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October 11, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Two: A Pujols Pounding

by Ben Lindbergh

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Every so often, we hear that a star player put his teammates on his back and carried them. Once in a while, there’s even some truth to it.

Even the best baseball players famously fail more often than they succeed. What’s more, some portion of the time that a player succeeds, his success won’t matter. Even a superstar can occupy only one of nine spots in the lineup and the field, which might not be enough to overcome the shortcomings of his teammates, let alone the efforts of the other team. For the most part, baseball teams aren’t permitted to draw up plays—a manager down by a run in the ninth with a man on third can’t call a timeout, gather his players close, and announce, “Okay, we’re going to give the bat to Pujols.” He can only hope that Pujols happens to be up next in the order determined before the game, and that the rally doesn’t have to depend on the equivalent of Adron Chambers. If he’s not up next, the Cardinals might as well have Lyle Overbay at first base for all the good Albert does them. Yogi Berra summed this up in 1964, when asked what he would do after his team lost the first game of the World Series. "Not much," he said. "It ain't like football. You can't make up no trick plays."

The rules limit both the extent to which a team can benefit from a particular player’s presence and the extent to which it can suffer from his absence. That’s why when Adam Wainwright went down last spring and some declared the Cardinals dead, others observed that they still had 25 pretty good players in uniform. Still, at times the cliché seems to apply. On Monday night, Pujols had a team-on-his-back, what’s-that-you-said-about-good-pitching-beating-good-hitting-in-the-playoffs kind of game, going 4-for-5 with a home run, three doubles, and a fine baserunning play. Even that standout individual performance owed a lot to others—those hits might not have meant quite as much had Jon Jay not gotten on in front of Pujols three times—but when one player equals the extra-base-hit output of the entire opposing team, he’s usually given his club a good chance to win.

Brewers starter Shaun Marcum got off to a rough start, coughing up a pair of runs in the first on two hits and a walk. Allowing a home run to Pujols isn’t a sure sign that a pitcher is struggling—sometimes it just means that he’s run into the wrong hitter—but Marcum never really got in a groove. He retired the Cardinals in order in the second but got into more trouble in the third, giving up a soft fly to Edwin Jackson that fell in, Jay’s second single, and Pujols’ first double. In the fourth, he yielded a leadoff double to Yadier Molina and a run-scoring single to Nick Punto, and after escaping the inning without further damage, his night was over.

Jackson’s early innings presented quite a contrast to Marcum’s. Unlike the soft-tossing, kitchen-sink style Brewer, Jackson relied almost exclusively on his hard fastball and slider and kept Milwaukee off the board for the first three frames, including an impressive three-strikeout showing in the third. That run of success was interrupted by a Fielder double and Weeks homer to start the fourth. That was all the Brewers would get in that inning, though Ron Roenicke wisely let Marcum slink off into the sunset, sending up Casey McGehee as a two-out pinch-hitter. That McGehee didn’t start was itself an interesting bit of sample-size theater. The righty entered the game 3-for-13 against Jackson, but those three hits were all homers hit in a game on August 3. Hairston, meanwhile, was 6-for-11, but the six were all singles. He also came into the game 8-for-20 since the start of the playoffs. Once the lineup cards were posted, we knew whose small-sample success was deemed to mean more. For what it’s worth, McGehee grounded out, and Hairston finished 1-for-4.

The Cardinals answered quickly in the fifth. Jay led off with a double, and Milwaukee chose to pitch to Pujols with first base open. The Cardinals’ best batter came through again, driving a ball into the gap in right-center to knock in Jay. He would come around to score on a wild pitch, making the score 7-2.

Hart walked to lead off the bottom of the fifth, and after Nyjer Morgan was retired on a fly to center, Ryan Braun crushed a ball to center. Jay got turned around and played it fairly poorly, though he might not have caught it even if he had played it perfectly. The Cardinals got a break when the ball bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double, keeping Hart at third. Tony La Russa chose that moment to make his first pitching change of the game, going to lefty Arthur Rhodes. Fielder swung at a 3-0 pitch from Rhodes down five runs, then took a strike on the outside corner, but the 3-2 offering was wide. That was another cue for La Russa, who went to Lance Lynn. Lynn induced a ground-ball double play—usually the Cardinals' Achilles’ heel—from Rickie Weeks, whom replays revealed was safe (though he didn’t argue the call). First-base umpire Sam Holbrook cost the Brewers at least a run there, and that was the last time they threatened.

With one out in the seventh, Pujols doubled again, this time on a weakly-hit ball that just barely fell fair before bouncing into the stands down the right-field line. That double was the opening salvo of six straight hits off Kameron Loe. Pujols scored on a single through the right side by Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman, Molina, David Freese, and Punto completed the carnage to give the Cardinals the nine-run lead that became the margin of victory after the two teams traded solo homers.

St. Louis should be pleased with a split in Milwaukee, where the Brewers have been tough to beat all season. The Cardinals will attempt to take a 2-1 lead in Game Three tomorrow night in St. Louis, as Yovani Gallardo and Chris Carpenter take the mound in the first marquee matchup of the series.

  • During Jonathan Lucroy’s first at-bat, my girlfriend exclaimed, “Oh, Lucroy trimmed his beard!”, thereby revealing that A) Girls notice things about baseball players I never would, and B) I may have made my girlfriend watch too much baseball.
  • If you blinked, you might have missed a nice little baseball vignette in the fifth. Marco Estrada crossed up Lucroy on his first pitch to Yadier Molina, who took the pitch for a strike (evidently, even when he doesn’t know what pitch is coming, Lucroy can still get the call). Lucroy and Molina shared a moment, presumably commiserating about how annoying pitchers can be. An instant later, Estrada’s next pitch snuck through Lucroy’s legs, wiping the smile off his face and sending Pujols charging for the plate in a successful attempt to score. Pitchers, man.
  • After this postseason, I may spend the rest of my meals wondering whether Ray Romano is about to bring me my check. Thanks, TBS.
  • Prince Fielder’s homer in the eighth could only be described as “majestic.” (Actually, if you called it “titanic,” you probably wouldn’t be wrong. You could also call it “meaningless,” but that’s besides the point.) Plenty of right-handed pull hitters look good hitting home runs, but lefties look even better. If the Cardinals take the next three, that will likely have been Fielder’s last Miller Park moonshot as a member of the home team, and what a way to go out.
  • The Freese, the Freese, the Freese is on fire. Unlike Fielder’s, Freese’s home runs might not look like much, but they get out anyway.

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

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