Baseball is boring. Baseball is slow. We need to speed up the pace of the game. The kids aren’t going to watch the games if this keeps up.
This is the mantra of our times. The lie is that we want those extra 20 minutes of our lives back each and every night; the reality is that it isn’t the extra time but the deliberate pace that kills us by degrees. The game slows down until it is the second hand of a clock inexorably pounding out each moment like a gong.
Game Five of the NLCS between the Giants and the Cardinals was one of those games that shattered those italicized myths into tiny little pieces. The game took three hours and three minutes to play, but the pace was as crisp and efficient as an Ernest Hemingway novel. Like most of the games that weave their way into the inner circle of our greatest baseball memories, there were several dramas that played out throughout the night.
If Game Five had been scripted, it would have been structured as a three-act play. Each act gave the audience a different impression than the last, with no real idea of how the drama might end.
Act One: The Offense Strikes First
Game Five had the potential to feature the best of the best on the hill. Both teams had their aces going for them: Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright. There were some concerns regarding Wainwright’s health, particularly after his first outing against the Giants. The same concerns did not exist with Bumgarner, who appeared to be on his way to a postseason for the ages. If Wainwright wasn’t on his game, the advantage clearly rested with the Giants.
For the first two innings, it appeared that it might be a pitchers’ duel. Wainwright and Bumgarner both struggled a little bit in the first but regained command of the game in the second. But then in the top of the third, the Cardinals drew first blood. Bumgarner showed an uncharacteristic lack of control, walking two batters in between a Wainwright sacrifice bunt that led to a Jon Jay double that gave the Cards a 1-0 lead.
But Wainwright then gave up a Joe Panik home run on the heels of a Gregor Blanco single to give the Giants a 2-1 lead in the bottom half of the frame. Under ordinary circumstances, a two-run inning off of Waino wouldn’t be cause for concern, but Cardinals fans had to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights, particularly with Mad Bum on the hill.
But then Bumgarner had his own struggles in the top of the fourth. Matt Adams—who had an abysmal .190/.231/.298 slash line against lefties this year—added Bumgarner to his postseason trophy case alongside Clayton Kershaw, with a 372-foot home run to right, tying the game at two. Two batters later, Tony Cruz hit an improbable 404-foot home run to left off of Bumgarner to give the Cards a 3-2 lead. It was Cruz’s fourth career home run in 488 career plate appearances, including the postseason. He wouldn’t even have been in the game if not for Yadier Molina’s oblique injury. At the time, it seemed like the Cruz home run might simply be the beginning of two offenses improbably trading body blows against two ace pitchers.
But then the aces settled in.
Act Two: Aces Trump
Entering the game, Bumgarner had pitched 241 innings (including the postseason), by far the most innings he had tossed in a single campaign. With all of the talk of how Wainwright might be hurt, lost was the fact that Bumgarner might not be himself either, considering the additional workload. Unlike some of the other pitchers in the postseason who had managed to get a little extra rest, the Wild Card game meant that Bumgarner just kept going and going.
But Bumgarner locked in after allowing those two home runs in the fourth and shut down St. Louis the rest of the way, retiring 12 batters in a row. Below is a look at what he did in the first four innings versus what he did the rest of the game.
Table 1: Madison Bumgarner, Innings 1-4
Table 2, Madison Bumgarner, Innings 5-8
Bumgarner wasn’t exactly lobbing the ball down the middle at the beginning of the game, but he was finding a good deal more of the plate than he typically does, as seen in Table 1. The Cardinals took advantage, as good teams typically do when a pitcher isn’t fine with his location.
But the next four innings were vintage Bumgarner. Table 2 shows a Bumgarner who simply refused to give in. He lived outside of the strike zone, particularly against the Cardinals' lefty-oriented lineup. Umpire Greg Gibson—one of the most highly rated umpires in the game—didn’t give Bumgarner any cheapie called strikes out of the zone, but the Cardinals were caught flailing against offerings just outside of the zone. The end result was a lot of weak contact and four shutout innings in a row.
With all due respect to Bumgarner, though, the story in the middle innings was Wainwright. While some had wondered if he could even go five innings, Wainwright put together one of the biggest games of his life, which is saying something given the Cardinals' long run of success and Wainwright’s glittering postseason resume.
