It’s 1130 West Coast time, with first pitch about 90 min away. I’m stuck on hold because the Outlook server I use is down. Never a better time to type a quick post.
There’s been a lot of air heated in the last 12 hours about the 3-1 NLCS lead St Louis enjoys. Specifically, about the 3-1 series lead they let slip away. Adding fuel to that fire is Tim Kurkjian’s cool sound bite last night on SportsCenter that no North American professional franchise has ever blown 3-1 post-season series leads in consecutive years. Then, the inevitable history of the Cardinals comes up. 1968. 1985. 1996.
Not only aren’t these the same players on all those other teams (2012 excluded), this isn’t the same situation. In fact, they can be split into two separate groups.
Umpires take a hand: 1968, 1985
The 1968 World Series happened just before my time. The one thing these two ‘collapses’ have in common is a questionable call by an umpire. In 1968, other than their Game 2 loss, the Cardinals had pretty well thumped Detroit, winning 4-0, 7-3, and 10-1. The defending champs had one game left to win their first ever back-to-back titles. St Louis quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a Curt Flood RBI single and an Orlando Cepeda 2-run shot. Detroit fought back to 3-2 after 4. The series turned in the fifth. Lou Brock doubled with one out, and Julio Javier followed with a single to left. Brock tried to score from second on the play but was thrown out by Willie Horton.
There seemed to be some lingering controversy over if Brock was actually safe. The few replays I’ve seen are inconclusive; Brock and the ball appear to arrive at home within a split-second of each other. What all agree on is that play changed the momentum of the series. Detroit went on to win Game 5, Game 6, and Game 7. St Louis lost Games 6 and 7 at home.
The 1985 series is burned into my memory. The final outcome, in many ways, hinged on Don Dekinger’s call. St Louis lost Game 5 at Busch but looked really good in Game 6, taking a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. You know what happened next. The team didn’t show up for Game 7.
It is not a stretch to say a umpiring decision had a major impact on the final outcome. Not the determining factor – in neither case was the call listed above the final play of the series – but it reverbrated through the remainder of the series.
Superior Pitching and the Road: 1996, 2012
Sixteen years ago Tony LaRussa took over a team that had finished 19 games under .500 in a strike-shortened season. New management, and some new players, led the franchise to an 88-74 finish and their first NL Central title. They then dismissed the Padres in three straight and built a 3-1 lead over Atlanta, the defending champs.
Problem – this Atlanta team was in the heyday of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux. After losing Game 4 they held St Louis to 1 run for the rest of the series. The Redbirds had a look at Game 6, losing 3-1, but got absolutely smoked in Games 5 and 7.
I think we all agree the 1996 team over-achieved. The club didn’t return to the playoffs until 2000. It was only a matter of time before Atlanta’s pitching caught up with them. And, they had to go to Fulton County Stadium for the last 2 games of the series.
Last year’s series turned when the Cards let Barry Zito get out of the second inning of Game 5 unscathed. Frustratingly, Zito has not won a road start since. Again, St Louis faced two dominating right-handers in Games 6 and 7, again on the road. Again they were held to 1 run over those 3 games.
Good pitching, in a hostile environment, proved too much for these two teams.
So WHY is this year different?
Well, they will face superior Dodger pitching the rest of the series – so that’s consistent. But, they get Games 6 and 7 at home this time. And, they have lived through last year’s pain already. If there’s one thing this team has the will to prevent, it’s another 3-game losing streak to close out the NLCS.
Joe Kelly has the ability to beat Zack Grienke today. If not, I like my chances with Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright lined up to start Games 6 and 7 at home, no matter who opposes them. The national media can make all the comparisons they want to Cardinal teams of yore, and previous 3-1 series collapses.
This isn’t the same situation as those. This isn’t the same thing.