October 14, 2006
LCS, Day Four
What's amazing isn't just that the Cardinals came back to win last night's game and tie the NLCS at a game apiece. What's amazing is just how close they were to being buried. With all due honor to the way So Taguchi battled back from an 0-2 count in the ninth inning to hit an incredibly unlikely home run, the real turning point in the game had occurred about an hour before that blast. The Mets were a pitch away from putting the Cardinals away, but the inability to choose that pitch let the Cards off the mat, into the game, and now, on their way home with new life.
Consider that after Jim Edmonds tied the game with an opposite-field blast in the third, the Cardinals had gone back to their punchless ways. They picked up just one hit and two walks in the next 16 PAs, while the Mets broke the tie in the fifth and added on a run in the sixth. Now working from their bullpen with two outs in the seventh, they appeared to be in control of the game. However, Guillermo Mota was about to let it slip away. After a terrific 11-pitch battle with Albert Pujols ended with a two-out single, Mota walked Jim Edmonds on four pitches to bring up Scott Spiezio.
Mota pulled it together in a hurry. He got ahead of Spiezio, a good fastball hitter, 0-2 by pulling the string on a pair of change-ups. At 0-2, he threw a fastball inside that Spiezio hooked foul down the right-field line. Three pitches thrown, two on which Spiezio had looked helpless, one that he hit very hard. You probably want to stick with the first, right?
It's never clear who makes a decision like this, but we do know that the fastball Mota threw was not only a peculiar choice of pitch, but it was horribly located. Paul Lo Duca was set up over the outside edge, perhaps even off the plate. Mota put the fastball over the inside half, and Spiezio jerked it over the right-field fence, and although robbed of a homer by Shawn Green, settled for a game-tying two-run triple.
The Mets were one pitch away from ending the game. The Cards would have been down two with six outs left, with the bottom of the lineup up in the eighth and Billy Wagner ready for the ninth. Instead, for want of a change-up, or for any kind of location on the fastball, the Cardinals now had their first real chance to make this a series. Their bullpen held on, Taguchi had a Bucky Dent moment, and now there's no guarantee that Shea Stadium will see another baseball game this year.
The at-bat by Spiezio was eerily similar to the one he had in the 2002 World Series with the Angels, when Felix Rodriguez tried to sneak a fastball by him with the Giants up 5-0 in the seventh. Spiezio homered on that one as well, triggering a six-run comeback that put the Angels on track for a championship. Spiezio has a remarkable track record in these situations; Fox reported that he was 13-for-19 in his postseason career batting with runners in scoring position…right before he hit a double to go to 14-for-20. It's not predictive, and it's not reflective of a particular skill, but it is an eye-popping number that has meant an awful lot for his teams.
Maybe this makes me a bad baseball fan, but I haven't found this series compelling at all. The Tigers appear to be the only team that has shown up, and while that's a credit to them and a boon for their fans, it hasn't made for exciting baseball. The A's simply haven't put anything together, falling behind by the fourth inning of every game, and drifting away from there. The A's hit two balls out of the infield after the second inning. They're just not putting up a fight.
Kenny Rogers didn't have the same kind of command that he showed against the Yankees last week, but he had enough. Does anybody remember when he was a postseason choker? It's amazing what two good starts can do for your reputation. Rogers retired 17 of the last 19 batters he faced, got through the third through the seventh innings on just 55 pitches, and at no point after the first inning appeared in any danger of giving up a run.
This game was over 20 minutes into it. Rich Harden threw seven straight balls to start the game, allowed a walk and two singles to the first three hitters, and that was that. He didn't look right; I don't have any argument against starting him in the postseason, but he still doesn't look like the same pitcher who at times looked like the best in the AL in 2005.
That's about all there is to say. The Tigers played good defense behind Rogers, and they scored enough runs to win. The resemblance to last year's White Sox grows with each game, as they take early leads and get good starts to back them up. There's certainly some remote chance that they won't go to the World Series, but the more likely scenario is that they never even board a plane to go back to California.