Last night had plenty of worry and concern. At least it went out on a high note.
In a vacuum, Game 2 of the NLCS was an exciting and ultimately fulfilling outing for the Cardinals, who used the home run ball that had been so desperately lacking in the regular season to create leads and dig out of holes. It was a left-handed attack, as all four of the home runs came from the sinister side. (Sinister would probably be an appropriate synonym for left there for Giants fans.)
Kolten Wong continues to make up for that World Series gaffe from last year, putting up his second game-winning home run of the postseason, this one walk-off style. It was fun to look back and see the other three postseason walkoff homers the Cardinals have had. Ozzie Smith‘s “Go Crazy” homer in 1985. Jim Edmonds‘s blast in 2004. David Freese‘s immortal shot in 2011. While there’s a long way to go to determine if Wong’s blast would live up to those standards–the rest of those game in Game 5 or later in a series and all three times the Cards either moved on to the World Series or, in Freese’s case, won it–it still was a balm from Gilead to the troubled Cardinal fans soul.
Because that soul was sorely troubled last night. We’re not even talking about another Trevor Rosenthal meltdown, though that definitely was part of it and we’ll get to that in a bit. No, the most troubling sight was Yadier Molina keeled over in the batter’s box, unable to return to the dugout without help, much less try to run out a ground ball.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the Molina situation, but there are some things that seem painfully obvious. While the club is going to try to run tests and determine the severity of the issue, even Molina’s famed healing powers probably aren’t enough for this one. We’ve seen enough oblique injuries in the past few years to know that isn’t something folks come back from quickly. Even the rosiest scenario would seem to indicate a return in Jupiter next February more than another at-bat in the postseason. Unless something comes back differently and stuns us all, the Cardinals are without Molina for the rest of the postseason and that just upped the level of difficulty tremendously. Bernie Miklasz says the team rallied around him last night, which is doable, but sustaining that focus and momentum for seven more wins is going to be tough.
The big buzz on Twitter early on last night was Molina bunting with two on and nobody out. Now we know, or at least the postgame comments seem to indicate, that the oblique was already bothering him at that time. Which at least gives a reason for a bunt there, because otherwise it made absolutely no sense. (Trust me, that point was repeatedly made on Twitter. Because it’s completely true.)
Now, if Molina is already hurting to the point where he can’t swing the bat, there are a couple of questions. One, why is he still in the game? There’s little upside to having him in the lineup if he can’t hit and, most likely, can’t throw. Yes, he can be a better receiver than Tony Cruz (as we found out) or A.J. Pierzynski, but is the difference worth potentially losing him for the postseason? We don’t know that rest would have helped it or if they could have caught it early enough to make a difference, but at least there’d have been a chance.
The second question is, if he can’t swing away in the first situation, why was he swinging away with a runner on and nobody out? That would seem to be just as good of a bunting situation as the time before. Even if he’d been able to hit the ball to the outfield, he’d have never made it to first base. While we as fans would have howled about another bunt, once the situation was explained, it would have made some sense. Instead, Molina swings away with as terrible of a result as you can imagine.
Tony Cruz wasn’t quite up to Molina standards behind the plate. He immediately allowed a passed ball then was unable to block Rosenthal’s wild pitch in the ninth, getting so turned around that the runner was able to easily score from second base. It’s possible the same thing would have happened to Molina, but I personally believe Molina could have kept that ball in front of him. The ball bounced up and then off of Cruz’s arm. Watching that it seemed like Molina would have approached it a little differently and the ball would have hit more off his chest protector. Impossible to know, of course, but that was my initial reaction.
It’s also debatable if Molina’s pitch-framing abilities would have helped in the ninth. There were a couple of pitches that were low in the zone that Rosenthal didn’t get the call on. I’m not saying they were strikes, but they were close enough that perhaps Molina could have worked his magic to get a strike or two out of them. Maybe not and it might not have mattered, given Rosenthal’s night.
I wanted to give Rosenthal the benefit of the doubt. There were some stats that indicated that with enough rest, Rosey was a pretty solid closer. However, my idea of a pretty solid closer is that, more often than not, you retire the side in order with a lead. That is not apparently in Rosenthal’s job description.
I went through his game log and noted every time he faced the minimum amount of batters. I was generous and even counted times where he got a double play to erase someone that was put on. During the regular season, Rosenthal had a perfect outing 21 times out of 72 appearances. That’s 29% of the time and that counted one outing where he only had to get one out to lock down the game. In the postseason? He’s 0-4 in that category, always putting runners on even as he (usually) gets out of the jam.
For comparison’s sake, I did the same thing for Craig Kimbrel, who is considered by most as one of the top closers in baseball. Kimbrel was perfect 32 times in his 63 appearances, almost half the time. While I was surprised to see that it’s harder to have a perfect outing than I expected, it still points to the fact that you shouldn’t have to take your antacid medicine of choice anytime the ninth inning rolls around.
