Commentary

Cardinals proving numbers do lie

Behind Michael Wacha, St. Louis beats second Cy Young winner in two days

Updated: October 13, 2013, 8:20 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- This is what makes October the awesome month that it is.

Logic is irrelevant. Numbers don't add up. The more you think you understand, the less likely it is to happen. And what does wind up happening often makes no sense.

So on that note, it's time to sum up the insanity that has befallen us in the first two games of the National League Championship Series:

The St. Louis Cardinals are hitting .134 after the first two games. They've scored in three of the 22 innings they've played. Their offense -- often referred to as the best lineup in the National League -- has been totally dominated by the two former Cy Young winners they've faced.

And they're winning. Two games to zip.

Hey, of course they are. It's October, remember?

On Friday, the Cardinals struck out 10 times and scored twice in eight innings against Dodgers starter Zack (Cy) Greinke -- and won. Somehow. In 13 incredible innings.

Then, on Saturday, the Cardinals got exactly two hits in six innings against Dodgers starter Clayton (Cy) Kershaw, scored one run (and zero earned runs) this time -- and won again. Somehow.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw didn't allow an earned run, but he was out of the game after six innings and 72 pitches.
As fireworks filled the Missouri sky, the Busch Stadium scoreboard said the Cardinals had just won the third 1-0 postseason game in franchise history -- and the first since the already-legendary Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay duel in 2011. So this must be true. This must have actually happened. In real postseason life.

But these are the kinds of games that defy comprehension -- even of the team that won them. The men who just did this know it happened. They saw it happen. They made it happen. But when they step back and consider how, let's just say this wasn't exactly the script they drew up.

"I guarantee you," said that very same Carpenter, "that if we started this series and somebody told you that Greinke was going to give up two [runs] in eight [innings] and Kershaw was going to give up one in six, [you'd have said] that they weren't going to be down, 2-0. But that's baseball."

Well, especially, it's October baseball. And in October, all that matters is: Win today. Nobody asks how. Nobody cares how. Nobody worries about how. So the Cardinals sure aren't going to start worrying about it now.

"These are the types of games that allow you to advance in the playoffs," said third baseman David Freese, the man who scored this game's only run, thanks to a double, a passed ball and a sacrifice fly that followed -- what else? -- a blown squeeze play.

"I think any team that goes on in the postseason, these are the type of games you've got to pull through and win, just like [Friday] night," Freese added. "Is the series over? Absolutely not. I think we all understand that. But these were definitely two games that we were fortunate to win."

Now here's what makes this doubly amazing. The Cardinals weren't merely trying to survive having to face two Cy Youngs in Games 1 and 2. They were running out two starters of their own who have never spent a full season in a major league starting rotation -- Joe Kelly in Game 1, Michael Wacha in Game 2.

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsDavid Freese's run on Jon Jay's sacrifice fly was all the Cardinals needed in Game 2.
But again, this is what makes baseball the amazing sport it is. What looks like a mismatch in Vegas turns into two taut October thrillers on the emerald surface of Busch Stadium, both won by the team that didn't start a Cy Young. So now that those two thrillers have taken their remarkable twists and turns, here's where it leaves this series:

The Cardinals are up 2-0 for the first time in their last 10 postseason series (since the 2006 NLDS against San Diego). Only once in franchise history, in the 1985 World Series, have they lost a postseason series after winning the first two games. And they have their own ace, Adam Wainwright, starting in Game 3 Monday in Los Angeles.

"It's nice to be up 2-0 and handing the ball to our guy, Waino, and let him do his thing. He'll be ready," Daniel Descalso said.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have gone down 2-0 on the road for the second time in their last three trips to the NLCS. They also did that against the Phillies in 2008 and wound up losing in five. Since the League Championship Series went to a best-of-seven format in 1985, 23 teams have lost the first two games. Only three of those 23 have come back to win the series.

Asked Saturday if he felt his team now has to win all three games in Dodger Stadium, Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez replied: "Absolutely."

But for that to happen, the Dodgers are going to have to get their offensive act together fast. They haven't scored in 19 innings. They're 1-for-16 in this series with runners in scoring position. And they've chased so many pitches outside the strike zone, they've accumulated almost twice as many strikeouts (24) as hits (14).

"We're frustrated at the fact that we put ourselves in this situation by not hitting, by not coming through," Gonzalez said. "We've gotta do a better job at the plate. It's that simple."

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsBeating Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS is the latest feat in Michael Wacha's growing legend.
They might or might not have Hanley Ramirez, who was a late scratch Saturday with sore ribs. They might or might not have Andre Ethier, whose ankle didn't respond well to playing 13 innings in the field Friday night and who was only able to pinch hit in Game 2.

