaker grounded out to first to move up the runners, leaving La Russa with a choice: Hit for Carpenter? There were calls on Twitter to do so. At that point he’d thrown 63 pitches, 34 for strikes, but had retired 11 of the previous 14 Rangers hitters. I thought it was too early remove Carpenter, who had settled down, and especially considering La Russa's own bullpen didn't have a lot of pitches left in it.
  • In the seventh inning, Albert Pujols came up for maybe the final at-bat of his Cardinals career. Oddly, there was no chant, no standing ovation, just a bunch of flashes going off as he struck out. The crowd did stand and applaud as he walked back to the dugout after striking out.

Quick thoughts: Keys to Game 6

October, 27, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- As a fan of the history of the game, this World Series has been fascinating on many levels, with a couple of late-inning nail-biters, a historic performance by Albert Pujols and one of the all-time crazy games on Monday. It's not yet a classic World Series, but a great Game 6 will go far for that legacy ... and, of course, a Game 7 possibly awaits.

While I expect Jaime Garcia to pitch a decent game for St. Louis, here are some other key factors to look for.

Will the Rangers keep walking batters?

The Rangers have walked five or more batters in seven different postseason games, despite which they've gone 5-2 in those games. As a comparison, they walked five or more batters 26 times during the regular season and went 7-19 in those games. Despite walking 28 batters through the five World Series games, they've been getting away with it since the Cardinals are just 8-for-43 (.186) with runners in scoring position. That's a lot of good fortune for the Rangers; it doesn't mean it can't continue for at least one more victory, but you're gambling with the law of averages here. Lance Berkman will bat fourth and Matt Holliday fifth; neither has homered in this series; Colby Lewis led the AL in home runs allowed ...

The Albert Pujols factor.

In 23 plate appearances, Pujols has hit with the bases empty 16 times. It's imperative that the Cardinals get runners on base in front of Pujols (Rafael Furcal and Skip Schumaker will hit in the first two spots), at least making it a little more difficult for Ron Washington to put him on. On the other hand, Pujols has five hits in the World Series, all in Game 3. He's 0-for-12 with four intentional walks in the other four games. In other words, he doesn't hit a home run every time he sees a strike. But Washington indicated Tuesday he'll continue to walk him whenever possible, saying, "I've never seen Albert Pujols before other than on TV. It's my first time seeing him. And what he did the other night, no, I wouldn't mess with that."

The Colby Lewis factor.

Lewis has allowed two runs or fewer in six of his seven career postseason starts. He doesn't always go deep into the game, as he pitched more than six innings just three times, but he seems a good bet to keep the Rangers in the game for six or seven innings. He's allowed a .182 average against, including a .109 average (5-for-46) with runners on base and .091 (2-for-22) with runners in scoring position over his postseason career. While Lewis deserves credit for getting those big outs, we'll refer again to the law of averages: There's been some good fortune mixed in there. If he had a real ability to suddenly amp up his game with runners on base, wouldn't we see more evidence of this in the regular season? (This season, for example, his overall batting average allowed was .244, but it was .255 with runners in scoring position and .264 with runners on base.)

Lewis gets the job done even though he doesn't have an overpowering fastball. "He totally believes in what he's trying to do out there on the mound," Washington said on Tuesday. "But you know, this game sometimes can bring out the worst in you, and this game can definitely get you to the point where you begin to doubt what [you're] capable of doing. Well, Colby never doubts what he's capable of doing, and I think that's what makes him apart from some guys at this stage. It doesn't bother him one bit."

More innings from Octavio Dotel and Jason Motte.

Considering the Rangers' righty-heavy lineup and the facts that right-handers hit just .154 off Dotel and .162 off Motte during the regular season, it was believed the late innings could be favorable for the Cardinals. Instead, the two have combined for just four innings pitched through five games and got tagged with two of the Cardinals' defeats. (Dotel gave up the Michael Young double in Game 5 and Motte lost Game 2.) But it still seems imperative that Tony La Russa maximize the outs he gets from those two.

Will Washington show faith in Alexi Ogando?

For the Rangers, in a perfect world, Lewis bridges the gap to Mike Adams for the eighth and Neftali Feliz for the ninth. But there is a good chance he won't make it through seven innings, which means a possible appearance from Ogando. In four World Series games, Ogando has pitched two innings and allowed seven hits and five walks. Sure, a guy with his power fastball can turn it around at any time, but I don't see any indication why Ogando should be the first choice out of the Texas bullpen right now. There is a time for loyalty, but it's not Game 6 of the World Series. Ogando's hand has gone cool.

