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October 20, 2006

Prospectus Today

Off Script

by Joe Sheehan

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That's what I mean.

After a run-up to the game that included one starter being dubbed the worst ever to start a Game Seven, and speculation has to how soon the bullpens would get involved, and the notion that maybe the Mets could start Steve Trachsel and pull him quickly passed around, and Jeff Suppan's road ERA mentioned more than once...we got a pitchers' duel decided in the ninth inning.

You can't predict this stuff. Any advance analysis of last night's game in was not going to have the two starters combining for 13 innings of six-hit, two-run baseball, was not going to have Yadier Molina hitting a game-winning homer, and quite frankly, was not going to have the Cardinals doing the dogpile'n'champagne thing.

Yet that's what we got. For the fifth time in the series, the Cardinals got a strong start, this time from Suppan. Cards' starters had an ERA of 2.81 in 41 2/3 innings in the NLCS, as mid-rotation guys like Suppan and Jeff Weaver stepped forward with strong performances. The Cardinals allowed just seven runs after Sunday's blowout loss, making up for their own problems scoring runs with, cliché as it is to say, pitching and defense. Take away a two-inning meltdown in Game Four, and the Cards held the Mets to just 18 runs after the remaning six-plus games. The Mets had scored 19 runs in just the three-game Division Series.

The defense deserves just as much credit as the pitchers do. The Mets popped eight homers in the NLCS and drew 24 walks, good totals for a seven-game series. When they put the ball in play, however, they made outs. They hit a lowly .242 on balls in play, more than 50 points below their regular-season mark. The Cardinals, not a strikeout staff, managed to pitch to contact (just 36 strikeouts in seven games) without getting singled and doubled to death. They share some credit for that figure, but when you look at why the Mets didn't put runs on the board, that .242 mark (of if you prefer, a DER of about .758), was the key to the series.

That defense is what gives the Cardinals a fighting chance in the World Series. I'll have more on this tomorrow, but the Tigers/Cardinals matchup features two of the best team defenses in the game pitching behind two ball-in-play staffs. It's a very interesting matchup.

For now, though, you have to tip your hat to the Cardinals. Eighteen days ago, no one figured they would win even a round. Now, they're off to the World Series. The last week of September seems like it happened to some other team, like some kind of weird dream.

  • Both teams' lineups looked like they were pressing a bit early in the game. The pitch counts for both Suppan and Perez were very low, and there was a lot of swinging, with very little working the count. Credit Perez, who seemed to know he wasn't out there to last long, with attacking the strike zone with his fastball. He got ahead of 19 of the 23 hitters he faced, and started the last 11 hitters he saw-after intentionally walking Albert Pujols in the third-with a strike. For a pitcher who struggles with repeating his delivery, and subsequently his command, to have a night like that on short rest in these conditions…well, let's just say that he was cheated out of his place in Mets history by the absence of run support. With some runs to work with, he might have been a hero.

    Suppan was doing what he does, getting ahead and then throwing nothing in the middle of the plate. After a 22-pitch first inning, he got through the next two innings on just 14 offerings. This stretch, where the Mets gave away the benefits of making him work hard in the first inning, set up the rest of the game. Suppan pitched well and wasn't going deep into counts, so La Russa was able to ride him into the eighth inning, rather than start the matchups game earlier.

    But for a couple of well-placed bloopers, both pitchers might have thrown shutouts last night.

  • There are no words for the Endy Chavez catch. Sometimes plays like this are overrated because they're not really "home-run saving" catches. Guys get to the warning track, jump, and catch a ball that was going to hit the wall. They "leap" to make a play that also would have been made by running two more steps. They cover for a poor read or a lousy jump with athleticism at the end.

    Not this one. Scott Rolen hit a home run. He. Hit. A. Home. Run. Endy Chavez simply took it away from him, reaching about a foot over the wall and another two feet behind it. The ball was already over the fence, two runs for the Cardinals on the board, a crowd about to be silenced…and Chavez turned it around. He not only saved two runs, he got the ball back in and picked up a bonus out on Jim Edmonds, who'd gone way too far around second base.

    Endy Chavez put on a show in this postseason. He's a pretty mediocre hitter, but he may actually be a viable starter, at least in center field, just based on his defense. It really is that good.

    At the point when Delgado catches the relay to complete the double play and end the inning, I don't know that you could have found a dozen people outside of Missouri to give the Cardinals a chance to win the game. But they did.

  • The most fascinating decision of the game happened in the ninth inning, after the Mets opened with consecutive singles off of Adam Wainwright. There aren't a whole lot of good sacrifice bunting situations, but first and second, no one out, down two at home is definitely one of them. Had Willie Randolph sent up a pinch-hitter to bunt for Aaron Heilman, it would have been completely defensible.

    Instead, Randolph went for the gold by sending up Cliff Floyd. Floyd struck out on six pitches, and the game ended three batters later.

    I don't know that there's a right answer here. One thing we know is that Randolph's choice of pinch-hitter was going to tip his hand. Sending up Chris Woodward or Anderson Hernandez would have telegraphed the bunt, and made it less likely to succeed. Sending up Floyd, on the other hand, announced that there would be no bunt. Floyd was up there to win the NLCS with one swing.

    If you bunt successfully in that situation, you have two runners in scoring position for two of your best hitters for average, Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca. Reyes is as good a guy to have up there as you're going to get. With Endy Chavez moved up to second base, virtually any single is going to tie the game. There's a chance that La Russa will walk Reyes, but I think it's a small one; not only does it put the winning run on base, but it means that instead of facing Reyes and Lo Duca, you're choosing to face Lo Duca and Carlos Beltran unless you get the double play.

    If you send up Floyd, on the other hand, your chance of a double play is basically equivalent to your chance of a ground ball. As we saw at the end of Game Five, Floyd cannot run. If he hits anything on the ground, it's two outs. With a double play being the nightmare scenario for the Mets, Floyd was a very questionable choice, even given his flyball tendencies.

    The deciding factor for me is that Floyd isn't a great hitter any longer. He's coming off the worst season of his career, and because of his injury he'd gotten just two plate appearances in the NLCS. Floyd's name and his career statistics don't do you a bit of good when what you're sending to the plate is a slow, rusty half-player. Randolph certainly didn't take the easy way out-a bunt would have been the conservative, and most likely praised, path-but I wonder if, with a little more time, he would have tried to move the runners up and given the top of his lineup a couple of chances to tie the game. It's a very close call, and I don't think Randolph's choice rises to the level of a blunder; I just think the decision itself was one of those that could be discussed and debated for hours.

  • The game-ending plate apperance, Wainwright's strikeout of Beltran, was a piece of work. Kevin Goldstein detailed it at the end of his Game Seven diary; I just think it's worth pointing out the way Wainwright abused one of the best players in the game with his breaking ball. It's taken him a while to get to this point, but it now looks like former #1 pick Wainwright is going to make a lot of money in this game. I expect he'll have a big part in the World Series as well.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Cliff Floyd,  The Call-up

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