What’s amazing isn’t just that the Cardinals came back to win last night’s game and tie the NLCS at a game apiece. What’s amazing is just how close they were to being buried. With all due honor to the way So Taguchi battled back from an 0-2 count in the ninth inning to hit an incredibly unlikely home run, the real turning point in the game had occurred about an hour before that blast. The Mets were a pitch away from putting the Cardinals away, but the inability to choose that pitch let the Cards off the mat, into the game, and now, on their way home with new life.
Consider that after Jim Edmonds tied the game with an opposite-field blast in the third, the Cardinals had gone back to their punchless ways. They picked up just one hit and two walks in the next 16 PAs, while the Mets broke the tie in the fifth and added on a run in the sixth. Now working from their bullpen with two outs in the seventh, they appeared to be in control of the game. However, Guillermo Mota was about to let it slip away. After a terrific 11-pitch battle with Albert Pujols ended with a two-out single, Mota walked Jim Edmonds on four pitches to bring up Scott Spiezio.
Mota pulled it together in a hurry. He got ahead of Spiezio, a good fastball hitter, 0-2 by pulling the string on a pair of change-ups. At 0-2, he threw a fastball inside that Spiezio hooked foul down the right-field line. Three pitches thrown, two on which Spiezio had looked helpless, one that he hit very hard. You probably want to stick with the first, right?
It’s never clear who makes a decision like this, but we do know that the fastball Mota threw was not only a peculiar choice of pitch, but it was horribly located. Paul Lo Duca was set up over the outside edge, perhaps even off the plate. Mota put the fastball over the inside half, and Spiezio jerked it over the right-field fence, and although robbed of a homer by Shawn Green, settled for a game-tying two-run triple.
The Mets were one pitch away from ending the game. The Cards would have been down two with six outs left, with the bottom of the lineup up in the eighth and Billy Wagner ready for the ninth. Instead, for want of a change-up, or for any kind of location on the fastball, the Cardinals now had their first real chance to make this a series. Their bullpen held on, Taguchi had a Bucky Dent moment, and now there’s no guarantee that Shea Stadium will see another baseball game this year.
The at-bat by Spiezio was eerily similar to the one he had in the 2002 World Series with the Angels, when Felix Rodriguez tried to sneak a fastball by him with the Giants up 5-0 in the seventh. Spiezio homered on that one as well, triggering a six-run comeback that put the Angels on track for a championship. Spiezio has a remarkable track record in these situations; Fox reported that he was 13-for-19 in his postseason career batting with runners in scoring position…right before he hit a double to go to 14-for-20. It’s not predictive, and it’s not reflective of a particular skill, but it is an eye-popping number that has meant an awful lot for his teams.
- The Taguchi thing is just weird. He looks like David Eckstein‘s valet, and he’s 2-for-2 with two homers in the postseason. He doesn’t even try to hit for power; he just sometimes runs into a ball. His homer last night was set up by a very disciplined, high-effort at-bat. Taguchi worked back to 3-2 from 0-2, fouling off three balls along the way, before he hit his no-doubter into the Cards’ bullpen.
It took a very specific sequence to even put Taguchi in that spot. La Russa had made a pitching change between halves of the eighth inning, but didn’t double-switch or otherwise change his defense. When the Mets hit for Aaron Heilman, though, more or less tipping their hand that Wagner would be starting the ninth, La Russa put Taguchi in for Chris Duncan and his compass. The move was mostly for defense, but knowing Wagner would start the ninth made it easier to take out the left-handed-hitting Duncan.