Podcast: Bullpengate and more

October, 25, 2011
It was a fun Baseball Today podcast on Tuesday as Keith Law and I discussed bullpen phones, intentional walks and a whole lot more!

1. Sorry, but we really don't buy the bullpen phone being culpable in a World Series game being lost. And we tell you why.

2. Mike Napoli is a pretty good baseball player, ya know. And we tell you why.

3. Oh, those intentional walks. A manager will win the World Series, but the degree to which mismanagement has reigned in this series is somewhat historic.

4. Do the Cardinals share a similar fate with the Miami Heat? You know, the NBA, back when it existed. An emailer explains.

5. We also talk more Theo Epstein, Bud Selig and replay, the Mets farm system, women in baseball and a lot more on a packed podcast!

So tune in for Tuesday's show. And guess what: We're back on Wednesday to preview Game 6!
What a World Series so far! For Friday’s Baseball Today podcast Mark Simon and me gathered to talk about how Game 2 was really won and many other pertinent matters surrounding the best sport.

1. Oh, those silly managers! Someone finally got to St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Motte and the Texas Rangers turned it into a surprise win. Should Motte have been allowed to escape the mess he created?

2. Before Motte’s time, there was Allen Craig again beating Alexi Ogando, perhaps setting himself up to again play the role of hero. We also discuss the Rangers manager and his decisions.

3. Ian Kinsler’s stolen base was critical to the ninth-inning rally. Where does Kinsler rank among second basemen in the game today? You might be surprised.

4. Was this the last game in St. Louis? Mark and I give our predictions for the weekend, discussing the starting pitchers and how the offenses could be waking up. It’s time for Kyle Lohse and the Texas lefties!

5. We take your emails, re-examine the worst rotations to win a World Series and hear from some of the contributors to Thursday’s big win as well!

So download and listen to Friday’s awesome Baseball Today podcast, check out a few big games this weekend and come right back with us on Monday! Have a great weekend!
[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Allen Craig
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PRESSWIREAllen Craig reacts following his pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh inning.

ST. LOUIS -- A famous philosopher named Joaquin Andujar who resided in St. Louis once uttered the classic phrase, “You never know.”

On this night, never was that statement more true.

Game 2 of the World Series belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals. Allen Craig had won the sequel over Alexi Ogando. Jaime Garcia had pitched a brilliant game. It was 1-0 in the ninth inning, the team’s Rivera-esque closer was coming in to lock it down and Busch Stadium was rocking in anticipation of its beloved Cards taking a commanding lead in the World Series.

But this is baseball. Postseason baseball. You never know.

Instead, the Texas Rangers snatched a stunning victory, the first team to win a World Series game after trailing through the eighth inning since the Arizona Diamondbacks won Game 7 in 2001. They became just the third team to win a World Series game after trailing 1-0 entering the ninth. As Rafael Furcal's fly ball fell quietly toward Nelson Cruz’s glove for the final out of the game, the crowd had already started turning for the aisles. Cruz pumped his fist, the Rangers celebrated their 2-1 victory, the Cardinals retreated to the clubhouse and suddenly we have the makings of a classic World Series.

The ninth inning of Game 2. Keep this one in mind. It could be the inning that turns around this World Series, 21 pitches of agony for the Cardinals, 21 pitches of ecstasy for the Rangers.

True story: I had lunch Thursday at a famous St. Louis barbecue joint called Pappy’s Smokehouse. As I got there, Cardinals closer Jason Motte sat in his big white Ford pickup, talking with a local television camera crew (which actually was there trying to find some Rangers fans to interview). As the interview ended and Motte started up his engine, a fan yelled out, “Save another one, Jason!” Motte responded, “Yes, sir!”

When he strolled to the mound for the ninth, Motte had allowed one baserunner all postseason. That’s not runs; that’s baserunners. He’d faced 28 batters and retired 27 of them. Yes, sir ... it seemed inevitable. He'd come in and finish up a 1-0 pitchers' duel.

