Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wild Cards Trumped by Resilient Giants

Sooner or later, something had to give.  Both teams in this year's National League Championship Series - the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants - faced nearly insurmountable odds when they survived the first round of the postseason - the best of five-game-NLDS - in historic fashion.  In the end, it was the resilient Giants overcoming a three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to a Cardinals team that simply seemed to run out of gas over those last three agonizing games.

San Francisco's stunning first round three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark just goes to show that simply because it's "never been done before", doesn't mean it will never happen.  No team had ever lost the first two games at home in a divisional series, then go on to win the next three on the road; but it happened.  The Reds had never lost three straight games at home all season; but it happened - in the postseason.

Meanwhile, as the giddy-but-weary Giants were patiently waiting at the airport to determine whether they would be going all the way home to take on the Cardinals in the second round of the playoffs, or make the quick jaunt to Washington DC to take on the Nationals; it seemed to be a slam-dunk that they would be heading to our nation's Capitol.  Early scoring updates indicated a rout was in the making:  6-0 after three-innings, with the home team comfortably ahead of an apparently overwhelmed Redbirds team.

In postseason history, no team had ever trailed by five or more runs in an elimination game to go on and win the game.  Suddenly, the lead was cut in half:  6-3.  As the Redbirds clawed back to make the score 6-5 in the top of the eighth-inning, the Nats answered back with a run of their own:  7-5 heading into the ninth-inning.

As the stunned patrons at National's Park witnessed the unprecedented Redbirds rally, which saw the Wild Cards on their usual brink of elimination on several different occasions, new heroes emerged for St Louis - Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma - who drove in the tying and winning runs, respectively.

Final score:  Wild Cards 9 - Nats 7.  Cardinal Nation was delirious; the rest of the nation either in awe or bitter dismay, depending on the locale and the opinion of adding that second Wild Card to begin with.  The St Louis Wild Cards had already drawn the wrath of every Atlanta Braves fan on earth by having the audacity to beat another ("superior") Wild Card team with a better won-loss record; aided by a questionable call by an umpire, but more importantly, aided by Atlanta's own fielding miscues, led by retiring folk-hero Chipper Jones' throwing error on what should have been an easy double play.  Hey, that's not the Wild Cards' fault; don't be mad at them!

The Cardinals had not only escaped that first elimination game in a hostile environment, facing a pitcher who was considered "unbeatable", they ultimately escaped what seemed to be certain elimination in that epic Game Five NLDS shocker over the Nationals.

With the adreniline flowing all the way to San Francisco, the Redbirds put up a quick six spot of their own in Game One of the NLCS against the Giants, and held on to win, 6-4.  Clearly, the Giants were as undaunted by a six-run deficit as the Cardinals were; however, the St Louis bullpen did what the Washington bullpen failed to do:  Preserve the lead.

After the Giants came back to easily win Game Two, it almost seemed a foregone conclusion this series would probably go six or seven games.  The Cardinals headed home, at least somewhat satisfied with splitting the two games at AT&T Park; no easy feat.  Yet, barring a sweep of the next three games at Busch Stadium,  they would have to endure another trip to the City by the Bay.

However, after the Cardinals won the first two games at the friendly confines of Busch Stadium, to take a that commanding three games to one lead with one more to be played at home, it was obvious that winning Game Five became Priority Number One for St Louis.  After the easy 8-3 win in Game Four, it seemed as though all the pundits were proclaiming the Wild Cards National League Champions.  The post-game interviews with some of the players seemed a bit too giddy; almost as if it was a foregone conclusion the Giants would roll over and go home after losing Game Five.  David Freese inadvertently gave a little sound bite which I'm sure was used to motivate the West division champions:

"San Francisco's a beautiful city, but we don't want to go back there.  We want to win it here, tomorrow!"

Of course he wanted to wrap things up at home; Freese was just being honest.  Naturally, this sentiment was probably shared by everyone on the team.  Of course, the national media repeatedly mentioned this whenever possible; by the time of the revolting loss in Game Five, the Cards were being depicted as a team backpedaling now; no longer brash and confident; now reluctant and unsure of its abilities and unsure of what lies ahead in the hostile environment of AT&T Park.