But their mission now is to do to the Cardinals exactly what the Cardinals have just done to them – by beating Wainwright.

"They beat our aces," said catcher A.J. Ellis. "And now we have to beat theirs."

Well, the pitcher who took the baseball for the Cardinals on Saturday might not be an ace – yet. But it might not be long before we're talking about Michael Wacha the way we speak about Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez -- because this guy seems to be under the impression it's illegal in the state of Missouri to give up a run.

Three starts ago, he went 8 2/3 innings against Washington before giving up a hit. The start after that, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in an elimination game in Pittsburgh. And in this game, all he did was outduel Clayton Kershaw -- with 6 2/3 more dazzling shutout innings.

"I said it after his game in Pittsburgh," Carpenter said. "His maturity level, for a guy his age [22], is incredible. You'd never know how young he is when he goes out to pitch. He doesn't just want to pitch. He wants to rise to the occasion. It's so much fun to watch him, to watch his excitement, watch his passion, watch his mound presence out there.  ... His ceiling is as high as he wants to go."

Over his last three starts, Wacha has faced 80 hitters – and allowed seven hits. But he's slipping. He couldn't even take his latest no-hit bid through the first inning Saturday, allowing a single to Mark Ellis with one out in the first in this game.

"Just getting it out of the way early," quipped Jason Motte, who occupies the locker next to Wacha's. "But you know what? If he can get a win out of it, we don't care if he gives up a couple of hits every inning."

Well, Wacha hasn't been much of a threat to do that. But in this game, he did get himself into at least one serious mess, even though an error by second baseman Matt Carpenter helped him along.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Ed Zurga/Getty Images)Yasiel Puig struck out four times, including once with the bases loaded, and is 0-for-10 with six K's.
In the sixth inning, right after the Cardinals had scored, Wacha found himself in a bases-loaded, one-out crisis -- with the scary Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe heading for the plate. With a one-run lead. In a very loud, very nervous stadium.

But it turned out to be an inning to remember. Wacha battled Puig for six dramatic pitches, and finally struck him out on a 94 mile-an-hour fastball below the knees. Then he turned right around and punched out Uribe, and charged off the mound, fists pumping, as 46,872 people shrieked with an intense combination of joy and relief.

"Yeah, I was definitely amped up getting out of that jam," Wacha admitted later. "I haven't had to pitch out of too many jams like that. ... I was pretty pumped up after I got a couple strikeouts there to end the inning and keep our team in the lead there."

"That was huge," said Yadier Molina, the catcher who guided him through this inning and this entire afternoon. "That's a game-changer right there."

The Cardinals needed Wacha to get just two more outs. But that merely set the stage for their daily parade of supersonic bullpen arms, culminating in closer Trevor Rosenthal's overpowering, three-up, three-down, three-strikeout inning, in which he hit 98 mph or higher on the gun 12 times.

With all those live arms hanging all those zeroes on the nearest scoreboard, it has barely mattered how little the Cardinals have scored themselves. In this game, they became just the fourth team in history to win a postseason game in which they got two hits or fewer without any of those hits being a homer, and only the seventh team to win a 1-0 postseason game in which they scored no earned runs.

They also conspired to help Kershaw become the first pitcher ever to lose a postseason baseball game in which he went at least six innings, gave up two hits and allowed no earned runs. And yeah, we said "ever."

But that says as much about the young arms the Cardinals rolled out in Games 1 and 2 as it does about Kershaw or what's passed for the Dodgers' offense.

"Some guys might say, `Oh, no, we've got to face Greinke and Kershaw. We've got no shot,'" said Chris Carpenter. "But instead, these guys rose to the occasion and gave us a chance to win."

But what these first two games have really told us is that the Cardinals' collection of bionic arms isn't just giving them a chance to win this series. It's poised to give them the chance to keep winning for a long, long time.

"We were joking that these guys are so good that next year, when we go into a city, [the other team] will be hoping to face Wainwright," Carpenter deadpanned. "He's only throwing 90-91-92, while all those other guys are throwing 98. They'll be thinking, `Sweet. We [get to face] Waino, the crafty veteran pitch-maker.'"

Well, the Dodgers now have to face that crafty veteran pitch-maker Monday at Chavez Ravine, with their season riding on it. And you wouldn't think "sweet" would be the first word they'd pick to describe that prospect.

But then again, this is October. So who knows what illogical postseason plot line awaits us next? We can't wait to find out.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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