Ian Kinsler hit a 2-2 pitch to center for a leadoff single. Elvis Andrus tried to bunt initially, and took a ball, a strike and then another strike, with Kinsler stealing and beating the throw. After two foul balls sandwiched around another ball, Andrus lined a hit to center, Kinsler taking a wide turn and holding. But Albert Pujols failed to cut off the throw, and Andrus expertly dashed in to second. Three huge plays: the steal, the failed cut-off play, the extra base by Andrus.

Plus a little luck. That, too, is baseball. Rangers manager Ron Washington was willing to give up the out with Andrus. "I had Elvis bunting, just trying to get the run over to second base and give the middle of the order a chance to at least give us a run and stay in the ballgame," Washington said afterward. "But it all worked out."


Tony La Russa brought in 41-year-old Arthur Rhodes to face the lefty-swinging Josh Hamilton, who is battling a groin injury. He’d looked bad all night, unable to generate any power from his lower half. Maybe La Russa should have left in Motte, with his high-90s fastball; in his postgame news conference, the Cardinals' manager said he went with Rhodes because Hamilton is a good fastball hitter, that his main goal was to keep the go-ahead at second base.

Hamilton flew out to right, deep enough to advance both runners, and then Michael Young hit a fly to center off Lance Lynn, scoring Andrus with the winning run. Not sexy, but it got the job done. On Wednesday night, La Russa got all the praise for his moves; on Thursday night, he faced the questions of why he brought in Rhodes -- a 41-year-old guy over a reliever who had been basically untouchable all postseason. He says he still has confidence in Motte: "I know that if we get the lead on Saturday, he'll be 100 percent ready to go. He caught a tough break, which is baseball."

See? La Russa understands: You never know.

* * * *

It looked like Allen Craig would be the hero with his seventh-inning RBI single.

For the second night in a row, Nick Punto got on base with two outs to keep an inning going. On this night, he fell behind the count two strikes, fouled off a fastball, then hit a hard grounder toward first base. Young should have made the play -- a tough play perhaps, but there is no margin for error in the World Series. It bounded off his glove into right field for a base hit, knocking Colby Lewis from the game.

Setting the stage for the second night in a row: Craig versus the flame-throwing fastball machine Alexi Ogando.

First pitch: a 98 mph fastball fouled off.

Second pitch: a 96 mph fastball in a good location, low and away. But not low enough and definitely not away enough. Craig saw this pitch in Game 1. He’d seen nothing but fastballs. Ogando and catcher Mike Napoli kept his slider in their back pocket. And just like in Game 1, Craig lined a single into right field, David Freese scored, Busch Stadium erupted into a temporary madhouse and Craig had put the Rangers into a heap of trouble.

  • It was a brilliant pitchers’ duel, and it appeared we'd get the first 1-0 World Series game since Game 4 of the 2005 Series, the clinching victory for the White Sox over the Astros (Freddy Garcia versus Brandon Backe, the winning run scoring in the eighth inning). There have been just three 1-0 games since Jack Morris’ legendary 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of 1991.
  • Jaime Garcia is a joy to watch when he’s on. He rarely cracks 90 on his fastball, content and confident enough to get ahead of hitters with 88 mph two-seamers and 86 mph cutters, but everything he throws has movement and he usually keeps the ball down in the zone. He’ll mix in a curveball, and his changeup has become his big out pitch. In at-bats ending with his changeup this season, right-handers hit just .151 off it. And he has the moxie to throw it nearly 20 percent of the time. Just a brilliant effort on this night. Other than two hard lineouts by Napoli and a hard shot by Nelson Cruz that landed a few feet foul in the second inning, nobody hit him hard.
  • In his pregame news conference, Washington firmly said Hamilton is his No. 3 hitter, despite Hamilton’s lingering groin injury. “Even if Hamilton doesn’t do anything, he makes a difference just with his presence in our lineup, and I want his presence in it, and it’s in there tonight,” he said. Hamilton did get the sac fly, but his health remains a big issue as the series moves to Texas.
  • Two key plays in the game: a beautiful 6-4-3 double play by Andrus and Kinsler in the fourth inning on Matt Holliday, with Andrus ranging wide to his left and Kinsler bare-handing the toss and executing a lightning-quick turn, backing up his credentials as one of the best pivotmen in the majors. Later, Andrus made one of the sweetest plays you'll ever see, a diving stop of Rafael Furcal's liner up the middle with two runners on in the fifth, with a brilliant glove flip of the ball to Kinsler. Those plays will be lost in the midst of the ninth-inning dramatics, but without them, the game might not have been 1-0 at that time.

