The phrase “must win game” is a bit overwrought when it comes to Game Three of a seven-game series. But this was a must-win game for the Cardinals.
And win the Cardinals did. Chris Carpenter made it look easy, using just 82 pitches to get through his eight innings. He exemplified the meaning of the term “command,” not always throwing strikes, but putting the ball where he wanted, when he wanted. According to MLB.com’s Advanced Gameday feature, Carpenter threw only eight pitches the whole night that were near the heart of the strike zone, one of which was to the opposing pitcher, Nate Robertson. It was part Greg Maddux and part Johan Santana, and the Tigers had no chance.
Robertson, for his part, did not pitch poorly, also doing a good job of hitting the corners. He ran into trouble in the fourth inning thanks to a string of very good at-bats by Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds, but it’s those at-bats that make the Cardinal trio such effective hitters.
It’s also what the Tigers have been lacking. Through the first three games of the series, they’ve had only 23 plate appearances in which they saw at least five pitches, including just three tonight. The Cardinals have had 40 such plate appearances–including sixteen tonight. I hate to rehash the plate discipline theme, but plate discipline has been the theme of the World Series so far.
The good news for the Tigers–and the reason that this win was so essential for the Cardinals–is that it’s hard to remember a World Series team with a bigger gap between their #1 starter and the rest of the staff. Carpenter’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) rating this season was 67.2; the next closest Cardinal starter, Jeff Suppan, was at 26.1. That 41.1 point gap was the third largest in baseball this season, behind only the Diamondbacks and the Blue Jays, two teams that were out of the pennant race by August.
The matchup with Suppan bodes well for the Tigers, since Suppan, like Jeff Weaver, tends to get creamed when he pitches in the strike zone. But they’re now under tremendous pressure to sweep the next three games of the Series, because they won’t beat Carpenter in Game Seven without a radical change in approach.
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Neither Tony La Russa nor Jim Leyland are keen to trade defense for offense. That’s why we’ve seen So Taguchi, who made a spectacular catch in the seventh inning tonight, start two of the three games for the Cardinals. It’s also why Jim Leyland insisted that Sean Casey, whose left calf injury might have limited his mobility, play DH rather than first base in the two games in Detroit, forcing defensive specialist Ramon Santiago into the lineup.
But Leyland needs to find a way to get Marcus Thames and his 882 OPS onto the field. The odd man out should be Curtis Granderson, who is now 0-for-13 in the World Series, and has looked completely off-kilter in many of his at bats. Granderson plays a spectacular center field, and the Tigers would give something up by shifting Craig Monroe to center, opening left field up for Thames. The Tigers, however, have the right pitcher to pull the switch in Game 4 starter Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman is both a strikeout pitcher and a groundball pitcher, meaning that there should be relatively few balls hit in Monroe’s direction. The Tigers can always re-insert Granderson if they jump out to an early lead against Suppan.
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Cardinals fans are as passionate about their baseball as anyone, but it’s a decidedly more subdued form of passion than what I saw in Detroit. The inspirational message from Eminem that was played on the Comerica Park scoreboard prior to Game One was left unanswered by Nelly. And there weren’t many Cardinals hats to be seen in Lambert Airport–but there were lots of Cardinals conversations.
For all the talk about the Tigers’ playoff drought, it’s the Cardinals who are further removed from their last World Championship. And the Cardinals have been involved in nine postseasons since that 1982 title, more than any other team that has failed to win it all. Missouri is called the Show Me State, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned after three games, it’s that “being there” isn’t enough for the Cardinals, neither for their players nor for their fans.