- Losing the game is just part of the problem for the Mets. They worked their bullpen for 112 pitches last night, with Mota and Wagner going 23 and 24, respectively, a night after pitching an inning apiece. Aaron Heilman made 33 pitches, Chad Bradford 29. There’s no off day, and the Mets will be starting Steve Trachsel-who didn’t make it out of the fourth inning against the Dodgers-and Oliver Perez-who could do just about anything-the next two days, followed a 40-year-old man on short rest. It’s likely that the above four relievers will only be available on any two of the next three days, but not all three. I wouldn’t be surprised it Mota and Wagner were either unavailable or heavily restricted today, on a day when the Mets are almost certainly going to need four, maybe five bullpen innings.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ bullpen is fresh as a daisy in comparison. They threw 52 pitches last night, 41 the night before. Only Tyler Johnson pitched in both games, and he threw just 26 pitches, total. The Cardinals’ bullpen finally allowed a run last night, but just the one, and has now allowed one run in 19 1/3 postseason innings. Right now, I think you’d have to choose the Cards’ bullpen over the Mets’ for the rest of the series.
- The peculiar calling of balls and strikes was again a factor in the game, with Friday night’s zone not so much big as it was misshapen and mobile. For those of you who might still have the game saved, check out the first pitch to Ronnie Belliard in the second inning and the pitch that Chris Carpenter was called out on in that same frame. If both those pitches are strikes, then the strike zone has no practical definition.
I’m starting to wonder if there’s a map of the U.S. in the umpires’ room, and each night a different state gets picked as the strike zone.
Last night was Hawaii’s turn.
- Saying bad things about scrappy short guys isn’t a popular pastime, but it has to be noted that David Eckstein is killing the Cardinals. He has a .200 OBP in the postseason, continuing a trend that started in the second half of the season. Eckstein was a complete cipher from Memorial Day through his mid-August trip to the DL, with an OBP of .306. In the second half, he got on base at a .299 clip. He’s stopped walking: 31 in 500 ABs this year, just seven after the All-Star break.
If Eckstein isn’t getting on base, he’s not helping you at all. It’s heresy in some parts, but if Scott Rolen can be benched, perhaps it’s time to give Aaron Miles a start, or perhaps switch Eckstein and Belliard in the lineup. It’s not a postseason panic thing; it’s acknowledging that Eckstein hasn’t been a very good player for some time.
Maybe this makes me a bad baseball fan, but I haven’t found this series compelling at all. The Tigers appear to be the only team that has shown up, and while that’s a credit to them and a boon for their fans, it hasn’t made for exciting baseball. The A’s simply haven’t put anything together, falling behind by the fourth inning of every game, and drifting away from there. The A’s hit two balls out of the infield after the second inning. They’re just not putting up a fight.
Kenny Rogers didn’t have the same kind of command that he showed against the Yankees last week, but he had enough. Does anybody remember when he was a postseason choker? It’s amazing what two good starts can do for your reputation. Rogers retired 17 of the last 19 batters he faced, got through the third through the seventh innings on just 55 pitches, and at no point after the first inning appeared in any danger of giving up a run.
This game was over 20 minutes into it. Rich Harden threw seven straight balls to start the game, allowed a walk and two singles to the first three hitters, and that was that. He didn’t look right; I don’t have any argument against starting him in the postseason, but he still doesn’t look like the same pitcher who at times looked like the best in the AL in 2005.
That’s about all there is to say. The Tigers played good defense behind Rogers, and they scored enough runs to win. The resemblance to last year’s White Sox grows with each game, as they take early leads and get good starts to back them up. There’s certainly some remote chance that they won’t go to the World Series, but the more likely scenario is that they never even board a plane to go back to California.
- One note about the A’s: D’Angelo Jimenez is awful. He couldn’t get back to make a play on a hit-and-run single by Craig Monroe in the first, and his incredibly slow double-play pivot extended innings for the Tigers in the second and seventh. Watching him on an everyday basis is stunning, as if someone dropped a decent MSBL player into the ALCS and wondered who would notice.
Mark Kiger got into a game yesterday as a replacement, and with nothing to lose, I’d go ahead and start him today. Jimenez doesn’t provide any offense, and his defense is just so bad that anything Kiger gives you has to be better.