Return of the Cardinals

As you all know, I’m a huge Star Wars fan.  Which means, sometimes, that I see the events of real life through the prism of a galaxy far, far away.

For instance, you remember in Return of the Jedi when our heroes are captured and about to be fed to the ravenous Sarlacc. Thinking about last night’s game, some similarities came to mind.

First of all, Jabba’s minions probably have a few pirates in them.  Sure, they are mainly smugglers, but you gotta figure some of them branch out into stealing ships and such.  It looks all over for the good guys, until Luke Skywalker drops off the plank, spins around, grabs it and flings himself up in the air.  He comes down with the lightsaber helpfully provided by R2-D2 and begins carving people up.

That, my friends, was Michael Wacha in Game 4.

During the battle, Han Solo swings blindly and connects with the rocket pack of noted bounty hunter Boba Fett, who was lining up to take out one of our side with his weaponry.  Fett takes off, hits the side of the sail barge, and slides into the gullet of the Sarlacc below.

That, my friends, was David Freese last night.

Perhaps the key turning point in the entire battle was inside the sail barge, where the chained-up Princess Leia uses the distraction to get the chain around Jabba’s neck, choking the life out of him.

That, my friends, was Adam Wainwright last night.  (Without the gold bikini.  I may have a man crush on the Wagonmaker, but I don’t think he could pull that look off.)

Finally, close to the end, Skywalker and the princess point the barge’s big gun at the deck, trigger the firing mechanism, and swing away as the barge blows up and the battle is over.

That, my friends, was Matt Adams last night.

That’s not to slight the Pittsburgh Pirates in any form or fashion.  They were not the thuggish brutes that you’d find in a evil crimelord’s lair.  The Pirates were a talented team that played the game the right way and were a team that, had they not been playing against the Cards, most Cardinal fans would have been cheering for.  A cap tip to them and their fans, with the recognition that these two teams likely will be battling for divisional titles for years to come.

This game, though, belonged to Wainwright.  From the first batter, you could tell that we were going to see a completely different Waino than we saw last year in Game 5.  His command was sharp and his tenacity is never in question.  He said before he wanted the kind of game that would resonate like Chris Carpenter‘s Game 5 appearance did.  He got it.

Once Freese’s home run cleared the wall, it was like a huge weight was lifted off the collective shoulders of Cardinal Nation.  Get one run off of Wainwright?  Maybe.  Get two?  Unlikely.  Get three?  You are out of your mind.  If it hadn’t been for some fielding hijinx and some bad BABIP in the seventh (seriously, what was Pete Kozma thinking?), Wainwright would have had his first postseason shutout.  As it was, he continued the trend–in every postseason start save that one in Washington last year, he’s allowed just one run.

You have to give some major kudos to Jon Jay for last night as well.  He’s overlooked a bit with all the heroics of the other players.  However, it was Jay’s walk in the second that allowed Freese to bat and get the Cards that 2-0 lead.  It was his RBI single off a left-handed reliever that put the Cardinals up 3-0, something that became huge after Matt Carpenter‘s slip and Kozma’s brain cramp.  (Still, you have to give credit to Kozma’s earlier defensive prowess.  That catch on the second base side of the keystone?  Amazing.)

Then, oh goodness, there was Big Fill In The Blank.

I said on Sunday’s Gateway To Baseball Heaven that I had been impressed with Adams and how he had approached this series.  It wasn’t an overwhelming experience for him.  While he hadn’t been necessarily hitting for the power we normally see out of him, he was doing his job, keeping rallies going, and not being overmatched, even against the lefties.  So I was incredibly excited for him to get that big blow last night, especially since that meant that Wainwright could easily close this out and I’d have absolutely nothing to worry about.

How fitting was it that Wainwright struck out Pedro Alvarez to end this thing?  Alvarez has been a thorn in the side of the Redbirds for much longer than this week, but the pain increased as the stakes did.  At the beginning of the series, I had five keys to the NLDS.  Let’s see how accurate they were.

  • Win Game 1: Check.  I could have put “don’t waste a Wainwright start” and it still would have been accurate.
  • Keep all the hitters healthy: Check.  There was no margin of error on this one and the Cards got through it unscathed. If Allen Craig really is available for the NLCS–which he thinks is possible but I expect really isn’t–this team would get even better as they go forward.
  • Get early leads: Check.  In the games that they won, they didn’t have to try to rally against the Pirate bullpen.  They never trailed in Games 1, 4 and 5.
  • Contain the big bats: Miss. Alvarez hit .353 with an OPS of 1.362 with three home runs and at least an RBI in each game.  Marlon Byrd also created havoc, hitting .333 and driving in three.  Russell Martin might not have done the damage he did during the regular season, hitting .154, but was second on the Pirates with four RBI.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the bullpen: No grade.  Mike Matheny didn’t have much of an issue with the pen, but that was in part because the starters–save Lance Lynnwere so strong.  Wainwright threw 16 innings in his two starts and Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth, so it’s not like there were a ton of decision points. That said, he probably could have gotten Lynn earlier, but on the flip side kudos for not letting Wacha go any longer.  I’m still not sure about the choice of Carlos Martinez, but he did make a swap and didn’t stick with the starter out of loyalty.

So now, after the clubhouse has been cleaned and the celebration has died down, the Cardinals have to look forward to a Los Angeles Dodgers team that personified hot during the season and are on a similar run through the playoffs.

There’s going to be a lot made of the fact that the Dodgers have two left-handed starters in their rotation, including presumptive Cy Young Clayton Kershaw, and a very good number two in Zack Greinke.  Given the Cards’ struggles against lefties, there’s a reason this should be a big storyline going into the series that starts on Friday.

However, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances of advancing to the World Series.  For one, even in this season where Kershaw’s ERA was under 2.00 and St. Louis had so many troubles with left-handed pitching, they still beat him both times they saw him and put up an ERA of 6.00 over those two starts.

The Cardinals have also had a lot of experience with Greinke.  While he did fairly well against them this season, they’ve beaten him in the past and, as such, there probably won’t be any mystique around his starts.

The Dodgers also won’t be able to get away with running just three starters in this series.  They are going to probably have to throw Ricky Nolasco, who struggled so much down the stretch that they threw Kershaw on short rest in the NLDS.

Then the Dodgers have to try to figure out how to hit the Cardinal pitching as well.  We might not see a Kershaw-Wainwright head to head battle, but there’s a strong possibility Waino and Wacha will go four times in this series, with Kelly perhaps getting two starts as well.  There’s still decisions to be made about who starts Game 1 and where Lynn fits in (if he does–I’d like to see Shelby Miller in that mix somewhere).  However, it’s a good problem to have.

Los Angeles won the season series 4-3, but that’s deceptive in a couple of different ways.  The Cards won two of three out in LA earlier in the season, when the team was in disarray and Don Mattingly was on the hot seat.  The Dodgers then took three of four in August in St. Louis, about the time the Cardinal rotation stubbed its toe.

We’ll see the return of Skip Schumaker and get to hear plenty about Yasiel Puig.  We’ll see if the Cards can contain Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.  We’ll see highlights of Ozzie Smith making everyone go crazy.  (Sadly, we’ll do all of this on TBS, a broadcast which has not been impressive at all in the early going.)

There’s still life in these Cardinals.  There are battles ahead but they face them confidently.  A great week of baseball awaits!

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