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October 31, 2011

World Series Prospectus

A Card Fought Win

by Jay Jaffe

That Game Seven of the 2011 World Series couldn't match the drama of Game Six was almost a given even before the first pitch was thrown. We don't talk about the finales of the 1975 or 1986 World Series in the same reverential tones as we do their penultimate contests, great though they may have been on their own merits. So unsurprisingly, we were not treated to a Jack Morris-level performance or an extra-inning walk-off win to complete the neat historical parallel provided by the Buck family’s "We'll see you tomorrow night!" calls following game-winning homers. Nonetheless, the first Game Seven in nine years required one more come-from-behind effort—down 2-0 before their starter had retired a single hitter—as well as heroics from some familiar names for the Cardinals to complete one of the most unlikely comebacks in baseball history en route to winning their 11th world championship via a 6-2 win over the Rangers.

Ultimately, the Cardinals should probably have voted Mother Nature a share of the playoff money, for Wednesday's postponement made Chris Carpenter available on three days' rest. That allowed Tony La Russa to bypass Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson—both fully rested after their Games Three and Four starts, in which they had combined to allow six runs in 8.1 innings—in favor of his ace. While not dominant, Carpenter had been more than serviceable in his Games One and Five starts, allowing four runs in 13 innings in the wake of pre-Series reports of elbow soreness.

Nonetheless, the Cards had cause for concern over Carpenter’s condition early. The 36-year-old righty had been roughed up in his previous start on short rest in Game Two of the Division Series against the Phillies, allowing four runs in three innings; in the first inning, he hardly looked long for this contest. Ian Kinsler slapped his second pitch into left field for a single, and while he was picked off of first base following the next pitch via a snap throw from Yadier Molina, Elvis Andrus came up next, walked on five pitches, and scored on Josh Hamilton's RBI double to right field. Michael Young followed with a bloop double to right as well, running the score to 2-0; at that point, Carpenter had thrown first-pitch balls to each of the first four hitters. He recovered to whiff Adrian Beltre on three pitches, finishing with an 86-mph cutter low and away and got Nelson Cruz to ground out, but in all, he threw just 10 strikes out of his 18 pitches.

As they did the previous night, when they overcame leads of 1-0, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4, and 9-7, the Cardinals stormed back against Rangers starter Matt Harrison, who had lasted just three innings in his Game Three start. Harrison got two quick outs before walking Albert Pujols on four pitches and Lance Berkman on five. Failing to get a borderline call on a low and inside first-pitch fastball—a problem that would continue all night, more to Texas’ detriment than to St. Louis’—Harrison fell behind David Freese 2-1; he battled back to a full count before Freese, whose final two at-bats on Friday night featured a game-tying triple and a game-winning homer, laced a game-tying two-run double to left center field. That gave the Cardinals third baseman a record 21 RBI for the postseason. Molina, the first of the six hitters Harrison faced in the inning not to start with ball one, drove a ball to the warning track, but Josh Hamilton made a leaping catch in front of the wall for the third out.

The Rangers threatened again in the second against a still-shaky Carpenter. Mike Napoli, still stuck batting seventh despite hitting .375/.500/.813 through the first six games of the series, led off with a single and was erased via a David Murphy forceout. Harrison laid a good bunt—as these things go—down the first base line to advance Murphy to second; he took third when Kinsler walked again and a pickoff throw bounced out of Albert Pujols's glove for an error. Carpenter escaped by getting Andrus to hit a comebacker.

That was the last real challenge Carpenter faced all night. To that point he had thrown 37 pitches, 20 of them for balls. Thirteen of the 21 sinkers he had thrown went for balls, as did seven of 15 cutters; he had thrown just one curveball to that point, reminiscent of Game One, when he threw just seven. Over the next four-plus innings, he would allow just three runners to reach: Beltre via a two-out hit-by-pitch on the left triceps in the third, Kinsler with a leadoff single in the fifth, and Murphy with a ground rule double to lead off the seventh—Carpenter’s final hitter of the night. He dodged one bullet in the sixth inning, when Allen Craig—playing left field after Matt Holliday's sprained wrist forced him off the roster—robbed Cruz of a homer; it wasn't Endy Chavez in the 2006 NLCS, but it was a steal nonetheless. Of the 54 pitches Carpenter threw over that span, 32 were sinkers (11 balls), 14 were cutters (5 balls), and nine were curves (two balls); within the context of the game, not only did he settle down, he raised kids and built a prosperous empire. Unlike his previous two starts, when all four runs came via three homers, he kept the ball in the park and wound up striking out five—his high for the series.

