Postseason baseball brings with it an endless stream of clichés and meaningless bromides, and one of those tired bromides is that this game is a “must win.” Once you reach this point in the season, every game is a must-win game. Lose three game in the League Division Series and you’re out; lose four in the League Championship Series or the World Series and the same precept applies. “Must win” is a term that gets dragged out endlessly, but “must not lose” is probably the more apt term.
The Cardinals were facing a “must not lose” game in Game Two of the NLCS. Eleven teams have lost the first two games at home in the LCS; none of those teams has come back to win the series. Of the 24 teams to go down 2-0 in the LCS either at home or on the road, only three—the 1985 Kansas City Royals, the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, and the 2004 Boston Red Sox—have come back to win the series and advance to the World Series—all after losing the first two on the road.
Unlike the series opener, Game Two featured two pitchers in Lance Lynn and Jake Peavy who seemed likely to need help from their bullpens early in the contest. Lynn had pitched six innings in his start against the Dodgers in the NLDS while Peavy went 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Nationals; this was probably the realistic hope for both teams heading into the evening, with the expectation that it would be a bullpen game. Little did they know…
The Cardinals opened the scoring with a Matt Carpenter home run in the third inning. The sun rises, the sun sets, Carpenter hits a postseason home run. Peavy limited the damage, though, and didn’t get into trouble until the fourth. Matt Adams led off the inning with a walk, followed by a seeing-eye Jhonny Peralta single up the middle. Yadier Molina then bunted the runners over (some believe this was inexplicable; others speculated he might have called the play himself), leaving runners on second and third with one out. At this point, Bruce Bochy walked Kolten Wong to load the bases for Randal Grichuk. Grichuk singled home a run on a laser to left field. This brought Lynn up to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Should Cardinals manager Mike Matheny have pinch-hit for Lynn at this point?
With Peavy on the ropes, the easy answer seemed to be yes. However, in the next half frame, the Cardinals’ choices to replace Lynn seemed to be a string of relievers who aren’t used to pitching deep into games, or Michael Wacha, who has not pitched in the 2014 postseason and, for all we know, might not be truly available or at full strength. If the Cardinals’ pinch-hitter delivered a grand slam, the game likely would have been out of reach. But if the pinch-hitter made an out, then the Cards would have had to have played defensively. Perhaps Lynn should have been lifted for a pinch-hitter, but it was easy to see both sides of the issue.
Of course, Lynn wasn’t exactly stellar before he was removed. A Joaquin Arias groundout in the fifth plated Brandon Belt, while a Hunter Pence single in the sixth tied the game at 2-2. The last Pence pitch in particular was simply left up in the zone for Pence to devour.
The Giants took the lead on the Cardinals’ bullpen in the seventh with a Gregor Blanco single to left, scoring Brandon Crawford. A faster runner than Michael Morse may have been able to score a second run rounding third base, but Morse held up. Juan Perez—who was brought in in a rare “good” bunting situation—might have been the better choice to pinch-run for Morse, with a pitcher having been an option to sacrifice instead of Perez. This strategy would have taken away the element of surprise on the sacrifice, but would have given the Giants a better runner than Morse, who is just coming off of an injury.
As suspected, the depth of each team’s bullpen played a significant role in a game where Lynn and Peavy weren’t going seven or eight innings. The Cardinals hit four home runs on the night, and three came off of three different Giants relievers: Jean Machi, Hunter Strickland, and Sergio Romo. Much has been made of the Giants bullpen success, but in these three relievers the Giants brought out:
· A guy who lost his handle on the closer’s job mid-year (Romo)
· A pitcher who started the year in High-A ball, who throws hard but had allowed three home runs in three postseason games entering last night (Strickland; now he has allowed four)
· A pitcher whose stuff is decent but certainly isn’t overpowering (Machi)
On the other side of the field, the Cardinals had to go fairly deep into their pen as well, but the biggest blow of the night came when Yadier Molina was injured. Molina was in so much pain that he couldn’t even run out a ground ball, grimacing and grabbing his leg with what turned out was a strained oblique.
The Cardinals brought Trevor Rosenthal in to save the game in the ninth. This has not been an automatic proposition this year by any stretch; Rosenthal had walked 42 batters in 70 1/3 innings in 2014 after walking slightly fewer than half that many, in more innings, in 2013. Sure enough, Rosenthal struggled mightily with his control and command, as witnessed below:
Rosenthal managed to work his way around two singles with a strikeout and a lineout and the Cardinals seemed to be on their way to tying the series. But Rosenthal handcuffed Molina’s replacement Tony Cruz with a bad pitch in the dirt and Cruz compounded the problem by turning his glove in the wrong direction. Matt Duffy aggressively scored from second on the wild pitch and the game was tied, 4-4.
This didn’t hold for long. Kolten Wong homered on the second pitch by Romo in the bottom of the ninth to give the Cardinals a 5-4 victory.
The question of why Matheny didn’t manager earlier in the game like it was a “must-not-lose” gets swept away for now. But if the series stays close, it is worth wondering if Matheny would go with a quick hook and—if not—if Michael Wacha’s presence on the roster is more of a hindrance than a help. Even if Adam Wainwright’s health issues are merely a blip on the radar, the Cardinals are going to be relying more heavily on their bullpen than they have all year long as we head deeper into October.
An even bigger question going forward might be about what Molina’s absence will do for the remainder of the series. Catcher ERA and won/loss record stats with or without a player are next to worthless, but there is little doubt that Molina’s absence would definitely have a significant impact on both offense and defense for the Cardinals. If Molina is truly done for the series, it'll be tempting to overstate the impact, but also difficult to do so.