We’ve got one game down in the World Series, and who knows how many more to go? So it was that Keith Law and I gathered for Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast to break down what we saw and project ahead.

1. Score Game 1 for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Sure, Chris Carpenter and Allen Craig were valuable, but La Russa continues to make his mark.

2. Meanwhile, Rangers manager Ron Washington intentionally walked one of the worst hitters in the big leagues and sent a guy who hadn’t batted in nearly a month up to pinch-hit in a critical spot.

3. The non-call on the apparent Adrian Beltre foul ball in the ninth inning was a shame, but would instant replay really have mattered there?

4. We discuss the news of the day involving general managers, from Theo Epstein to candidates in other places like Kim Ng, Jerry DiPota and Tony LaCava.

5. Plus, another team wants John Lackey, what Japanese baseball does with their playoffs and we preview Game 2 of the World Series!

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, and we’ll be back with you on Friday!

What to watch in the World Series

October, 18, 2011
Nelson Cruz and  David Freese AP Photo, Jeff Curry/US PresswireNelson Cruz and David Freese were the hottest hitters in the LCS. Can they keep it up?
I’m anticipating the most exciting World Series we’ve seen in years, hopefully the first seven-game showdown since 2002. We have two explosive offenses, unpredictable starting rotations, potentially dominant bullpens, Albert Pujols, Babe Cruz, mad scientist Tony La Russa, “Dancing With the Stars” aspirant Ron Washington, Matt Holliday, Josh Hamilton, one third baseman who just hit .545 in the National League Championship Series, another who had a three-homer game earlier in the playoffs.

What’s not to like about this matchup? One franchise is playing in its 18th World Series and attempting to complete one of the great miracle comebacks in baseball history; the other is back for the second year in a row, seeking its first championship and perhaps starting a dynasty of excellence. Neither team ranked in the top 10 in payroll and each has just one big free-agent signing on its roster. Nobody is buying a World Series trophy this year.

You can never predict what will happen or who will star in a World Series -- Edgar Renteria? Carlos Ruiz? Jeff Weaver? Scott Brosius? Pat Borders? -- so let’s discuss some key talking points as we head into the Fall Classic.

Can Nelson Cruz be contained, let alone stopped? After setting postseason records for one series with six home runs and 13 RBIs in the American League Championship Series, Cruz enters the World Series on an absolute tear. Can he be expected to keep that going? The obvious answer: No. Will he keep it going? Unlikely. Here’s a look back at the 10 “hottest” hitters from the LCS over the past 10 seasons and how they fared in the World Series.

The quick and dirty math shows this:
LCS: 30 home runs
World Series: 4 home runs

This, of course, is really just a simple law of averages. As good as Cruz was against the Tigers, he’s not the second coming of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. We saw this last year with Cruz: After hitting .375 with five home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he hit .200 with one home run in the World Series. Remember, this is a guy who can be pitched to: He had 116 strikeouts and just 33 walks in the regular season, so expect the Cardinals to feed him a lot of offspeed stuff away or off the plate.

Watch how David Freese attacks the first pitch. The NLCS MVP hit .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the series -- figures matched in one series only by Lou Gehrig in the 1928 World Series. Freese is 7-for-10 with two home runs in at-bats ending on the first pitch in the playoffs and hit .406 (13-for-32) during the regular season on the first pitch, with four home runs (the MLB average is .330). The Rangers will have these scouting reports, but the problem is Freese usually follows Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holiday in the lineup. If there are guys on base in front of him, he’s going to see pitches to hit.

Octavio Dotel versus Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Cruz. The middle of the Rangers’ order usually features those four right-handed batters in a row, making it easier for Tony La Russa to match up -- and that means we’ll see a lot of Dotel against those guys. Dotel pounds the outside corner against righties with his fastball/slider combo and he was lethal against right-handed batters: They hit just .145 with one home run (and just four extra-base hits) in 123 at-bats. Beltre in particular is prone to chasing that low-and-away slider and considering Napoli is really the one of the four with much patience at the plate, it will be interesting to see if Dotel can silence this fearsome foursome.

Jason Motte is on a roll. The Cardinals’ closer -- although La Russa declines to call him that -- has faced 25 batters in the postseason and retired 24 of them. Like Dotel, he’s much tougher on righties -- .162 average allowed in the regular season with a 45-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, versus a .270 average against lefties -- and the fact that Josh Hamilton is the Rangers’ only left-handed batter that you have to worry about matching up against works in the Cardinals’ favor. I also love the way La Russa has been handling him: He already has three saves of at least four outs.

