Friday’s NLCS opener offered most of the qualities we want in a playoff game. An impressive pitching performance. Three big plays by a perennial postseason hero. A play at the plate to preserve a tie. Extra innings. A walk-off win. Ernie Johnson summed up Game One well when he called it “a top-step night,” even if it was more of a “lying in bed with my laptop” night where I was.
Zack Greinke’s command was incredible. Aside from a little lapse in the third, when—following swinging strikeouts of David Freese and Pete Kozma and a weak groundball through the left side by Joe Kelly—he walked Matt Carpenter and left a 3-1 sinker up and over the plate to Carlos Beltran, Greinke consistently hit A.J. Ellis’ targets on both sides of the plate. His 10 strikeouts were a season high.
In particular, Greinke excelled at placing pitches in those few unhittable inches off the outside corner where strikes are called consistently against left-handed hitters. Check the region between the solid line and the one with the dashes: it’s full of red triangles, representing strikes thrown by Dodgers pitchers (primarily Greinke). Cardinals pitchers weren’t able to exploit the same area. (You can argue, of course, that umpires—in this case, Gerry Davis—should prevent any pitchers from exploiting that area, but that’s the way baseball go.)
In their first matchup, Greinke neutralized Beltran with two fastballs on the outside corner, followed by a slider off the edge.
It was unfair, and indicative of the way Greinke manhandled hitters all night. He gave lefties very little to hit:
Greinke combined that command with filthy stuff, collecting 15 swinging strikes on pitches all over (and outside of) the zone, ranging from 94-mph fastballs to 71-mph curves. Cal Ripken’s Mike Mussina comp made sense. Mussina’s combination of command, movement, multiple pitch types, and sneaky speed made him one of my favorite pitchers to watch, and Greinke has some of the same qualities.
Other than that, this was the Beltran show. You know all about Beltran’s playoff history. Put it this way: Beltran has had so much success in October that collecting two hits (including a double) and driving in all three of the Cardinals’ runs actually made his postseason rate stats worse. His double to center in an eventful third inning—after a trip to the video room to review how Greinke had gotten him out earlier—drove in the Cardinals’ first two runs, and his 13th-inning single gave them the game.
Replays suggested that Molina might not have applied the tag, but when a throw beats a runner by several feet and the catcher catches it cleanly, the out call is almost always a foregone conclusion. Even if tag plays were eligible for replay review, the evidence wouldn’t have been conclusive enough to overturn the call.
The more of these moments Beltran accrues, the more certain it seems that he’ll be headed for the Hall of Fame. His regular-season advanced-stat case is already strong, but you can see how he’d have a hard time swaying some voters; he has almost no black ink and only one top-five MVP finish, and aside from his stolen-base success rate, few of his traditional stats really pop off the page. The postseason success should go a long way toward mollifying the kind of writer who’s inclined to care about those things: by the end of this series, Beltran will be close to 200 postseason plate appearances, with numbers that give him a strong case as history’s best playoff hitter. What with the weather and the increased caliber of competition, offensive stats are supposed to get worse in October, but Beltran missed that memo. The one thing he hasn’t done, despite his heroics, is win a World Series, so a ring this season could seal the deal.
The Game One win must have led to some sighs of relief in St. Louis; as good as Greinke was, Clayton Kershaw gives the Cardinals an even tougher assignment today (3:00 PM CT).
- Don Mattingly didn’t have a great day. First, he pinch ran for Adrian Gonzalez with Dee Gordon after Gonzalez walked to lead off the eighth. I’m not a fan of pinch running in a situation like this, where making the move means taking a significant offensive hit in any subsequent at-bats from that lineup spot (not to mention a defensive downgrade). My reasoning is the same as Bill James’ in a mailbag on his website this summer.
I would be surprised if any pinch runner can increase the chance of scoring a run by more than 3%; that is, if a runner has a 30% chance of scoring anyway, using a fast runner won’t make it 33%. It might make it 32%. But let’s say you can gain 3% of a run by doing that—and, of course, gaining 3% of a run cannot be more than gaining a 1.5% chance of a win.
But a good hitter creates maybe .18 runs per at bat, whereas an average hitter is more like .12. If that spot in the batting order comes around again, you’ve lot 6% of a run, and potentially much more than that. So. . .if you’re going to pinch run, you’ve got to be pretty certain that the big hitter’s spot isn’t going to come around again in the 10th inning or something.
Gordon was forced out three pitches later, when Puig grounded to Pete Kozma at short. Gordon made it a closer call at second than Gonzalez would have, but that didn’t help the Dodgers. However, the Dodgers were hurt when Michael Young (who replaced Gordon and hit in Gonzalez’s spot) came up against righties in the 10th and 12th, both times with runners in scoring position. Both times, his plate appearance produced a double play.
James mentions that Terry Francona was persuaded to stop pinch running for David Ortiz after being burned by the tactic in Boston, but Mattingly hasn’t learned the same lesson. “It’s one of those situations that you’ve got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance,” Mattingly said after the game. I’d argue that he was aiming at his own foot.
- Mattingly’s other mistake—one that many managers make—was saving Kenley Jansen for a save situation. He did summon Jansen with one out in the 13th, but by then, Chris Withrow had gotten the Dodgers into a jam Jansen couldn’t escape. Russell Carleton recently wrote about why it doesn’t make sense to save the closer for a save situation in extras on the road, so I won’t rehash the argument here, save to say I endorse it. “That’s pretty much what happens with the closer,” Mattingly explained. To which I’d respond: only if you want it to be.
- Beltran bailed out Jon Jay, who nearly lost the game for St. Louis when he misplayed Mark Ellis' liner into a triple in the top of the 10th. Jay also went 0-for 5 and left four runners on base.
- Trevor Rosenthal pitched two innings, and the Earth didn’t fall off its axis. Rosenthal had six two-inning outings during the regular season; Edward Mujica had four. Kevin Siegrist had one two-inning outing, which I mention only because Kevin Siegrist is a fun story.
- Imagine what life must be like for Randy Choate. Throw one pitch, record one out, receive backslaps. I was going to say “throw one pitch, record one out, hit the showers,” but I doubt he has to. Anyone in the market for an editor who gets called in to tighten one crucial sentence?
- Yasiel Puig went 0-for-6 with a popup and two strikeouts. It’s pretty easy to see where the Cardinals believe he has some vulnerability to breaking balls, not that this pattern of pitching to Puig is anything new.
These two swings won’t change St. Louis’ strategy.
Say what you want about TBS’ camerawork, commentary, or failure to cite where they got certain stats—seriously, just scroll down to the comments section and let loose—but give them credit for passing on the story about Joe Kelly not wearing his glasses when he hits because he worries about seeing the ball too well. And all this time, I thought hitters who got LASIK were smart. Speaking of broadcast commentary, Ripken’s assertion about Matt Carpenter going 1-for-19 after his 199th hit because he was pressing to get to 200 wins today’s worst narrative.
Carpenter had an 0-for-23 streak from July 29 through August 4; at that point, was he pressing to get to 127?
A related PSA: Vin Scully is calling the first and last three innings of each game for AM 570 Fox Sports LA. You can’t stream it on the station’s website, but you can get it through Gameday Audio. Relocating to Los Angeles is also an option. You can’t stop Juan Uribe; you can only hope to contain him.