By the time Game Seven rolled around, I tried to kid myself into believing the Cardinals could win at will; that they always play their best when the stakes are highest.  I tried to kid myself into thinking the Giants could never win a Game Seven, simply because they never had in their long history; as if that mattered what would happen in 2012.

I had never been so unsettled prior to a Game Seven since the 1985 World Series.  Game Six had been a disaster for Whitey Herzog's squad; jump-started by a bad call at first base by umpire Don Denkinger.
Cleary, St Louis didn't want to play that last game in Kansas City, and the proof is in the 11-0 final score.

Game Seven of the 2012 NLCS had a similar outcome for the Redbirds:  9-0.  A season that had been pretty good; perhaps a bit inconsistent, but at least good enough to grab that new second Wild Card the Commissioner was kind enough to add; suddenly ended in sloppy and fundamentally unsound baseball; a sad way to end an exciting season.  

Going into the postseason, I felt this team was much better than most people gave them credit for; saber-metrically they were the third best team in baseball, trailing only Washington and the New York Yankees.  Of course, the impressive "run differential" the Cardinals finished the regular season with doesn't automatically translate into wins and losses.  But it does reflect a team with a lot of talent; especially from a hitting perspective.

In the end, the Cardinals added a fourth postseason epic failure - blowing a MLB-record three games to one lead - to the previous MLB-record-breaking list:  1968 World Series vs the Detroit Tigers; 1985 World Series vs the Kansas City Royals; and 1996 NLCS vs the Atlanta Braves.  It's ironic that Tony LaRussa's first year in St Louis was in 1996; and Mike Matheny's first year as the Cardinals manager ended up in the same fashion as the legend he replaced.  Oh well; that's pretty good company.

On a positive note, 2012 was the first season since the advent of divisional play that St Louis managed to return to the postseason after winning the World Series the previous year; of course, they only had two shots at it - in 1983 and 2007 - but really didn't come close.  Only two other World Championship St Louis Cardinals teams made it to the Fall Classic the following season - 1942 and 1967.  The franchise has never won back-to-back World Championships, although they came painfully close in 1968; but we already know that.

Although winning that 12th World Series (12 in '13?) will have to wait at least one more year, Mike Matheny's resilient bunch made a good run at it, giving Cardinals' fans another dream to hold onto for an extended postseason run.  Still, I have to wonder what happened to the team that stormed into San Francisco, fresh off that wild and wonderful conquest of the Nationals, to take Game One so decisively?
The team that showed up for Games Six and Seven, simply didn't "show up".  The words of David Freese still echo in my head:  "We don't want to go back to San Francisco."

What should Freese have said instead of the truth?  Maybe something like this:

"Sure, it's nice to get the win tonight, but we've got our work cut out for us to get that next one.  The Giants are a great team, and you know they're not just going to roll over for us tomorrow.  Look what they did to the Reds.  Won three straight in Cincinnati after losing the first two at home!  That shows a lot of character.  You know, those guys are a lot like us; neither team gives up.  That's why they're here instead of Cincinnati.

Sure, we'd like to come out on top tomorrow and end it right away; but if we worry about trying "not to lose" the game, we'll never win it.  So, we'll come out and play hard and so will they; we'll see what happens.  Hey, if we have to go back to San Francisco, so be it.  I know I speak for every guy on this team when I say we'd gladly travel to China to finish this thing off.  We don't care; we just play hard, every inning of every game.  May the best team win.  There's nothing more we want in this world than another shot at the World Series.  Once you've got that first ring; that first trophy; you want to keep that winning tradition going - for the fans, for ownership, for Carlos Beltran.  He's like the greatest postseason player ever.  If he doesn't deserve a World Series ring, nobody does!"

Would that approach to the challenge of winning that fourth NLCS game changed anything?  Probably not.  But it wouldn't have hurt.  All I know is, the Cardinals didn't play those games in San Francisco like they had any business being on the field.  I'm sure the Giants could sense their vulnerability; they did what good teams do in situations like that:  They took it to them, and punched their own ticket to the World Series.