As he often is, C.J. Nitkowski was dead on. Wainwright had a slight delay in his timing throughout most of the night, and with Wainwright relying even more on his curve than usual, the Giants couldn’t catch up. The Panik home run turned out to be a blip, and not a sign of things to come, so the Cardinals lead held…and held…and held. The only fly in the ointment for St. Louis is that this wasn’t the Wainwright who was going to go 130 pitches and be carried out of the stadium on his shield like a medieval warrior. This was playoff baseball 2014, so it was going to come down to what it almost always comes down to in this day and age.
Act Three: The Battle of The Bullpens (and the managers)
Seven innings and 97 pitches were more than anyone would have asked for from Wainwright entering the night, particularly given the tempered expectations. Mike Matheny decided to go with Pat Neshek and defense, taking Matt Holliday out of the game, moving Jay to left, and sticking seldom-used Peter Bourjos into center field.
Bruce Bochy countered with Mike Morse as a pinch-hitter for Bumgarner. Morse had quite literally limped to the finish line, nursing an oblique injury down the stretch, playing once in the regular season after August 31st, and getting all of three at-bats as a pinch-hitter in the postseason entering last night. This was well documented, but even before the injury, Morse had done little after a sizzling first half, hitting a paltry three home runs in his last 267 regular season plate appearances. So naturally, Morse drilled a flat Neshek slider out of the park to tie the game.
Neshek limited the damage, and Bochy started the ninth with Santiago Casilla. Casilla had been one of the hottest pitchers down the stretch and seemed like he’d cruise through the inning. Naturally, he didn’t have it. The Cardinals loaded the bases in between two outs. Matheny brought up Oscar Taveras to pinch hit for Bourjos. Bochy countered with lefty Jeremy Affeldt to neutralize Taveras. It worked—Taveras grounded out to first. Some managers would have stuck with their closer win or lose, but Bochy—who has never managed by the tired cliches that make up "the book"—didn’t like what he saw. The game headed to the bottom of the ninth.
Managerial maneuvering often is extremely overrated, both in the postseason and the regular season. The players have to perform, and while the manager makes the decisions, ultimately it is on the players to get the job done. But with a sharp Wainwright and only Neshek used out of the pen, Matheny had a plethora of options. He could have even elected to go with a starting pitcher, since there was no tomorrow if St. Louis lost. Instead, he decided to go with Michael Wacha. This move was mystifying in that 1) Wacha hadn’t pitched since September 26th and 2) Wacha had not pitched like the Wacha of 2013 in some time. With all of the options that Matheny had, it felt like going to Wacha was a huge mistake. Or, as Matthew Leach of MLB.com so aptly put it:
This was the part of the show you could have seen coming a mile away. Wacha’s stuff looked flat and the Giants—as they always seem to do when the clock strikes October—capitalized. Pablo Sandoval singled to right field on a hanger. Hunter Pence flew out to right, but then Brandon Belt walked. With Travis Ishikawa and Brandon Crawford due up, Matheny could have opted to go with Randy Choate or Marco Gonzales against the left-handers. Instead he stuck with Wacha.
Wacha fell behind quickly to Ishikawa. Ball one. Then, ball two.
Wacha had to throw a strike. He had thrown six balls in a row. He threw a gimmie strike to Ishikawa, figuring that he would be taking all the way. He wasn’t. He had the green light, and knocked it dead red out of the park to win the game and the series for the Giants.
This was the nature of the entire series for both teams. The Giants' balance won it for them, but they also won with unlikely players like Ishikawa providing help when they needed it most. The Cardinals were hurt due to injuries to key players like Molina and Wacha, but Matheny seemed to handcuff the team with baffling decision after baffling decision. In Act Three of Game Five, Bochy managed like he wanted it more than Matheny did. It sounds downright inane, but it was emblematic of the entire series. The Giants certainly made their mistakes and had their own miscues, but in a series where the team already had some inherent disadvantages, the Cardinals painted themselves into a corner of their own decision-making process enough times that they weren’t ever going to find their way out of it.