The Cardinals pulled ahead in the third inning. Craig, this man's pick as a difference-maker off the bench, had already gone 4-for-15 with two homers and a pair of very big pinch-hits through the first six games; here, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, he pounded an opposite field solo home run on a high 91-mph fastball to give the Cards a 3-2 lead. They threatened again in the fourth via back-to-back one-out singles by Molina and Rafael Furcal, who after going 3-for-25 through the first six games had been bumped to the number seven slot and singled in his first two at-bats. A Skip Schumaker groundout to first base advanced the runners, and then La Russa let Carpenter bat with two out and men on second and third—a situation where pinch-hitting might have been justified had the manager a deeper bench or less confidence in his starter. Carpenter flied out, and while his turn was subject to a bit of second-guessing, his shutdown performance from there thoroughly justified his remaining in the game.

After the Rangers stranded Kinsler at second in the top of the fifth—he had advanced on an Andrus bunt, but Hamilton popped out foul to Freese, who reached for a nice catch at the rail, and then Young struck out on an 88-mph cutter that was low and outside—the Cardinals widened their lead in the bottom half of the inning. Though he had warmed up C.J. Wilson twice prior, Ron Washington bypassed him in favor of Scott Feldman, who, like the two starters, struggled with home plate umpire Jerry Layne's strike zone and was squeezed on some key calls. Feldman got Ryan Theriot to ground out after an eight-pitch battle, then walked Craig on five pitches, the third and fifth of which should have been low strikes according to the PITCHf/x plots at BrooksBaseball.net. He then grazed Pujols's jersey on an 0-2 changeup.

Washington, to his detriment, didn't have the lefty Wilson ready to face Berkman, who batted just .242/.333/.411 against lefties this year; though Feldman got him to ground out to first base, it advanced the runners—an acceptable result, albeit off of a bad process. The Rangers skipper then made an even worse mistake by intentionally walking Freese to load the bases, removing all margin for error and bringing up the pesky Molina, to that point 7-for-22 with three walks for the series, including a bases-loaded walk the night before. As BP alum Rany Jazayerli succinctly reminded us, Molina's expected OBP (.331 for his career) is higher than Freese's expected batting average (.298 in his career); even if you go by situational averages (Molina's career .347 OBP with the bases loaded, Freese's career .337 AVG with RISP), the tradeoff simply wasn't worth the loss of the pitcher's breathing room. Feldman fell behind 3-0, got the gimme’ strike with a sinker over the plate and then another on the outside corner; Molina thought the latter was ball four and started for first base, only to be called back. Feldman's next pitch, a 96-mph sinker, was a bit further outside, but PITCHf/x showed it to still be within the zone.

That forced in a run and forced Feldman out of the game; finally, on came Wilson, whose first pitch, a 92-mph fastball, drilled Furcal right on the hip, forcing in another run. He recovered to strike out Schumaker and throw a 1-2-3 sixth, but by now the Rangers were down three runs and were nine outs away from losing. Lightning would not strike in the same place twice.

La Russa had allowed Carpenter to lead off the sixth, which seemed like a curious move once he pulled him after Murphy's leadoff double, which came on an 0-2 hanging curve nearly identical to a pitch that he'd just let go by. Chavez, a lefty, was announced as the pinch-hitter; La Russa summoned Arthur Rhodes, pushing Washington to instead call upon Yorvit Torrealba. By letting his starter face one more hitter, La Russa forced Washington to burn a second player from an already weak bench. Rhodes induced Torrealba to fly out to center field—he didn't advance the runner—then departed in favor of righty specialist Octavio Dotel, who mowed down Kinsler on a four-pitch strikeout and got Andrus to fly out.

Down to their final six outs, the Rangers could ill afford to give up another run, but they did in the seventh. Mike Adams, drastically underutilized in this series (two appearances, four outs) struck out Pujols but failed to get a glove down in time to stop Berkman's comebacker; he reached on an infield single for the third time of the series. Squeezed on a 2-0 curveball, he walked Freese, then yielded a single up the middle to Molina, scoring Berkman to run the lead to 6-2.

