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October 13, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Two Recap: Cardinals 1, Dodgers 0

by Ben Lindbergh

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It took the Tigers three hours and 56 minutes to win 1-0 in nine innings in the Saturday night game. Earlier in the day, St. Louis accomplished the same in two hours and 40 minutes.

Cardinals starter Michael Wacha needed 24 pitches to get through the top of the first, and Matt Carpenter led off the bottom half of the inning with a triple off Clayton Kershaw. After that, though, it was mostly smooth sailing for both starters. Wacha was relatively economical from the second through the seventh; Kershaw stranded Carpenter, and he and the two relievers who followed him combined to allow only one hit over the final seven frames.

Wacha’s average time between pitches of 19.6 seconds during the regular season was seventh lowest in the NL (minimum 60 innings), which contributed to the game’s rapid pace. But the shadows that crept across the field at Busch Stadium after the 3:00 PM CT start time probably played a part.

It’s hard enough to hit Wacha and Kershaw when the ball is bright enough to spot the spin. When the entire infield is in shadow—or worse, when the ball passes in an out of a sliver of shadow between the pitcher’s mound and home plate—their pitches are even tougher to pick up.

Complaints about shadows are nothing new in the postseason, when national broadcast networks schedule unusual start times. “It’s hard to hit when you can’t see the ball, when you can’t see the spin of the ball particularly,” Matt Holliday said during last year’s Division Series. “But I’m not surprised. It happens every year.” The October before, it was Albert Pujols: “You can’t see it. You almost feel like somebody is throwing a resin bag. My second at-bat it went from the light to the shadows and I’m like, ‘Where’s the ball?’”

Two Octobers before that, Mike Scioscia said, “If you have a guy who’s a real hard thrower with crisp breaking stuff and you put him in the shadows, it will amplify his stuff.” As it happens, both St. Louis and Los Angeles had guys like that in Game Two. And both offenses suffered for it, even though the fielders also seemed to have some similar trouble reading the ball off the bat.

There’s less to dissect about this game than there was in Game One. Game Two was what happens when two pitchers at the top of their game face off with conditions conspiring to suppress scoring. While the conditions may have been unfair for hitters for the first several innings, they were, presumably, equally unfair for both teams: Wacha throws harder, but Kershaw has better off-speed stuff, so it’s hard to say whether one had more of an advantage than the other. Both pitchers threw a slightly higher percentage of breaking balls than they did during the regular season, but not necessarily because they believed that the shadows made them disproportionately hard to hit. (As Johnny Damon said in 2009, “With the shadows, everything coming in 100 miles per hour looks like 120.”)

The game’s only run came in the bottom of the fifth. David Freese led off the inning with a double to left off a hanging 75-mph curveball from Kershaw, then advanced to third on a bad passed ball by A.J. Ellis.

That passed ball proved pivotal: Kershaw recovered to strike out Matt Adams, but Jon Jay put the ball in play, lofting a fly to left.

The fly was fairly shallow, but Carl Crawford didn’t put himself in a great position to throw, catching it off to the side and taking a couple of steps to uncork it. When he did deliver, the ball went way off line, ending up in Juan Uribe’s glove instead of Ellis’.

The combination of those two defensive miscues—Ellis’ passed ball and Crawford’s failed throw—which might have been minor had they not occurred so close together, allowed Freese to score what would be the game-winning run.

The Dodgers threatened one more time, when Kershaw and Crawford led off the sixth with back-to-back singles, the latter of which Carpenter threw away in a misguided attempted to get the force at second. The error sent Kershaw to third, but Wacha got Mark Ellis to pop out and, after putting Adrian Gonzalez on intentionally, struck out Yasiel Puig and Uribe to end the threat. Puig, who fell behind 0-2 and resisted the temptation to swing at three straight pitches out of the zone before chasing a 3-2 fastball, got the golden sombrero and spent much of his time on the bench with his head in his hands.

Down 0-2, the Dodgers are in an unenviable position heading into Monday’s Game Three. The Cards had home field advantage in the first two games, but they also had to face Greinke and Kershaw. After eking out one-run wins against both, they now have their own ace lined up for Game Three. If the Dodgers don’t win against Wainwright, they’ll have to survive an elimination game with Ricky Nolasco or Greinke on short rest. They certainly could come back, but this really isn’t the way they wanted this series to start.

  • Nick Punto is no Hanley Ramirez, but he played a pretty good shortstop filling in for the injured starter. Ramirez’s Game Three status is still up in the air.

  • Mattingly had a quick hook for Kershaw, pulling him for a pinch hitter after only 72 pitches. The move made sense—Kershaw was pitching well, but Mattingly had to do what he could to erase the Dodgers’ deficit. As good as Kershaw is, he’s no better the third time through the order (.216/.267/.325) than J.P. Howell is when facing opponents for the first time in a game (.195/.273/.265). The only problem is that Mattingly’s primary pinch hitting option is Michael Young, who’s hit .278/.322/.381 over the past two seasons (which gets worse with the pinch hit penalty).

  • I mentioned in my Game One recap that Trevor Rosenthal had six two-inning outings during the regular season. Mike Matheny didn’t call upon him the day after any of those outings, but he did ask Rosenthal to go an inning the day after his six-out appearance on Friday, and the closer looked none the worse for wear. Rosenthal pumped 14 four-seamers at an average speed of 99 miles per hour (topping 101 to Andre Ethier) and got six swinging strikes on his way to whiffing the side.

  • After averaging 6.5 runs per NLDS game against the Braves and earning some “unbeatable” buzz, the Dodgers have been held scoreless over the past 19 innings. And after scoring the same number of runs in their four ALDS games against the Rays, the Red Sox were nearly no-hit on Saturday. That’s momentum for you, folks.

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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