Bart Giamatti wrote of baseball that
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.
Clearly, baseball’s last great commissioner wasn’t a Cardinal fan.
Had he been, he might’ve mused on how, though baseball does break your heart, at times it also rewards the stouthearted, the faithful who root, root, root until their team’s win expectancy zeroes out. We were one of the many in Cardinal nation who never gave up hope for a Game 5 win (though we confess a few doubts along the way), calculatingly calculating the average number of runs the Cardinals needed each inning as the game wore on and the team chipped away the Nationals’ 6-0 lead. For the second straight year, the Cardinals didn’t break our hearts, but instead won in most dramatic fashion, scoring four runs in the ninth inning to beat the Nats, 9-7. And yet when we awoke Saturday morning, we actually had to reread the box score and re-watch Daniel Descalso‘s and Pete Kozma‘s hits that cracked and ultimately obliterated the Nationals’ win expectancy.
The “unlikely” comeback echoed the team’s come-from-behind 2011 World Series Game 6 uprising. In fact, the Game 5 win Friday was technically even more improbable than Game 6. After Allen Craig struck out in the ninth inning, the Nationals’ win expectancy stood at 96.5%. After Ryan Theriot struck out in the ninth inning of Game 6, the Rangers were at 95.9%. That’s because the Cardinals began their Game 6 rally with only one out (after Theriot K’d, Albert Pujols doubled, and Lance Berkman walked). Contrarywise, the Cardinals on Friday made two outs before putting the tying runs on base.
For the first time in the series, Cardinal manager Mike Matheny did more to put his team in a position to win a close game than lose it. It wasn’t without some mistakes — David Freese‘s caught stealing in the second inning down three runs stands out, as does the non-immediate pinch running for Yadier Molina, when he reached base representing the tying run in the ninth inning (we shudder to think what might’ve been with a lumbering Molina thrown out at the plate had David Freese cracked an extra-base hit rather than walk). But Matheny is nothing if not consistent. As we noted in a piece over at ESPN, Jason Motte finished the regular season as the only pitcher on the team who saved games in 2012. Although he surrendered a run in the bottom of the eighth in Game 5, Motte remained Matheny’s go-to guy, returning to the mound for the ninth inning. It wasn’t a save, but it may as well have been.
One of the reasons that Matheny left Motte in — or, more to the point, didn’t have a strong need to pinch hit for him when the pitcher came to bat with Kozma, an important insurance run on first, was that he had no more position players left. He had used his bench wisely throughout the game, letting none of his relief pitchers touch a bat (10-man rotation!), and especially using Shane Robinson (fast runner to avoid a potential double play in the fifth) and Adron Chambers (pinch running for Molina as the potential tying run, even if it was one play too late). Kudos to Matheny for maximizing his roster, including his pitcher, and to those players for showing their faithful fans that, while heart matters, execution wins ball games.
- Okay, show of hands, writers: How many of you had to delete a line about the Cardinals’ horrid hitting with RISP and two outs?
- At the risk of sounding ungracious and unfeeling about the Cardinals’ magnificent comeback, we might posit a kind of corollary to Bill James’s tenet that “A great deal of what is perceived as being pitching is in fact defense”: “A great deal of what is perceived as being clutch is in fact random timing of the talented.” This is most easily explained by simply looking at the final score and seeing that the Cardinals scored nine runs in a nine-inning game, and that the Nationals tallied seven in the same period. *When* they scored those runs is what our perception is based on. In this case, the Cardinals scored four of theirs in the final frame, while the Nats crossed the plate three times in the first one. Each inning contains the same number of outs — so what’s the big deal? One legitimate reply would be that, with bullpens having typically a quarter-of-a-run better ERA, it’s harder to score runs in the later innings. Fair enough. But essentially the Cardinals simply scored nine runs using 27 outs, and the most they scored in a single inning was “only” four. Remember, the Cardinals overcame a five-run deficit earlier this season and blew a seven-run lead in 2010.
- The Cardinals scored nine runs or more 23 times this season, or about once every seven games. That they did it twice in a five-game series is as remarkable as in what innings they scored those runs.
- So when the Cardinals yielded that “insurance” run in the bottom of the eighth to make the score 7-5 Nationals, that showed that the Cardinals were a better team than if they had gone on to lose by one run?
- Or, similarly, that Kozma’s two-run hit militated against a claim of superiority because they ended up winning by two instead of one?
- Speaking of Craig striking out, he also did it immediately prior to David Freese’s quietus in Game 6. Talk about clutch-inducing strikeouts!
- Speaking of Theriot, the Cardinals will be seeing him again — in San Francisco.
- As if he hasn’t done and said enough idiotic things in his too-long tenure as baseball commissioner, Bud Selig not only opposes the regular season but now apparently one of the traditions of the postseason, too: “This is something I am not happy about: spraying champagne all over. I’m not a fan of that … You want to have great celebrations, fine. But spraying each other with champagne is not that. So it’s official: Selig more strongly opposes champagne than he does PEDs.