Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake had only given up one run through four innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday night, but he ran into trouble in the fifth inning, in a big way. The Red Sox didn’t start launching balls over the fence, but their swings came early (even, somewhat uncharacteristically, on the first pitch) and looked confident.
Leake’s sheer stuff was fine, but his command frayed (he hit Andrew Benintendi with an 0-2 pitch), and the mounting confidence of the Boston batsmen seemed to come directly from his personal stores. It was one hard-hit single, then another, then the unlucky hit batter, then a double off the wall by Hanley Ramirez, then a dumb intentional walk, then another pair of singles, and before manager Mike Matheny could make it out there to remove his April ace, the game was gone.
Milwaukee pulled into a tie with St. Louis for second place in the NL Central with a 3-1 win Tuesday night, but the Brewers could have succumbed to a similar disaster inning. In the Pirates fourth, with Brewers right-hander Zach Davies on the mound, Andrew McCutchen led off with a ground out. Josh Bell then worked a walk, and David Freese got a hanger, a great pitch with which to do what Freese has always done best, and done as well as almost anyone: drive the ball to the gap in right-center field. Alas, Freese was instead caught looking to yank the ball, and although he still made solid contact, Eric Sogard was able to make a jumping catch at shortstop for the second out.
Davies made another mistake to Adam Frazier, and Frazier singled cleanly to right. An ill-advised throw to third base got away, and the door was open to a big inning. Then, after a perfect throw to the plate, a solid block and tag by Manny Pina, and a judicious decision by the umpires not to apply the rules requiring that the runner be granted a clear lane to home, the door was slammed shut.
If one line drive finds a glove for Leake, and if one Red Sox baserunner gets overeager on one of the hard hits to the shallow outfielders in Fenway, the Cardinals probably escape their nightmare inning relatively unscathed. If Freese takes the ball where it’s pitched, and if Bell remembers he’s not as fast as he was in his letter-writing days, the Pirates probably score a couple of times and put Davies on tilt. Sometimes, we see the big ball at the visible end of the pendulum swing, and never get quite curious enough to investigate the tiny springs and gears that keep it doing so.
Still, the Brewers didn’t solely get lucky, and the Cardinals weren’t merely buffeted by the fates. Milwaukee’s machinery is in better working order than is St. Louis’. Davies ran into trouble while facing the heart of the Pittsburgh order for the second time. If he’d been facing them the third time and run into the same difficulties, it’s likely that another pitcher would have come in to face Frazier, and maybe the single that nearly caused hell to break loose never would have happened. On the other hand, Leake was facing the Sox for the third time as it was, and still, the Cardinals’ dual decision-makers (Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist) didn’t so much as get anyone up until Leake was neck-deep in trouble.
Entering Tuesday, the Brewers’ starters had an aggregate ERA of 5.00 when facing opposing hitters for the third time in a game. The Cardinals were even worse, with an aggregate 5.11 figure. That sounds close, but the effect those struggles have had on the two teams is not similar. The Brewers had allowed their starters to face opposing batters for the third time in just 660 plate appearances, while the Cardinals had allowed their guys to do the same 733 times. Given that St. Louis has (or had, before Milwaukee moderately bolstered their relief corps last month) at least as deep a bullpen as the Brewers, that’s a huge gap. The Brewers have better avoided bad matchups, which is why their pitching staff has somewhat over-performed, while the Cardinals’ staff has failed to carry it the way the team hoped it would back in March.
The way each of these games unfolded after their pivotal points, it’s possible neither outcome would have changed if the breaks had gone the other way. If the Brewers had been afflicted with worse luck (or, as it were, better and smarter opponents), though, it seems as if they’d have been ready to adapt. The Cardinals were caught unprepared and unawares by one of baseball’s deepest lineups, and got run out of the park because of it. Even good luck would only have allowed them to keep it close.
The Nationals, Red Sox, and Diamondbacks are the three contenders who have allowed their starters to get deepest into games this year. That makes a world of sense. Each team has very, very good frontline starters, and each has dealt with shaky middle relief for most of the season. The two contenders who rank right behind them in that department, though, are St. Louis and Tampa Bay, and in each case, one can point to a handful of games that felt winnable in the middle innings, but got away, just as Tuesday night’s contest did for Matheny.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Dodgers have been outrageously proactive about lifting their starters once the lineup card turns over twice, and lo, they almost literally never lose. (The Cubs are also near that end of the line, alongside Milwaukee, Seattle, and Minnesota, the latter two being somewhat more complicated case studies in this phenomenon.)
The Cardinals have a proud, veteran rotation, but the Dodgers do, too, and the reason the Dodgers are getting so much more out of theirs (beyond the fact that theirs is much better in the first place) is that they’ve successfully impressed upon both their manager and his pitchers that the days of the proud, veteran rotation are over. This summer, more than most, there are close races among deeply flawed teams, and two or three of them might find that their inability to rapidly evolve will cost them their shot at the postseason.