Monday, October 15, 2012

"Wild (St Louis) Cards" Getting Some Respect

When the St Louis Cardinals secured that second Wild Card spot in the National League, most baseball "experts" gave them little chance to last more than one game into the postseason.  After all, they had to battle the Atlanta Braves on their home turf with their sensational young ace on the mound - Kris Medlen - who seemed to be more invincible than Whitey Ford or Carl Hubbell.  Of course, those two Hall of Fame hurlers managed to start a major league record 22 games in a row in which their team secured victory.

Medlen broke that record after his final start of the regular season; it was a foregone conclusion the Braves would win for the twenty-fourth consecutive time with Medlen starting that critical Wild Card game for them.  Of course, that didn't happen.  The bad news for the Braves:  Their postseason journey ended abruptly.  The good news:  Postseason games don't affect Medlen's official MLB record, which still stands at 23 straight Atlanta wins when he started the game; small consolation, I know; but that's life.

Critics of the new Wild Card format opine that the teams should play at least a three-game set to determine which one truly deserves to advance into the postseason.  Some of the most vocal critics were players for the Atlanta Braves - most notably, the retiring Chipper Jones.  Ironically, it was his throwing error, on an easy double play ball, which helped pave the way to a fairly easy (albeit controversial) Cardinal win.

With Atlanta's shocking infield-fly-rule-defeat has come an outpouring of negative sentiment directed towards the Cardinals for having the audacity to advance in the playoffs; after all, they only won 88 games.  The mighty Braves won 94 games!  "That's not fair!"

Please, get over it.

With St Louis advancing to the NLDS, their opponents - the NL East champion Washington Nationals - were expected to restore order in the best of five showdown with the Wild Cards.  After all, the Nats had led all of major league baseball with 98 wins; ten games more than the upstart Redbirds.  The script seemed to be going as planned when Washington took Game One, with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

That frustrating defeat seemed to wake the Wild Cards out of their funk, as they scored 20 runs over the next two games to forge ahead in the series, two games to one.  But, whatever momentum the Cardinals had seemed to disappear in Game Four's agonizing defeat to the Nats by a 2-1 score; featuring Jayson Werth's dramatic walk-off home run on the 12th pitch he saw from Lance Lynn.

Game Five began ominously for St Louis when starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was roughed up for six runs in less than three innings.  About that time, a gleeful Chipper Jones, who recently got hooked on Twitter (@RealCJ10) tweeted "Ball Game!"

Not quite, Chipper.  You should know better than that.  The rest of Game Five is glorious Wild Cards' history, featuring a relentless comeback that had St Louis down to their last strike on two different occasions in the 9th-inning, still trailing by a couple of runs.  With Carlos Beltran perched on third base with two outs in the ninth, the Wild Cards had a 3.5% chance of winning the game.  Yet, they did.

Naturally, this was a revolting development for those smug-now-stunned Nationals fans who were expecting to party on Friday night; not attend a franchise wake.  Although most of the blame went to nearly everybody in the Nationals organization, many fans joined the growing legion of Cardinal-haters, simply because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Now, the Wild Cards are in the NLCS, facing a worthy opponent - the San Francisco Giants - who made postseason history, themselves, by sweeping the final three games of their NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark.  Of course, it was the first time all season the Reds managed to lose three games in a row at their own ballpark.  Postseason pressure can do that to a team.

Postseason momentum was still with the Wild Cards last night, as they beat the Giants in Game One of the NLCS at AT&T Park in San Francisco.  Home field advantage, anyone?  Later this evening, Chris Carpenter will try to make it two in a row over the Giants, before the two teams head to St Louis for the next three games (if necessary).  ***Update:  Giants tie Series 1-1 with 7-1 win over Cards.

