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October 16, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Four Recap: Cardinals 4, Dodgers 2

by Ben Lindbergh

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Matt Holliday hit a long home run on Tuesday night. According to Home Run Tracker, it traveled 423 feet, which made it the fourth-longest homer hit since the postseason started.

It looked a lot longer. Not only because the broadcast made it tough to tell when (or if) it came down, but because it had been so long since the last dinger these two teams had produced that the notion of multiple runs generated by a single swing seemed strange. (As TBS reported, no series had gone three games without a homer since the 1948 Fall Classic.) The inning snapped a 16-frame scoreless streak for St. Louis, almost as long as the 22-inning drought the Dodgers ended in Game Four.

As R.J. Anderson noted last season, teams generally try to pitch Holliday inside, which is where A.J. Ellis set up. Ricky Nolasco missed up and out over the inner third of the plate; the red ellipse superimposed on this image illustrates where Ellis’ glove was when Nolasco was about to deliver the ball.

Holliday did what he does to fastballs in the strike zone, and St. Louis’ lead increased from 1-0 to 3-0, large enough that Los Angeles couldn’t catch up. The left fielder had a huge second half (.348/.442/.552) to make up for a slow start (.268/.351/.448), but until this at-bat, he hadn’t reached base since the end of the NLDS. When he finally reached first base, he got to keep going.

Nolasco got Holliday to pop out on an almost identical pitch in his first at-bat, a sinker at roughly the same speed just a little less low and inside:

But according to Ellis, when Holliday returned to the plate he was “almost looking for” something in the same place. “In hindsight, we should have done something a little different on the first pitch,” Ellis admitted.

In my Game Three recap, I wrote, “If Nolasco and [Lance] Lynn do go head to head, we might finally see some runs scored.” And we did, but only by the standards of a low-scoring series in a pitching-first postseason. “This is a top-step-of-the-dugout kind of game,” one of the announcers said early, echoing Ernie Johnson’s “top-step night” comment from Game One. I’ll save TBS some time: let’s just call it a top-step series.

***

  • As I said to Sam on the podcast today, no hitter appears—and “appears” is probably the operative word—to shift more quickly from lost to locked in than Yasiel Puig. In August, I wrote about how Puig had learned to lay off unhittable pitches and content himself with walks, and it’s looked like he had to make that adjustment again over the first four games of this series. In the first two, he swung wildly, went hitless, and struck out several times. Since then, he’s let bad (and even borderline) balls go by and hit the others hard.

    In the second inning, he took a close 3-1 pitch for his first playoff walk.


    In the fourth, he resisted the temptation to swing at a low 2-2 breaking ball, even after being provoked by what looked like a brushback pitch, waiting instead for a higher 3-2 pitch that he was able to hit hard up the middle.


    I’m probably overanalyzing, because there’s a tendency to treat everything Puig does as significant. But the fewer balls he swings at, the more strikes the Cardinals have to throw him, which makes him much more dangerous.

  • Granted, I grew up watching the American League, but for me, nothing says “Bring on the DH” better than the pitcher’s spot spoiling an otherwise exciting bases-loaded situation. Ricky Nolasco wasn’t the player I wanted to see on his way to the plate with two outs in the second and three runners hoping for a hitter who could put the ball in play.

  • Tough to say who had the better reaction to home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman’s ball call on a 2-2 pitch to Lance Lynn: Ellis,



    Or Chris Withrow:


    Okay, maybe not that tough to say. Withrow wins.

  • In Game Three, Mike Matheny went to rookie groundball specialist Seth Maness with a runner on first and one out in the eighth, hoping to get a grounder that his infielders could turn two on. Maness gave up a single and a double instead, but Matheny went back to him in a similar situation in Game Four. This time, Maness got Juan Uribe to ground into a pretty double play started by Pete Kozma.

    Nearly 70 percent of the batted balls Maness allowed this season were on the ground, and he led the majors in double play rate (DP converted/DP opp) at 29.6 percent (min. 60 IP). Although he doesn’t miss many bats, he’s a good guy to bring in when the force is in effect at multiple bags.

  • Speaking of Kozma, he might have had a shot at gloving a couple balls up the middle that Daniel Descalso (Tuesday’s starter) couldn’t get to. Then again, Descalso singled and scored in the third, which might be more than Kozma could’ve said.

  • Mark Ellis still plays good defense at second—his snag of Carlos Beltran’s hard grounder in the third was especially smooth—but that doesn’t mean he has to hit second, too.

  • On Monday, I wrote that the Cardinals “don’t have a hitter on their bench.” On Tuesday, Shane Robinson hit a pinch hit homer. On Wednesday, I stand by my statement.

  • Hanley Ramirez struck out three times, appeared to be in pain, and was lifted in the sixth. He’s hurting, but hopes to play today. Even if he is in the lineup, his performance could be compromised.

  • A day after Descalso was doubled off in Game Three, Nick Punto was picked off after a one-out double in the seventh, a particularly perplexing mistake given that the Dodgers were down by two runs. Broadcasters were quick to attribute Kolten Wong’s throw to a suboptimal base on Monday to youth, experience, and playoff jitters, but it’s not just rookies who’ve made mistakes in this series. In Game Three, Puig failed to slide into second to stop a double play, but in Game Four, Andre Ethier was guilty of a similar sin. It might be that certain players are affected disproportionately by playoff pressure, but it takes a pretty broad brush to to attach that label to an entire age group. Prior playoff experience just isn’t the explanation for everything.

  • It was very strange to see Carlos Marmol pitch in the playoffs, dusting off his arm in game for the first time since September 27. But before he trotted in, the Dodgers’ win expectancy had dropped to single digits. With Game Four already close to a lost cause, trying to keep Brian Wilson fresh for tomorrow’s elimination game wasn’t the worst idea. And fortunately for Mattingly, he got away with it.

  • According to WhoWins' historical data, teams up 3-1 in best-of-seven series with home-field advantage have finished off their opponent 35 times in 41 tries. St. Louis lost to San Francisco after taking a 3-1 lead in last year’s NLCS, so they know they’re not assured of anything, especially with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw starting the next two games on full rest. Greinke and Kershaw have started back-to-back games for the Dodgers 29 times this season; 11 times, the Dodgers won both starts. Of course, it's tougher to do that against a team as good as St. Louis. Having to win just one of the next three, with Adam Wainwright scheduled to go again in Game Seven at home if needed, puts the Cardinals in a commanding position.

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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