Commentary

First things first for Cardinals

Offense gets on the board early -- again -- and bullpen finishes it for 2-1 NLCS lead

Updated: October 13, 2011, 4:26 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- He's been leading off in the big leagues for 12 years now. And along the way, Rafael Furcal has come to notice something:

"When you score in the first inning," he said Wednesday night, "you've got a better chance to win the game."

All right, so we'll grant you that might not be one of those advanced sabermetric concepts that took a team of MIT graduates a decade of number-crunching to compute. But the bottom line is, Rafael Furcal is onto something here.

And his new employers, those St. Louis Cardinals, are making him look like a genius pretty much every night they play baseball in October.

They score in the first inning … every … darned … night. Then they win the game … every … darned … night. As intricate baseball concepts go, it isn't exactly "Son of Moneyball." But it sure is working.

For the fifth postseason game in a row, the Cardinals scored in the first inning Wednesday. Although they never scored again, it didn't matter, even on a night when Chris Carpenter wasn't as ace-like as usual. Three hours later, they had themselves a 4-3 win over the Brewers, a two-games-to-one lead in the National League Championship Series and a place in the history books.

In 107 years of postseason baseball, only three other teams have scored in the first inning five games in a row. The Cardinals are now the fourth.

The last team to do it -- the 2004 Red Sox -- won the World Series. The first team to do it -- the 2000 Mets -- at least made it to the World Series. And the other team to do it -- the 2003 Cubs -- well, uhhhh, they're famous for other reasons.

We can't tell you yet whether these nightly first-inning onslaughts by these Cardinals are going to lead them to their 18th World Series. But it's one more element in the incredible story of a team that is putting itself into position to do something special.

This is a very challenging team for anybody to have to play right now. And the 2011 Cardinals are doing their best to remind you of that as quickly as possible … every … darned … night.

"I think the key in the postseason is to get a fast start," third baseman David Freese said, "and kind of show the other team that you're here and you're going to give it a hard nine."

Well, the Brewers and Phillies have gotten the message. The Phillies can ponder that message from their friendly neighbood driving range because those first-inning runs they gave up in Games 4 and 5 of the NL Division Series were a huge reason the Cardinals came from behind to win that series. And now it's the Brewers' turn.

[+] EnlargeRafael Furcal
Jeff Curry/US PresswireRafael Furcal wants to set the tone for the game in the first inning. He did just that in Game 3.

In Games 2 and 3 of the NLCS, the Cardinals have put up multi-run first innings -- a two-run first Monday in Game 2 and a four-run first Wednesday in Game 3. And the more they pile on early, the more they prove Rafael Furcal's point.

It's basic mathematics, friends. In the 2011 regular season, teams that scored in the first inning won 64 percent of the time. And teams that did what the Cardinals did Wednesday -- namely, score at least four times in the first -- won 85 percent of the time (92-16).

The Cardinals' new leadoff hitter might not be aware of those exact percentages. But after leading off more than 1,300 games -- regular season and postseason -- in his career, Furcal has reached the conclusion that when he steps into the box for his team's first at-bat of the night, that first trip to the plate is different than all those other trips to the plate.

"For me, that first at-bat, I'm looking for something right in the middle, to try and get on base, because I want to get on base early," Furcal said. "I know I've got [Albert] Pujols, [Matt] Holliday and [Lance] Berkman coming up. So I want to be on base all the time. And I know how the game changes when the starter sees you for the second or third time. They don't pitch you the same way."

In the first inning, he said, "I know they don't want me on base, so they're gonna throw it over the plate. So I've got to take a good at-bat and get on base."

Well, so far, so Rickey Henderson-esque. In this postseason, Furcal is now hitting .500 (4-for-8) in the first inning, with two triples, two singles, a stolen base and three runs scored. Those triples, by the way, make him the first player in history to go three-bagging twice in the same postseason.

