October 27, 2006
What storyline do you want?
If you're a Cardinals fan, there's the way your team came through in the clutch, the big hits by Scott Rolen, David Eckstein, and Preston Wilson. There's Jeff Suppan gutting his way through six innings, and a bullpen that bent but didn't break. There's a three-week ride from, "my god, we're going to be the biggest chokers ever" to "we need one win to be champs."
Partial to the Tigers' angle? Well, you have the ongoing defensive problems that led directly to three of the last five runs you allowed. Fernando Rodney, Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe all had misplays of one stripe or another that cost you a chance to tie the series. Add in blown opportunities to stretch the lead in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, and you see just how close they came to tying things up at two games apiece.
Looking at things from a greater remove? Well, it's hard not to notice how the conditions affected the play of the game. Would Rolen's fourth-inning hit have been a double on a dry field? Monroe sure seemed to have trouble slowing himself down. (It should be noted that Preston Wilson made a very nice cutoff on a similar ball in the eighth; it was still a double, but Wilson's approach was very adept.) Obviously, Eckstein's seventh-inning double was just a fly ball to center, but Granderson was tackled by the ground at about the 370-foot mark. Wilson's tie-breaking single later in the seventh wasn't a guarantee to score So Taguchi from second, but the ball slowed up considerably when it hit the grass, changing the play.
And then there's the strike zone, ever-changing, shrouded in mystery, coy, flirting, frequently kind, suddenly cruel, the most it will do is throw shadows at you but it's always a strike zone to meeeeee….
It's a joke. Eckstein took a 2-1 fastball for ball three just before he hit his game-winning double. Monroe led off the ninth, saw a pitch at the same height and further away called a strike. That's just the most egregious example I'm going to mention. Bring on the laser beams, and quickly, because the difficulty of the job has gone beyond the ability of the functionaries assigned to do it. World Series titles are worth tens of millions of dollars; the conditions of play should reflect that.
So what actually happened last night? All of it. The Cardinals, who came into Game Four batting in the low .200s with runners in scoring position this month, got some big hits and more good pitching. The work of their bullpen has been amazing this postseason, and they're doing it with a bunch of low-salaried, low-service-time pitchers. The Tigers had another awful game; if their 7-1 romp through the AL playoffs was them at their best, the World Series has shown them at their worst, especially in the field. The condition of the outfield, exposed to all that rain on Wednesday, came into play on a number of key balls, and the strike zone was a secret from pitch to pitch. Put it all together, and the St. Louis Cardinals are up 3-1 in the Series.
We don't know what will happen over the rest of the Series, whether the Tigers will channel 1968 and come back, or the Cardinals will join the 1987 Twins as World Champs people roll their eyes about. It is interesting to note just how clearly this series illustrates the central point of the postseason: it determines a champion, but it doesn't always crown the best team. By most measures, really by any measure when you consider the perceived gap between the leagues, the Tigers are better than the Cardinals. Over the last four games, however, the Cardinals have outplayed the Tigers. Not many people expected that to happen, but how good you are isn't always an indication of how well you'll play over the next few games. The Tigers weren't expected to run over the Yankees and A's in eight games total, but they outplayed them in that span. The Cards did the same in the National League, and have continued to play well in the World Series.
How you value the regular season versus the postseason depends on your personal taste, and while I'm one to get a big dogmatic about the idea that the former is a better experience and a better measure, there's room for disagreement. I'd just be happy if we could acknowledge the differences when evaluating the teams involved, to note that everything we learned about the Tigers and Cardinals between March 31 and October 20 is still valuable information.
Flags fly forever. The beauty of baseball is that the arguments rage for just as long.