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October 17, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Six: It was in the Cards

by Jay Jaffe

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On Saturday night, the Rangers advanced to the World Series thanks to some early offensive fireworks and a deep bullpen that helped to overcome a shaky start. On Sunday, the Cardinals used that same blueprint—one to which they had returned time and again throughout the series—to do the same thing. The Cardinals piled up four first-inning runs against Brewers starter Shaun Marcum, survived a wobbly, two-inning, four-run effort by starter Edwin Jackson, and rolled to a 12-6 win as their lineup kept piling runs while manager Tony La Russa continued to pull all the right levers.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke's decision to start Marcum was a controversial one. The team's most reliable starter through the first half as Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo encountered early-season troubles, Marcum finished with a 3.54 ERA but was rocked for 18 runs in 24 2/3 innings over his final four starts, then failed to last five innings in either his Division Series or Championship Series start, allowing 12 runs in 8 2/3 innings while striking out just four. After his last flop, I began beating the drum for lefty Chris Narveson, even going so far as to debate the matter on television when Joe Sheehan and I were invited to appear on NBC SportsTalk last Thursday.

Narveson had pitched well against the Cardinals—the team that drafted him in the second round back in 2000, incidentally—during the season, with a pair of quality starts that included an eight-inning shutout effort on June 10. Add in one inning of scoreless relief, and the lefty held the righty-heavy St. Louis lineup to a 1.20 ERA on .241/.276/.296 hitting—a small sample size to go upon, but at least a more encouraging set of numbers to grapple with than Marcum's spate of disaster starts. The Milwaukee manager never wavered in his choice, bypassing both Narveson and the possibility of moving Gallardo up to pitch on three days' rest.

The first hitter went Marcum's way, as he went 0-2 on Furcal and retired him four pitches later when Yuniesky Betancourt made an over-the-shoulder catch as he approached the left-field line, a nice bit of defense from a team that found nearly every way to screw up afield in Game Five, when they made four errors. Marcum’s problems began when Jon Jay singled and stole second base; he couldn't finish Albert Pujols off after getting him 2-2, losing him with a walk. Lance Berkman, who came into the game 1-for-17 in his career against Marcum, got ahead 2-0 and pounded an RBI single to left center, taking second base when center fielder Nyjer Morgan missed the cutoff man in trying to get Pujols at third. The hapless hurler caught a break when he was able to glove-flip Matt Holliday's comebacker home in time for Jonathan Lucroy to tag out Pujols, but whatever good that did was erased when David Freese crushed his next pitch, an inside changeup that hung in the strike zone a bit too long, for a three-run homer.

The scoring completed a clean sweep for the Cardinals; they scored first in all six games after leading the majors by doing so 99 times during the regular season. Here the feat reflected both the depth of their lineup as well as the sudden shoddiness of Milwaukee's starters. In 11 post-season games, Marcum, Greinke, Gallardo, and Randy Wolf combined for a 6.99 ERA and just three quality starts (two by Gallardo, one by Wolf) while yielding 2.1 homers per nine; in the LCS, they pitched to a 7.22 ERA with 1.6 homers per nine.

Not that Narveson had many people crowing, "I told you so" after he came on for Marcum in the second inning and failed to stop the bleeding. The Brewers had cut the lead in the bottom of the first via Corey Hart's leadoff homer, but while Narveson racked up three strikeouts, he also surrendered a long homer to Rafael Furcal, who one-handed an 82 mph changeup into the left-field bleachers (oddly enough, of the eight homers Furcal hit during the regular season, five came against the Brewers, three of them at Miller Park). Down 5-1, the Brewers’ offense didn't roll over; Rickie Weeks led off the second inning with a solo homer against Jackson, and Jonathan Lucroy drilled a two-run homer after Jerry Hairston Jr. reached on an infield single. Hairston had to make an awkward slide into first to reach safely, and appeared to injure his left shoulder; he dove to avoid being tagged by Pujols, who had to leap to catch Furcal’s throw. Furcal had hurried his throw after diving himself.

Back within one run, the Brewers' comeback was short-lived, as Narveson couldn't shut down the Cardinals. Pujols joined the home-run derby by connecting on a high 3-2 fastball to left field for the game's fifth longball. With one out, a Holliday single, a Freese double, and an intentional walk to Molina loaded the bases, Nick Punto strolled to the plate. Instead of grounding into a double play as Roenicke hoped, Punto connected for a sacrifice fly to left, one in which Hart he-manned a throw home—the play was surprisingly close—instead of hitting the cutoff man, allowing the other two runners to advance.

Roenicke pulled Narveson in favor of LaTroy Hawkins; recognizing a high-leverage situation, La Russa responded by calling upon Allen Craig, his best pinch-hitter, to bat for Jackson. Hawkins fell behind 2-1, and then gave up a slow-bouncing two-run single up the middle to give the Cardinals their largest lead of the game to that point, 9-4. The play, arguably the final nail in the coffin of the Brewers' season, featured more lackluster defense from a team that had already made more than its share of mistakes. Weeks fielded the ball to the left of second base, but only after Betancourt appeared to nonchalantly pull up and let the ball go past him. Had the latter been able to knock the ball down, it likely would have prevented a run.

La Russa had gotten to this point—up five runs and seven innings away from a pennant—without getting more than five innings out of any starter in the LCS. His own starters had pitched to a 7.03 ERA while averaging just over four innings per start, but where Milwaukee's starters allowed four runs or more in all but one game (Wolf in Game Four), La Russa's zeal for the quick hook meant that St. Louis’ starters allowed more than three runs just twice (Jaime Garcia in Game One, and Jackson here)—a crucial difference even before going to the bullpen. Armed with no less than eight relievers, La Russa had successfully pieced together three other wins despite those early exits, and he would do so again.