That final run seemed to take the fight out of the Rangers; Team Entropy would not ride again. Lance Lynn needed just 11 pitches to work a 1-2-3 eighth against Hamilton, Young, and Beltre, and Jason Motte needed 11 as well to retire Cruz, Napoli and Murphy, the last out coming on a routine fly into the glove of Craig as Busch Stadium erupted while the Cardinals—the World Champion Cardinals—dogpiled near the mound.

It was just the third game of the series that was decided by more than two runs and the third time the deciding run was scored before the sixth inning; by this series' high standards, it was a dud. Nonetheless, it capped a remarkable comeback for the Cardinals. Down ten and a half games in the Wild Card race through the close of play on August 24, they won 23 of their final 32 regular season games, never losing more than two in a row, and then upsetting both the Phillies and Brewers, clinching their respective series on the home fields of the two NL teams that had better run differentials than they did.

The victory marked the Cardinals' 11th title, a total that trails only the Yankees' 27. It gave La Russa his third World Championship in his third decade—joining his 1989 win with the A's and his 2006 one with the Cardinals—and tying him with John McGraw, Miller Huggins, and Spark Anderson for sixth on the all-time list. La Genius made his mistakes in this series, particularly in Game Five—we have tapes, dude, and don’t you forget it—but he was out-mismanaged by Washington, whose batting orders, bunts, intentional walks, and questionable reliever choices backfired more often.

The two teams combined to use 58 relievers; I believe that's a record, but at this wee hour I am not sure. I do know that they both shattered the 2002 Giants' postseason record for most relievers used, with the Cardinals (75) and Rangers (70) ahead of the Giants' 62. Of those two units, the Cards' was by far the more effective one in the series; their 4.56 ERA, while unimpressive, trumped the 7.43 mark of the Rangers. Their 22/9 K/BB ratio (including three intentional walks) far outdid the Rangers' 21/20 mark (with six intentionals) as well—that's an astounding 20 walks in 23 innings for the latter. As a staff, the Rangers' 41 walks set a World Series record—a fitting albatross for Washington’s work.

Freese, who hit .348/.464/.696 with five extra-base hits and seven RBI, won MVP honors. He collected hits in six of the seven games and, all told, hit .393/.448/.787 with five homers in the postseason while becoming the sixth player ever to win both LCS and World Series MVP honors in the same year. Pujols, who ended with a .240/.424/.640 line, went just 1-for-19 with six walks (five intentional) outside of Game Three; for all of the bashing Washington took for his team's approach to the Cardinals' best hitter, it's worth noting that save for one night, the Rangers' pitchers were able to get him out consistently when they challenged him. Berkman hit a robust .423/.516/.577, my boy Craig .263/.417/.737, and Molina .333/.414/.417 with a team-high nine RBI. Napoli, who with one more well-timed strike on Thursday night would have taken home a new car, hit .350/.464/.700 with 10 RBI in a losing cause, and Beltre hit .300/.323/.567, but the Rangers' other big bats were held in check; Hamilton, who played through a sports hernia, batted .241/.258/.414, Young .259/.276/.519, and Cruz .200/.333/.440. The 28 plate appearances Napoli got were three fewer than Hamilton and Beltre, two fewer than Cruz, and one fewer than Young; an extra trip to the plate certainly could have meant something in Game One, which ended with him on deck, and might have mattered elsewhere, though he wound up being the right man in the right place at the right time in Games Four and Five.

Despite Friday’s anticlimax, it was a thrilling World Series by most standards, and it came at the end of a postseason that tied a record with 38 out of a possible 41 games played. Add in the final two nights of the regular season, and most of us have quite possibly experienced the best 32 days of baseball of our lifetimes. Team Entropy is all of us who stuck around to wring every last drop from this season despite our own favorites yielding to the hard facts of autumn and falling by the wayside. For all of the late hours—it’s past 4 AM as I type this, one of countless late nights on this beat—it has been a thrill to cover, whether from the ballpark, the barstool, or the couch, to connect with you, dear readers, and to occasionally connect for an occasionally correct prediction as well. I thank you all for tuning in to Baseball Prospectus and for following along on Twitter. By my count, we’re only about 110 days away from Pitchers and Catchers.

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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