Jon Doble did some great work showing that Rosenthal is nothing particularly special in the ninth inning. Honestly, the way that Pat Neshek was going last night, I think 90% of Cardinal fans would have rather see him at least start the ninth and see if he couldn’t lock it down. So far, Mike Matheny hasn’t gone to the old Browns gimmick of letting the fans vote on moves, though.
Matheny was also particularly unmoved by Rosenthal’s struggles. I might have gone to Seth Maness as soon as a runner got on base, but Matheny didn’t go out to talk to Rosenthal until well into the inning and still allowed him to pitch to Buster Posey after he’d allowed the game to be tied. I have a feeling he’d have kept Rosenthal in there even longer had his pitch count not been up to 30. Given how successful his trip to the mound was against the Dodgers, when it settled Rosenthal down and focused him, I’m a little surprised Matheny wasn’t more proactive.
Of course, proactive and Matheny don’t often go in the same sentence. Someone pointed out that, when Lance Lynn came to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth, this was where a manager with a sense of urgency (and a loaded up bullpen) would have pinch-hit for Lynn to try to get some runs. While I don’t necessarily fault Matheny for leaving Lynn in there then–covering five innings with the pen might have been an issue, depending on how he feels about Michael Wacha–there’s no doubt that in 2011 Tony La Russa would have had Lynn out of there in that situation. La Russa didn’t always manage like that, though. ’11 TLR was a unique animal and it worked to perfection. I’m not sure a lesser manager–and no matter what you think of Matheny, just by experience level he’s a lesser manager than La Russa–could have pulled it off quite as well.
Lynn had a pretty solid game. I was hoping that when he was staked to a 2-0 lead (more runs than the Cards had scored off the Giants in their last four postseason games against them) he’d be able to hold the line, but the Giants are able to score in fluky ways and are never out of it. If you can keep San Francisco from receiving wild pitches (this was the second run they’d scored that way in the postseason), passed balls, etc. you can shut down this offense. For whatever reason, though, they are able to make the most out of the least. They aren’t likely to club you to death, but they’ll make that paper cut bleed.
We have to give some major love to Oscar Taveras for tying up the game and giving the club a heartbeat after losing Molina and the lead in just a couple of innings. John Mozeliak said that Taveras needs to learn and he’s hoping this October will teach him. Obviously he got at least one lesson. I understand what Mo is saying and we don’t know what happens in the clubhouse, but it also seems to me that you are possibly cutting off your nose to spite your face when Taveras sits against right-handed pitchers. Randal Grichuk has had a strong September and some moments in the postseason (though he was 2-20 between the home run off of Clayton Kershaw and last night’s RBI single) but you’d think a platoon would be to the team’s advantage. Again, we don’t know all the dynamics, but just on paper, not having Taveras in the lineup against righties would seem to diminish the team.
All of this and I’ve not touched on Adam Wainwright‘s struggles in Game 1. I only have a few minutes left, so let me do it quickly. 1) It was better than his last start, so hopefully he’s trending the right way. 2) It’s amazing how quickly folks will give up on a player. 3) All that said, if there’s any potential injury, Waino has to be smart about it. I know he doesn’t want to let the team down, but he lets them down more by losing ballgames that someone else might have been able to win. 4) I don’t think there’s a realistic option to replace him even if you were going to do that, which you aren’t. Wacha did warm up last night, but expecting him to go even five innings now would probably be a stretch. Marco Gonzales has looked good out of the pen, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into similar success starting. 5) While I’ll hold my breath a little more when Wainwright goes out there in Game 5, I think that’s the right call.
All right, Game 3 is out in San Francisco with the crazies by the bay. (I say that in affection, my SF friends.) John Lackey gets yet another chance to show why Mozeliak traded for him. If he comes up as big as he did in the NLDS, that trade is going to tip heavily toward the Cardinals. Lackey’s pretty much an unknown to these Giant hitters.
The bottom line doesn’t look good, but that’s in 12 plate appearances. That’s pretty much the smallest of sample sizes. You have to hope that Lackey’s postseason experience comes into play here and that he doesn’t have any freaky stuff happening behind him.
It’d be nice to see Lackey go up against some untested young hurler. Instead, he gets veteran Tim Hudson, who’s been around these postseason wars for quite some time. He’s also not a new face to the Cardinal hitters, either.
Interesting to see that St. Louis has done pretty well against him. Most of these stats have to be from the last couple of years as well, meaning they have some relevance. That said, it’s the postseason and there’s no doubt Hudson will be even that much more difficult to solve with the pressures of October on both sides.
Enjoy the off day. You may need the rest!