He was able to get a combined 4 1/3 crucial innings out of righty Fernando Salas (the team leader in saves, with 24, but just two after August 11), and lefty Marc Rzepczynski. Salas, who had tossed three scoreless innings earlier in the series, pitched a scoreless third and surrendered one run in the fourth via back-to-back doubles by Hairston and Betancourt. He avoided further trouble by winning an eight-pitch battle with Hart, striking him out on a 92 mph fastball with two men on, his 43rd pitch of the night, one shy of his season high. Rzepczynski, who had pitched 2 1/3 hitless, scoreless innings in four previous appearances, yielded a run in the fifth after allowing a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Carlos Gomez, who took third on a wild pitch that went all the way to the backstop and scored on a Ryan Braun ground out that saw the slugger pull a Punto, sliding into first base to avoid the tag. The replay showed he was safe. Pujols appeared to hurt his right hand when landing awkwardly in his effort to tag Braun, but he stayed in the game. The Rzepper made short work of lefty Prince Fielder and Weeks, needing just seven pitches to retire the former on a ground out and whiff the latter. Braun and Fielder combined for an 0-for-8 night after going 1-for-8 in Game Five, a stark contrast to the 11-for-28 rampage, with five doubles and three homers, through the first four games.

The Cardinals extended the lead to 11-5 on Rzepczynski's watch as the Brewers' notoriously lax defense made even more mistakes in the fifth inning. Facing Kameron Loe, Holliday and Freese opened with singles, with the former taking third when Hart bobbled the latter’s hit as he tried to pick it up. But wait, there's more! Molina hit a chopper to Hairston; not only did the ball deflect off the third baseman’s glove, but Hairston tried to shovel the ball to second base once he picked it up. That went about as well as expected; the ball dribbled through Weeks' legs for a double-error play, scoring Holliday and sending Freese to third and Molina to second. Freese came home on a sac fly by pinch-hitter Adron Chambers.

Rzepczynski stuck around to get Craig Counsell to ground out for the first out of the seventh inning, then gave way to Octavio Dotel, who had surrendered one earned run in 3 1/3 innings in his three previous appearances for the series. Dotel induced Hart to line out, and after hitting Gomez with a pitch, struck out Braun for the third time of the series, after coming in 2-for-8 with 6 K's against the Brewers' left fielder. Small sample, sure, but it seems apparent that Braun doesn't pick up the ball well against Dotel; credit to La Russa for continually exploiting that matchup. Combine that with Rzepczynski holding Fielder 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, and you can see how the Cardinals were able to cool off those big wall-bangers.

The Cardinals added another run against Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth, while Lance Lynn, who had tossed 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in three previous appearances, worked another scoreless frame, and Jason Motte, who had gone 3 2/3 scoreless in three appearances prior, closed out the series with a 1-2-3 ninth capped by a fitting strikeout of Mark Kotsay, whose Game Threemisadventures served as a turning point for the series.

In all, the Cardinals' bullpen pitched more innings than the starters did, and were vastly more effective than the starters:

Split

G

IP

H

ER

HR

BB

SO

ERA

Starters

6

24.1

36

19

7

7

19

7.03

Bullpen

28

27.1

15

6

2

7

20

1.98

La Russa averaged an astounding 4.7 relievers per game, but he almost never called the wrong number; Mitchell Boggs was the only Cardinals reliever to allow more than one run all series.

Which isn't to say that the Cardinals' offense didn't play its part; they scored 43 runs in six games. Freese, who won MVP honors, hit .545/.600/1.091 with three homers, Pujols .478/.556/.870 with two homers, Holliday .435/.500/.652, Molina .333/.385/.458, and Lance Berkman got on base at a .375 clip (forgive my late-night math; I'm doing these by hand before the major stat sites have compiled their numbers). Add it up, and the Cardinals' number three through seven hitters combined to hit .420/.488/.688. That'll win you a series just about every time, no matter what your pitching does.

And so the Cardinals win their third pennant under La Russa, the sixth of the manager’s Cooperstown-bound career. From 10 games back in the wild-card race on August 27, they not only beat out the Braves for a post-season spot but bumped off the Phillies and Brewers, both favored by virtue of their starting pitching, in one of the more amazing and unlikely runs in recent memory. Congratulations to the organization and their fans. The Cardinals will face the Rangers in the World Series starting Wednesday. The over/under on pitching changes is going to be off the charts.

As for the Brewers, their starting pitching and defense were nearly no-shows in the series, the former after general manager Doug Melvin cashed in the team’s blue chips to acquire Greinke and Marcum, the latter thanks to the center-field platoon of Morgan and Gomez as well as late-season acquisition Hairston; let the record show that the team’s Defensive Efficiency was seven percentage points higher than the Cardinals’. Alas, that rotation’s inability to miss bats in this series (they struck out just 5.0 per nine) put the pressure on their defense to make the plays, and they—particularly Weeks, Betancourt, Hairston, and Hart—did not.

 Thus likely ends Fielder’s tenure in Milwaukee, and while his offense won’t be easy to replace, the money it would take to retain him can be better spent in other ways. The rest of the core is still rather formidable, though not without its flaws. Faced with the likelihood of Fielder’s departure, the aggressive tack of the organization and the response of its fans—who set an attendance record of 3,071,373, good for fourth in the league despite the league’s smallest market—have both been admirable. Congratulations to the organization and its fans on their most successful season since 1982, the last time these two foes met.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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