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October 15, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Five: One Away from Elimination

by Derek Carty

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With the NLCS tied at 2-2, we had the makings of a pitchers’ duel, as the Cardinals’ sinkerballing lefty Jaime Garcia opposed Zack Greinke, former AL Cy Young winner. While Garcia looked downright dominating through most of the game, Greinke did not, allowing seven hits and failing to notch a single strikeout.

While the first inning and a half of play were uneventful enough, the second inning was huge for the Cardinals. After Lance Berkman lined a single to shallow center, Greinke managed to get Matt Holliday to fly out before plunking David Freese while trying to establish his fastball inside. St. Louis drew first blood on a Yadier Molina double off the right field wall that Corey Hart just barely mistimed, scoring Berkman from second. With runners on second and third, Greinke was saved from a scorcher off the bat of Nick Punto by Jerry Hairston Jr., who was positioned well and needed just a semi-dive to snag it. Hairston was also involved on the very next play, but this time he would misjudge a ball hit directly at him by Garcia, scoring two more runs. Hairston was slapped with an error, but it was a very hard-hit ball, and its bounce off the lip of the infield grass confused him. Coming into the inning, the Cardinals had just a 55 percent Win Expectancy. By the end, it had risen to 81 percent as the Cards went up 3-0.

An extremely interesting play occurred in the bottom of the fourth, when the Cardinals put runners on first and second with no outs. With Nick Punto at bat, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called for the sac bunt, which succeeded in moving the runners along. While sac bunts are usually poor tactical plays, this one was made stranger in that it brought the pitcher, Garcia, to the plate. Garcia managed at least to put the ball in play and score the runner from third, but that took the Cardinals from a two-on, no-out situation to a one-on, two out-situation. I suppose La Russa was content to grab the single run and go up 4-0, having faith in Garcia, but giving up what was essentially two outs for the hope of scoring a single run is a questionable call, especially relatively early in the game.

Garcia looked good on the mound until and even into the fifth inning, striking out leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez with a nasty slider before things started going downhill with a Jonathan Lucroy single that bounced off the tip of a jumping Albert Pujols’s glove. Following a Greinke sacrifice, Garcia got ahead 0-2 on Corey Hart, and it looked for a moment like he might get out of the inning unscathed. After a grueling nine-pitch at-bat, however, Hart managed to line a sinker into left and plate Lucroy—the team’s only run of the game. With Octavio Dotel up in the bullpen, it only took one more single from Jerry Hairston before La Russa pulled the plug on his starter. With two on, two out, and Ryan Braun at the plate, Dotel came up with a huge strikeout to end what would be Milwaukee’s penultimate chance to do some real damage.

After leaving the bases loaded in the fifth, the Cardinals notched another run in the sixth with a two-out rally that started with a Rafael Furcal double. After Betancourt miffed an easy grounder that would have been the third out, Albert Pujols made the Brewers pay by lacing a low curve to left, finally chasing Greinke from the game. The Cardinals made waves again in the seventh and eighth, but additional offense proved unnecessary as the Brewers failed to score after their fifth-inning rally.

The Brewers would have one more good chance to score in the eighth inning. After a leadoff single to Hart and a walk to Hairston, the Brewers had runners on first and second with no outs and the heart of their order coming up. Tonight was not Milwaukee’s night, however, as Braun grounded into a near-double play fielder’s choice, prompting La Russa to call in Mark Rzepczynski to face Prince Fielder. I loved this call with runners on and one out, since Rzepczynski is an extreme groundball pitcher and Fielder is a slow runner. Zip is also capable of striking batters out, however, and he did just that by getting Fielder to chase a low slider for strike three. With the double play no longer necessary but the threat not yet eliminated, closer Jason Motte came on to retire Rickie Weeks and put out the fire.

The nail in the coffin came on a two-run, Matt Holliday double in the bottom of the eighth that put the Cards up 7-1, and Jason Motte came back on in the ninth to finish it off.

  • Umpire Bill Miller calls a very large strike zone, and it was on full display tonight, especially on low outside pitches (anecdotally speaking).
  • It was interesting that Greinke, having given up four runs through five innings, stayed in longer than Garcia, who had given up just one before being yanked in the fifth. Better to pull Garcia too early than to leave him in too long, though.
  • The Brewers’ defense drew an uncanny parallel to a certain Batman villain tonight. It looked excellent on certain plays (stabs by Hairston and Betancourt, a diving catch by Gomez) and absolutely terrible on others. It was those others that really killed the Brewers tonight. While Greinke allowed five runs, just two were earned. The team made a lot of mistakes or near misses in the field, including balls that Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart just missed chasing down, a throwing error by Weeks, a fielding error by Betancourt, a poor pickoff throw from Marco Estrada, and the all-important second-inning grounder through Hairston’s legs.
  • It was interesting to see Matt Holliday beat out an infield single in the fifth despite looking a bit sluggish in the field at times.
  • Man, those plush black seats behind home plate in Busch Stadium looked comfortable.
  • With two on and two out in the seventh, La Russa’s decision to let Lance Lynn bat was a little strange. The team was up 5-1 and had a Win Expectancy of 97.3 percent, so it most likely had to do with La Russa wanting to keep the rest of his bullpen arms fresh rather than a real desire to keep Lynn in the game on his own merits. It almost came back to haunt him, though, when the Brewers challenged the next inning.
  • The post-game analysts made a point of recognizing how the relievers in this series have posted a lower ERA than the starters. Yeah, because that’s out of the norm for a Major League Baseball team.
Related Content:  Corey Hart,  Single,  Jaime Garcia,  The Call-up

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