But then, Furcal has been doing this since the day he showed up in July. In the 39 games he started for this team after the Cardinals dealt for him at the trading deadline, he hit .389 in the first inning, with a .436 on-base percentage and three leadoff homers.

Of the 17 times he reached base in the first, he scored in 15 of those innings. And the Cardinals won 10 of those 15 games -- in part because the leadoff man was humming "Let's Get It Started" right out of the chute. He has always believed, he said, that the leaoff man can set the tone in the first inning. And he is proving it … every … darned … night.

"I love it," Furcal said. "When you score in the first inning, you've got more of a chance to win the game. You put a lot of pressure on the starter. And especially when you get four runs in the first inning, I know the starter -- they're not gonna feel so good."

Yeah, poor Yovani Gallardo can definitely vouch for that. He let the first five Cardinals reach base. It took him 25 pitches just to get an out. And by the time he finally got back to the dugout, the Brewers had been outscored 11-1 in the first inning of their three postseason road games this October. Not surprisingly, they've lost them all.

But Gallardo -- who is now a gruesome 1-8 with a 5.76 ERA in 12 career starts against the Cardinals -- didn't merely get a refresher course Wednesday in how dynamic the Cardinals' new leadoff guy can be at his best. He got a reminder of just how deep this entire lineup can be.

[+] EnlargeTony LaRussa
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTony La Russa is not afraid to run out to the mound and change pitchers. And his bullpen is doing the job in this NLCS.

After Furcal singled up the middle to start the game, those big Cardinals boppers just kept on coming. Jon Jay dunked an RBI double in front of Mark Kotsay in center, and it was 1-0.

Albert Pujols, who now has been on base in eight of his nine trips to the plate in the past two games, pounded a rocket to the track in left-center, and it was 2-0.

Four of the next five hitters reached, too, highlighted by yet another RBI double by the white-hot Freese (6-for-12 in this series), and it was 4-0.

So it wasn't until Carpenter strolled up there and made the third out that Gallardo could find anybody in this lineup he felt comfortable pitching to. But if he's been watching this team do its thing for the past month and a half, he should know he sure isn't the first pitcher this offense has mugged along the way.

"We have a bunch of premier hitters stacked one on top of another, and sooner or later, somebody is going to do something," Lance Berkman said. "It puts teams in a bad spot when everything's clicking, because there's really nowhere to go. It's like an American League lineup in the National League. It's the best offensive team I've ever been a part of in the National League."

To put this run this club is on in even more perspective, you should know that during the entire regular season, there were 21 teams that never scored in the first inning in five straight games at any point. But now here it is October, and these Cardinals are doing it … every … darned … night.

In this case, they needed every one of those first-inning runs, because the Brewers did make this interesting. They closed to within 4-3 by the third inning, got Carpenter out of there by the fifth and had a chance to make it even more interesting -- except for one thing:

They forgot to manufacture a single baserunner over the last four innings, against that once-maligned Cardinals bullpen.

But that bullpen suddenly isn't so porous. It now has a 1.50 postseason ERA and has a usable option for every Tony La Russa wave-for-the-'pen occasion.

So what we have here is a team that has scrambled from oblivion to a spot two wins from the World Series. And if you ignore that improbable storyline and just look up and down this roster, ask yourself this:

Why is this such a surprise anymore?

What ingredient for winning are these Cardinals truly lacking? There might not be much of anything that's missing these days.

"I don't consider this team a surprise," Berkman said. "I really don't. Take a step back and tell me which team in the National League has a better lineup than we do. We've got a bona fide ace [Carpenter]. And we've got a closer [Jason Motte] who throws 100 miles an hour, with a nasty slider.

"So I mean, at this point, it really shouldn't be, 'I can't believe the St. Louis Cardinals are in the NLCS, making some noise.' That having been said, we're still a long ways from where we want to be. But the fact that we're here, to me, is not surprising."

And if it's still shocking to you, it's time to start paying attention -- because the Cardinals keep proving they're very much for real … every … darned … night.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com