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October 18, 2005

Prospectus Today

Not Dead Yet

by Joe Sheehan

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"I live for that."

"Okay, that baserunning error by Pujols. He just made up for it."

"What a beautiful freakin' game."

Those were just some of the comments that showed up in my inbox following last night's NLCS Game Five, won by the Cardinals' on a ninth-inning, two-out, three-run home run by Albert Pujols. Down to their final strike in the ninth, the Cards got a scratch single, a walk and Pujols' monster blast to send the series back to St. Louis.

I do mean "monster." On 0-1, Brad Lidge hung his slider in the zone, and you could actually hear Pujols' mind go "Yippee!" when he saw the pitch. There was no doubt this was gone, and it was no Crawford Box "blast." The ball landed up by the train tracks at Minute Maid Park, and when it did, the Cardinals had staved off elimination for one more day.

Pujols had to be thrilled not only by the pitch he saw and what he did with it, but by getting another chance at all. He'd had a horrible night, going 0-for-4 and leaving five runners on base. He'd come up with two on and no one out in both the first and the third innings and failed to so much as advance a runner. He had been as much a part of the Cardinals' struggles with men on base as any of his teammates,

The rally capped a weekend on which Lidge showed himself to be a little more hittable this year than he was in his 2004 postseason run. The Cards got a run on a walk and a pop-up double Saturday, and knocked two singles Sunday without scoring. These rallies were far more than they'd achieved off Lidge in '04, and with the right-hander working his third straight game, perhaps we should have seen the possibility of this kind of rally.

Still, Lidge did get down to one strike before making a couple of big mistakes; he threw a slider to David Eckstein after Eckstein had looked like he wanted no part of three straight fastballs, and Eckstein grounded a single to left. Lidge then walked Jim Edmonds, the tying run, on five pitches to bring up Pujols. Edmonds is a great player, and Lidge is generally more difficult on right-handed batters, and there's just no way that matters. You can't give Pujols a shot at you via a walk. Throw Edmonds strikes and if he beats you, he beats you. The game is tied. Finally, the slider to Pujols was a hanger, just a brutal pitch, akin to the splitter Kelvim Escobar left up in the zone in the ALCS Game Two that ended that contest.

Now, Astros fans aren't going to have the same sense of elation as Cards fans, although they did have about an hour of pure joy. I suppose history doesn't concern itself with fans of the 1992 Pirates much, either. Lance Berkman's three-run home run into the Crawford boxes set off a celebration that seemed set to last all the way to Saturday's World Series opener, and when the Cardinals saw all of five pitches in the eighth inning, the franchise's 43-year drought looked over.

Even after last night's debacle, the Astros are in the same situation they were in a year ago, needing to to St. Louis and win one of two games to reach the World Series. In their favor is that they have two of the top five starters in the league starting the games in Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, with Lidge getting a much-needed day off before they have to take the field again.

The problem, if you use history as a guide, is that it's hard to name teams that gave up this kind of dramatic home run and held on to win the series. Just riffle through your mind for big home runs akin to Pujols' that didn't end a series. Kirby Puckett? His team won Game Seven. Dave Henderson? His team won Games Six and Seven. These kinds of moments do seem to herald something bigger, something that changes momentum.

On the other hand, Astros fans need only go back one year to find a dramatic home run by a team that lost the series. In NLCS Game Five, Jeff Kent crushed a three-run home run in the ninth inning to give the 'Stros a 3-0 win and a 3-2 lead in the series. The Astros would lose the next two games in St. Louis, however (Game Six on another dramatic homer, this one by Edmonds).

Me, I'm with Earl Weaver: "Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher." The Astros may not win this series, because they're facing the better team in its home park, but any failure to do so will have little to do with a carryover effect from last night's loss.

--

  • Berkman's seemingly-decisive home run in the seventh opened Tony La Russa up to criticism for not turning Berkman around to the right side. Berkman has terrific power from the left side, and just adquate power from the right. The difference is about 130 points of slugging, and half the home-run rate, over the course of his career. Chris Carpenter seemed to be losing it a little, with just one swinging strike in two innings. Ray King was available and ready as well.

    The problem with analysis like this is that it appears after the fact. It's not easy to take out your best pitcher when he's allowed just one run. On the other hand, he was up close to 100 pitches, and turning Berkman around not only reduces his power but gets him batting from the side that makes him more likely to ground into a double play.

    I think Minute Maid Field plays a part at a time like that. It seems counterintuitive that you'd want to bring turn a batter around to bat right-handed with the short left-field porch. I'm certain that the park affected Bobby Cox's decision-making in the decisive NLDS Game Four, where I think he would have used Pete Orr for an inning before going to any of the three southpaws on his staff.

    With all that said, I think La Russa has to go out of his way to keep Berkman from beating him from the left side. There aren't a lot of ways for the Astros to score three runs in an inning, and almost all of them involve Berkman batting left-handed. We'll see if, removed from the bandbox, La Russa gets more aggressive about the Astros' only true left-handed threat.

  • The Cardinals made a couple of terrific defensive plays in this game that kept them alive. Yadier Molina's second-inning catch-and-tag that retired Morgan Ensberg was as good a play as a catcher can make. It wasn't just the physical act, but the split-second decision by Molina to turn to his right, rather than his left, converting the bad throw by Albert Pujols into an out. Just a great play, another one of those elements of defense that we have no real way of measuring.

    Reggie Sanders made a big play right after Berkman's homer, taking an Ensberg liner off the wall and throwing him out as he tried to stretch the hit into a double. It kept a big inning from degenerating even further.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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