Can C.J. Wilson deliver a big start? The Rangers’ No. 1 starter has allowed six home runs in three postseason starts, after allowing just 16 all season. Is he fatigued after a career-high 223 innings? Just in a little slump? As deep as the Texas bullpen is, it seems unlikely the Rangers can win the World Series without at least one shutdown outing from a starter, and Wilson still gives them the best option for that.

Who wins Game 1? Wilson’s Game 1 start against St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter becomes even more important when considering this factoid: The winner of Game 1 has won seven of the past eight and 12 of the past 14 World Series. However, the winner of Game 1 is only 2-4 this postseason.

Lance Berkman versus the Rangers’ left-handed starters. Berkman is much better from the left side of the plate and La Russa has the lefty-killing Allen Craig available from the right side, so it will be interesting to see what La Russa does in games in St. Louis when a left-hander starts. Berkman began his postseason with a bang -- a three-run homer off Roy Halladay in his first at-bat -- but hasn’t delivered an extra-base hit in the 10 games since. I suspect Craig will start in right field in the opener against Wilson. While he’s not a good outfielder, he is an upgrade defensively over Berkman, who may be the worst everyday right fielder in the majors. When the games move to Texas with the designated hitter, La Russa’s decision becomes easier, as he can put both guys in the lineup, making the Cardinals that rare NL team that can field a nine-deep lineup to match the best of the AL.

Ron Washington versus Tony La Russa. Washington’s new secret weapon in the bullpen -- Alexi Ogando and his high-90s fastball -- has allowed Washington to avoid some of the questionable bullpen moves he made last season. La Russa will use Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes to match up against Josh Hamilton, so that should leave Washington without worrying whom to hit for David Murphy or Mitch Moreland (when he’s in the lineup; Michael Young will undoubtedly play first base in the games in St. Louis). La Russa is unlikely to pinch hit for anybody except his second basemen, and if he carries 12 pitches, even that becomes less likely in the NL games. It means both managers should be able to get the matchups they want out of the bullpen.

The key decisions both will face, of course: How soon to yank the starting pitchers? Will either team get a quality start after both rotations struggled in the LCS? I think the team that wins the World Series will be the team that goes deepest with its starters. Yanking guys after three or four innings will be playing with fire.

Finally … may the hottest team win. Let’s be honest here: The World Series isn’t about crowning the best team of the baseball season. It’s about crowning the team that plays the best in October -- the team with the hot bullpen, or the third baseman who hits over .500 or the right fielder who slugs six home runs in six games.

Just look at the World Series champs of the wild-card era:

Champion: San Francisco Giants (92-70, 5th)
Best record: Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)

Champion: New York Yankees (103-59)
Best record: New York Yankees

Champion: Philadelphia Phillies (92-70, 5th)
Best record: Los Angeles Angels (100-62)

Champion: Boston Red Sox (96-66, tied for 1st)
Best record: Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians

Champion: St. Louis Cardinals (83-78, 13th)
Best record: New York Yankees and New York Mets (97-65)

Champion: Chicago White Sox (99-63, 2nd)
Best record: St. Louis Cardinals (100-62)

Champion: Boston Red Sox (98-64)
Best record: St. Louis Cardinals (105—57)

Champion: Florida Marlins (91-71, 7th)
Best record: Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees (101-61)

Champion: Anaheim Angels (99-63, 4th)
Best record: New York Yankees and Oakland A’s (103-59)

Champion: Arizona Diamondbacks (92-70, 6th)
Best record: Seattle Mariners (116-46)

Champion: New York Yankees (87-74, 9th)
Best record: San Francisco Giants (97-65)

Champion: New York Yankees (98-64, 3rd)
Best record: Atlanta Braves (103-59)

Champion: New York Yankees (114-48)
Best record: New York Yankees

Champion: Florida Marlins (92-70, 4th)
Best record: Atlanta Braves (101-61)

Champion: New York Yankees (92-70, 3rd)
Best record: Cleveland Indians (99-62)

Champion: Atlanta Braves (90-54, 2nd)
Best record: Cleveland Indians (100-44)

This isn’t meant to knock the Cardinals or Rangers. In the end, history will remember only which team wins that final game.