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October 20, 2011

World Series Prospectus

Opening Salvos

by Jay Jaffe

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After two League Championship Series full of slugfests, slopfests, and short starts—the four teams scored 5.5 runs per game while their starters averaged 4.8 innings per turn—the opener of the 2011 World Series between the Rangers and the Cardinals gave us a tight, low-scoring ballgame with solid-to-good starting pitching. True to LCS form, both managers emptied their bullpens with mostly-effective processions, but the Cardinals' bench and relief corps got the upper hand on two key plays, one of them a pinch-hit single by Allen Craig that Nelson Cruz almost caught, scoring the decisive run, the other an awful call that cost the Rangers a ninth-inning out. Behind those, and a few big hits from the middle of their lineup, the Redbirds took Game One in chilly, 49-degree St. Louis, 3-2.

In our staff preview of the Series, I awarded the St. Louis bench the advantage based upon Craig, arguing that the Rangers’ offense had no ninth man anywhere near his equal; the 26-year-old righty hit .316/.372/.504 in 149 PA against righties this year, .313/.343/.657 in 70 PA against lefties—small sample sizes, but ones consistent with his reputation as a minor-league masher. Though his presence will make for a bigger advantage with the designated hitter in the AL park, Tony La Russa's ability to call upon Craig as a pinch-hitter in a high-leverage spot is nothing to take lightly, particularly when that decision is backed by a deep and highly effective bullpen.

Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter, who entered the game having gone just five innings in his last turn, with reports of subsequent treatment for elbow soreness, had thrown just 87 pitches over six strong innings while getting a slew of ground balls. He made just one costly mistake, a high cutter to Mike Napoli that the Texas catcher demolished—pulverized, murderized, creamed, hit so hard that Roget's Thesaurus held a 75-percent off sale on descriptive verbs—for a two-run opposite-field home run, tying the game at 2-2. Working primarily with a sinker-cutter combo—he threw just seven curveballs all night to minimize the stress on his elbow—Carpenter’s night hadn't been spotless; he allowed five hits and a walk while striking out four, benefitting from a first inning gundown of Ian Kinsler by Yadier Molina and a second-inning double-play ball to overcome some early hiccups. He also got a raspberry on his left elbow when, covering first on Elvis Andrus’ first-inning grounder, he dove to receive the ball from Albert Pujols, and slid into first base on his non-throwing elbow; luckily, his pitching hand wasn’t spiked as it was on the bag. He probably had another inning in him when his spot to bat arrived, but given La Russa's understandable confidence in a unit that gave him an astounding 28 2/3 innings of 1.88 ERA ball in the previous series, his night was done.

Craig's announcement as a pinch-hitter triggered Ron Washington to pull starter C.J. Wilson, who in wobbling through 5 2/3 innings had nonetheless supplied by far his best outing of the postseason. Thanks to two double plays—one set up by an intentional walk of Pujols in the fifth—Wilson had worked around four hits and six walks (two of them intentional—we'll get to those)—to allow just two runs. Those came in the fourth inning, when he had gotten himself into hot water via a Pujols hit-by-pitch in the foot, a double by Matt Holliday on a first-pitch fastball, and then a two-run single down the right-field line by Lance Berkman. With nobody out in that inning, the Cardinals were still cooking; Berkman alertly tagged and took second on a deep Freese fly ball to Josh Hamilton in center. Following a Molina strikeout, the Rangers elected to intentionally walk Little Nicky Punto to face Carpenter, who obliged by hacking futilely at three pitches.

(Though no fan of the intentional walk, I had no objection to that one. Punto has been a pest this year, getting on base at a .388 clip, Carpenter a career .118/.145/.150 hitter. While forcing the Cardinals to lead off with the pitcher in the next inning had some merit, far better to use the escape hatch to make sure the run didn’t score.)

Alexi Ogando, the bullpen hero of the postseason (10 1/3 innings of one-run, 12-K ball), came in to face Craig, reclaiming the platoon advantage for the Rangers; the lanky righty held righties to a .202/.271/.289 line during the season. Wilson had left two men behind; on third was Freese, who had doubled with one out, then advanced to third on a wild pitch, and Punto, who wasn't intentionally passed a second time but was pitched around; after two low and inside curveballs and a slider that was juuust a bit outside, only Wilson's 3-0 cutter was anywhere close to the strike zone. Ogando threw a 97 mph fastball low and outside that Craig didn't bite at, and then two on the lower and upper fringes of the zone at which he swung and missed. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, a 98 mph heater that might have been called a ball, Craig connected late and sliced the ball to right field. Cruz charged toward foul territory in an effort to make the grab; sliding at the warning track, he gloved the ball, but just couldn't hold on. Freese scored, though Cruz was able to stop the ball from squirting past him, keeping Punto at third base. An excellent pitch had met a fine piece of two-strike hitting, and a play that could have gone either way fell out of Cruz's glove—that’s what baseball do, as Washington would say. Ogando recovered to retire Rafael Furcal on a warning-track fly out that Cruz ran down in right center to keep the deficit at one.

From there, the two managers staged a bullpen derby; including Ogando, they used eight relievers between them, just below their combined LCS average of 8.8. Fernando Salas was first out of St. Louis' pen but wasn't so effective, surrendering a one-out single to Cruz and walking Napoli on four pitches; the man with the Rangers' highest on-base and slugging percentages had been dropped to seventh to accommodate the ALCS MVP, when arguably both should have been batting three rungs higher given the state of Hamilton's injured groin and all-arms swing. Salas was picked up by lefty Marc Rzepcynski, whose arrival triggered Washington to pull lefty David Murphy (.215/.274/.234 versus lefties this season) in favor of righty Craig Gentry (.265/.338/.397 against lefties). The Rzepper got Gentry to look at strike three, an 85 mph changeup.