Those of us who are into saber-metrics know there is a more accurate measurement of a team's relative strength than simply checking their won-loss record.  The Pythagorean Winning Percentage is based on a team's run differential.  The higher the differential, the stronger the team.  It's really that simple.  Of the ten teams that got into the postseason, here's how they all stack up, saber-metrically:


Washington               96-66                           +137                              98-64
NYY                         95-67                           +136                              95-67
St Louis                    93-69                           +117                              88-74
Atlanta                      92-70                           +100                              94-68
Oakland                    92-70                            +99                               94-68
Cincinnati                 91-71                             +81                               97-65
Texas                       91-71                            +80                                93-69
San Francisco           88-74                            +69                                94-68
Detroit                      87-75                            +56                                88-74
Baltimore                  82-80                             +7                                 93-69

From a relative strength standpoint, the Cardinals were the third best team in major league baseball.  Strangely enough, they're better than their division rivals - the NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds.  Hey, they're also better than the Atlanta Braves, Chipper!

For all those naysayers who are still indignant about the St Louis Wild Cards' early success in the postseason; I say, it shouldn't be a big surprise.  They may even go on to win the World Series, again.  Back-to-back World Championships for the St Louis Cardinals?  From Wild Card to World Series champion two years in a row?  I'd bet Atlanta would love that.

Maybe Chipper would post a nice tweet about it?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Wild Cards Facing Long Odds Again

Here we go again.  Last year, it took a miraculous comeback by the St Louis Cardinals, along with an epic collapse by the Atlanta Braves, to give the Wild Card Redbirds a shot at postseason glory.  Of course, they capitalized on that opportunity; winning the franchise's eleventh World Championship in a classic seven game showdown with the shell-shocked Texas Rangers.

This year, the Cardinals were the National League's beneficiaries of the new Wild Card format, which allows an extra team from each league into the postseason mix.  Ironically, the team they square off against on Friday are those same Atlanta Braves, in a one-game winner-moves-on-loser-goes-home showdown in Atlanta.  To say the odds are stacked against the Cardinals is an understatement.  Here's why:

The Cardinals are the only team in the postseason with a losing record on the road.

Pitching for the Atlanta Braves will be Kris Medlen who recently established a new major league record when the Braves won for the twenty-third consecutive time in a game started by Medlen.  The previous record of 22 straight wins by a team was shared by Whitey Ford (New York Yankees) and Carl Hubbell (New York Giants).

Pitching for St Louis will be Kyle Lohse, who pitched well during the regular season, but has never pitched well in postseason play.

The Cardinals lost five of six games vs the Braves in 2012.

Sentimental Braves' favorite Chipper Jones is retiring at the conclusion of this season.  This will surely have the fans riled up; not to mention his teammates.

As if that weren't enough, approximately 45,000 giant red tomahawks are being doled out to the Atlanta faithful to be used at the appropriate tomahawk chopping time during the game.  That can be quite a distraction; really, for both teams.  What happens if that stupid stunt backfires and the Redbirds start tomahawking balls out of Turner Field instead?  Can you imagine seeing 45,000 tomahawks strewn over the entire playing field by disgruntled fans when the score is 12 - 2 in the bottom of the eighth-inning; and those twelve runs don't belong to the Bravos?  Yikes!

It should be quite an interesting game, to say the least.  Whether it's the only postseason game in the Cards for St Louis remains to be seen.  Certainly, the Cardinals are a resilient bunch.  They seem to thrive on adversity; many fans in other cities (particularly Cincinnati and Milwaukee) absolutely despise them, for reasons that I don't quite understand.  Maybe it has something to do with their success; after all, they're the defending World Champions (for the eleventh time).

Yet here they are, having the audacity to return to the postseason when they should be fat and happy, resting on their laurels.  Not this time; in their entire history, the Cardinals had only returned to the postseason on two other occasions after winning a World Series the previous season (1943 and 1968).  They've never won back-to-back World Championships.  Very few experts are giving them much of a chance to do it again this year; especially as a lowly Wild Card team playing the elimination game on the road against a team that never loses when their good luck charm is on the mound.

Stranger things have happened.  I wonder how many experts picked the Oakland Athletics to dethrone the once mighty-now-shell-shocked Texas Rangers to win the AL West; on the last day of the season, no less?  How many experts picked the Baltimore Orioles to make it to the postseason as well; nearly dethroning the mighty New York Yankees from their top spot in the AL East?

Yes, the Wild Cards are facing long odds again; I just wouldn't bet against them.