I’m struck by how much the the 2005 NLCS looked like the 2004 World Series for the Cardinals’ offense.
AVG OBP SLG AB 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS R/G 2005 NLCS .209 .276 .289 187 6 0 3 16 42 3 1 2.7 2004 WS .190 .261 .302 126 8 0 2 12 32 1 0 3.0
This year’s postseason lineup was missing Scott Rolen, but other than that was a good match for last year’s pennant winner. They scored 5.3 runs a game in the regular season last year, 5.0 this year, and in both seasons, had a terrible offensive week at the wrong time. A lot was made of the Cards’ poor performance with runners in scoring position, but in fact, they didn’t hit no matter who was standing out on the bases.
In retrospect, I think Game Four was the key to the series. You expect to have trouble when facing pitchers the caliber of the Astros’ top three. When they run Brandon Backe out there, though, you have to take advantage. The Cards notched just one run and two hits in 5 2/3 innings off of the right-hander, wasting a good start from Jeff Suppan and eventually losing 2-1. That set up their death march through the top three again, and while they pulled one game from the fire, their comeback was ended by Roy Oswalt last night.
The Cards’ slump didn’t happen in a vacuum, because these Astros are not the 2004 Red Sox, as good as they were. The Astros’ top three starters are arguably the greatest one-season trio in the game’s history. In an average three-game stretch, you’ll be fortunate to get six runs off of them, and then they turn the game over to one of the five best closers in baseball in Brad Lidge. This is a run-prevention machine, one that enabled this team to close the year on a 74-43 run, and to allow just 16 runs to one of the league’s best offenses in six games. The Astros don’t have a good offense, and they play solid, unspectacular defense. Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, along with Lidge, elevate a below-.500 team to one that sits four wins from a championship. That’s a remarkable feat, and each series win by the Astros makes me feel better about having the three starters on my MVP ballot.
Oswalt put on a clinic last night. There are times, watching him, that I wonder how anyone ever scores off of him. Few pitchers in baseball work off a fastball as well as he does, changing eye levels with it constantly and using it to set up a sharp curve that becomes essentially unhittable. He doesn’t dominate the way Randy Johnson might, whiffing 13 hitters in eight innings. Oswalt gets his strikeouts, but when he gives up contact, it’s just not good contact. The Cardinals nearly went through the lineup twice before hitting a ball out of the infield, and that was a bloop by Yadier Molina. Other pitchers have put up better lines this postseason, but I don’t know that I’ve seen one dominate a lineup the way Oswalt did last night.
Oswalt’s counterpart did not perform at that same level last night. Mark Mulder, who’d been a groundball machine in his first two postseason starts, worked from behind in the count for most of his outing and was up in the zone more, allowing hits to Brad Ausmus and Craig Biggio on pitches up in the third, and a homer to Jason Lane on a similar delivery in the fourth. Mulder wasn’t bad last night; he just wasn’t as good as he needed to be for a team facing a pitcher like Oswalt.
James Click has BP’s World Series preview up now, and I’ll follow up with some comments on the matchup tomorrow. Here are a few more notes on Game Six:
- It wouldn’t be the 2005 postseason without an umpiring controversy. With two on and no one out in the fifth, Abraham Nunez topped a ball back to Oswalt, who fumbled it and threw wildly to second base, trying to force Yadier Molina (aside: if John Olerud retires, I think the Molina brothers become the three slowest players in baseball). His throw pulled Adam Everett off the bag, and Everett missed his wild attempt at a tag. Second-base umpire Greg Gibson, screened by Molina’s body, called Molina out regardless.
I thought it was an even more important call than the infamous Doug Eddings mistake. In this case, Gibson might be excused for the error; he simply couldn’t see that Everett had missed the tag. However, the impact of the swing between out and safe was huge. BP’s Expected Runs Matrix shows that a team with first and third and one out will average 1.18 runs from that point forward. With the bases loaded and no one out, the average is 2.31 runs. The swing was worth a full run in theory; in practice, it allowed Oswalt to face pinch-hitter John Rodriguez with a cushion of an open base, as well as to escape the inning without bringing the Cards’ lineup core to the plate.
The internal reaction at BP was muted, and I got the sense that I was out of step, given the importance I placed on the call. The more I think about it, though, the more I think we might not be making enough out of it. Baseball teams are what, $150 million businesses? A World Series appearance is worth maybe $10 million in marginal revenue? If I’m making that kind of investment and eyeing that kind of return, is it right to have the outcome decided by some guy getting caught out of position, or making a bad decision, or losing his temper?
Forget fairness. Look at money. That call was worth a run, maybe more, to the Cardinals, in a game they needed runs. If they win the game, they get a Game Seven at home, and the possibility of another World Series trip. If the call made them 10% less likely to reach the World Series, and a World Series trip is worth $10 million, then you can argue it was a million-dollar decision.
I’m pulling these numbers out of the air, but the actual dollar figures aren’t really the point. The point is that when the games are this important, they can’t be decided by functionaries who are designed to be invisible. Whether this means doling out postseason assignments strictly on merit, or selective use of replay, or something as mundane as a center-field umpire for postseason games (consider the impact an extra set of eyes would have had on the Molina/Everett play), baseball has to ensure that the relentless parade of high-leverage mistakes that affected the two LCSs this year don’t happen again.
- After the Cards cut the lead to 3-1 in the fifth, the Astros got the run back on a squeeze play in the sixth. All series long, one of the themes has been the success the two teams have had squeezing in runs. So with the light-hitting Everett at the plate, first and third and one out, where the heck was Nunez playing? Not only was he pretty far back, but he didn’t react to the runner breaking or even to Everett’s squaring around. He got an awful break on the ball, one so bad that Everett nearly got a single on the play. That was a critical run, and I couldn’t help but wonder if having Scott Rolen around might have made the difference.
- The Cardinals missed Rolen, someone who America’s baseball fans have largely heard of. A lesser-known player, just as absent, might have had an even greater impact. Al Reyes, long a personal favorite of mine, was finally given a chance to shine this year, and did so to the tune of a 2.15 ERA in 62 2/3 innings. In the season’s last game, though, he tore an elbow ligament, ending his year.
Julian Tavarez inherited Reyes’ role and innings, and pitched very badly on October, capping his month by allowing an RBI single to Morgan Ensberg in the seventh inning, a hit that put the game away for the Astros. Tavarez allowed a run and/or an inherited runner to score in four of his five postseason outings. The Cards were one right-handed reliever shy, and while it falls in line behind the disappearance of the offense, losing Reyes definitely contributed to their downfall.