With the pitcher's spot due next, Washington sent up Esteban German to pinch-hit. A 33-year-old utilityman with a career .280/.359/.386 line (.292/.367/.416 against lefties), German spent most of the year in Triple-A and came to bat just 13 times for the Rangers, none since September 25. On Twitter, Washington drew some criticism for not sending up Yorvit Torrealba, given that the Rangers chose to carry a third catcher (Matt Treanor) over an eighth reliever. Less rusty though he may have been, Torrealba hit a fairly representative .273/.306/.399 this year and a lower-than-normal .256/.296/.316 against lefties (his career mark is .262/.331/.408). No, this was the better call given Washington's limited options, though German didn't make it look good, flailing at two of the three pitches, including an 85 mph slider in the dirt for strike three.

La Russa stuck with his matchup game, using Octavio Dotel to start the eighth. Dotel got Kinsler on a check-swing comebacker, and then three called strikes against Andrus on 91-94 mph cutters on the lower outside corner of the zone. The 37-year-old righty gave way to the 41-year-old lefty, Arthur Rhodes, pitching in the first World Series of his 20-year big-league career, against the team paying most of his salary (he was released by the Rangers in early August). Facing Hamilton—who had hit a thin .293/.311/.415without a homer through the first two series while playing at "50 percent"—Rhodes worked carefully, falling behind 2-0 and 3-1. He drew the count full by getting the slugger to foul off a high 89 mph fastball that under different circumstances might have landed in another county, then induced a harmless fly out to center field.

Washington played the matchup game after having pinch-hit for Ogando, using lefty Mike Gonzalez to face Jon Jay, then calling upon Scott Feldman, who had come up big in both previous playoff series with a total of 8 2/3 scoreless innings. Feldman went the rest of the way for Texas, retiring Pujols on a fly ball and Holliday on a liner to second base, yielding only an infield single to Berkman in the eighth.

Jason Motte came on for the ninth, and as with his NLCS outings, he made short work of the opposition. He got Young on a comebacker on the second pitch of the at-bat, and then retired Beltre on a controversial play. Replays appeared to show that the slugger fouled the first pitch of the at-bat off his left toe; the visuals of contact off the toe were less convincing than his instantaneous, hot-foot reaction, which appeared to be reflex, not sales job. The ball bounced right to defensive replacement David Descalso at third base, and he threw Beltre out without his having left the batter's box. Washington came out to argue, but apparently none of the umpires saw it differently, and with no replay to contradict them, there was no do-over—a brutal blow to the Rangers, and yet another reason to wish MLB would incorporate more replay. Cruz battled Motte seven pitches deep, but after fouling off a 97 mph heater, could only produce a harmless fly out on an 88 mph curve. The Cardinals had their win.

A few notes:

  • In all, it was a night that made La Russa look like a genius. The St. Louis bullpen allowed just two baserunners—both belonging to Salas, one hit and one walk—in three innings of work while notching three strikeouts. In only six plate appearances did the staff have the platoon disadvantage, and they held Hamilton, Murphy, and Gentry to a combined 0-for-6 in those turns. Texas’ relievers acquitted themselves well, throwing 2 1/3 innings of scoreless ball and allowing just two hits while striking out one, but Craig’s single off Ogando, scoring one of the two runners he inherited, obviously loomed large.
     
  • The middle of the Cardinals’ lineup (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman, and Freese) combined to go 4-for-10 with two doubles, an HBP, and two walks, a .400/.538/.500 line. The Rangers’ third through sixth hitters (Hamilton, Young, Beltre, and Cruz), went 3-for-15 with a walk and a double, for a .200/.250/.267 line, and the game ended with Napoli on deck, unable to get a fourth plate appearance after going 1-for-2 with a walk and a homer. This, obviously, is where batting order matters. Allegiance to an obviously diminished Hamilton isn’t going to serve the Rangers well in this series, and for that matter, sacred cow Young is hitting just .191/.224/.319 in the postseason and should probably move down as well to guarantee Cruz and Napoli more at-bats. This series may hinge on Washington’s ability to adjust his lineup accordingly.
     
  • Pujols’ fifth-inning intentional walk is worthy of comment. Rafael Furcal had drawn a walk to lead off the inning, whereby La Russa elected to have Jon Jay bunt. He sacrificed successfully, but that opened first base for Pujols, and instead of pitching to the wrecking machine that’s batting .419/.490/.721 this month, Washington ordered the intentional pass. That still left Wilson to face Holliday, who had doubled in his previous at-bat, and Berkman, who had followed with the two-run single, which meant there weren’t a lot of easy outs to be had. Given that Wilson led the majors in GIDP with 31 (ranking third with 10.7 Net DP), and that Holliday’s 5.5 Net DP ranked 20th among 134 batting title qualifiers, I can see the justification for playing for the twin killing, though it’s worth noting that even on a team that set a record by grounding into 169 double plays, Berkman was a surprising second-to-last in that bunch with -8.1 Net DP. In any event, Wilson got Holliday to ground into an around-the-horn double play to get out of that jam.

 

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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