Dodgers, Cardinals already turning NLCS into a classic
Classic franchises, classic uniforms and now we have a classic game. Game 1 of the National League Championship Series became an instant classic, a 13-inning event that included 37 players and 389 pitches that eventually ended in a 3-2 Cardinals win. That it was, in fact, classic National League baseball made the game all the more tense and compelling. It would not have been nearly this good with the DH rule, not when managers Don Mattingly of the Dodgers and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals had to deal with the pitcher's spot in their batting orders. Eighteen different players occupied the ninth spots the batting orders last night.
The first takeaway from the game is that Carlos Beltran is a modern day Babe Ruth, what with his continued brilliance in the postseason. (Yes, yes, he never has played in a World Series, so comparing Beltran to the pre-expansion Ruth is hardly a direct comparison, but go ask some pitchers what it's like to get this guy out in October.) He drove in every run for St. Louis, including the 13th-inning walkoff single, and saved the game with a textbook throw to home plate to cut down the tie-breaking run in the 10th. Watch that throw again and see how he throws a four-seam overhand strike that has no tail or sail on it; it flies and bounces true to the plate.
Keep this in mind as you admire Beltran, too: he is the second-oldest player to hit a home run this postseason. Only David Ortiz, 37, is older than Beltran, 36, and Ortiz doesn't have to play defense. And with 24 home runs in the regular season, Beltran was the only 36-and-older player in the league where you have to play defense to hit more than 17 homers; Beltran hit 24. In other words, he has aged better than any active position player in baseball.
Such was the length and nature of the game that it's easy to cast criticism at the managers for moves they didn't make or ones that they did that turned out wrong. I don't think Mattingly or Matheny have anything for which to apologize.
The most questionable move may have been Mattingly removing Adrian Gonzalez for a pinch runner as the leadoff batter in the eighth inning of a tie game. The runner, Dee Gordon, didn't have a chance to steal and was put out a force play. Some managers will wait until the player gets to second base to remove a big bat from the lineup. Mattingly was playing it more aggressively, and it's hard to argue with that premise this time of year.
Further, Mattingly ran his closer, Kenley Jansen, into the game in the 13th when the winning run reached scoring position. I loved this move, even though it didn't work out. Many managers in tie games on the road will wait until their team takes a lead to get their closer in. Jansen did give up the winning hit to Beltran, but least Mattingly can be reassured that he lost while using his best arm out of the bullpen.
The Cardinals and Dodgers have now played eight times this year. The series is tied, 4-4, and the Dodgers hold a slim lead in runs, 32-30. And today we get the best pitching matchup of the series: Clayton Kershaw against Michael Wacha. Game 2 could be as intriguing, if not as long, as Game 1.
2. Molina's Impact
Tony LaRussa has called Yadier Molina the smartest player he ever had managed, and a taut game like the Cardinals' 3-2 win in NLCS Game 1 is just another piece of evidence to appreciate what Molina brings to the baseball field. Sure, Molina reached based three times on two singles and a walk and seemed to have the best idea about what to do with a spectacularly good Zack Greinke. But his contributions to victory were vast.
I counted at least five pitches Molina blocked in the dirt with runners in scoring position. There were also at least four trips to the mound to conference with one of his young pitchers in key spots in the game, including the very first inning when Joe Kelly had just thrown a wild pitch to move runners to second and third with Adrian Gonzalez batting. Kelly proceeded to strike out Gonzalez on a changeup and Yasiel Puig on the last of four straight sliders.
Finally, there was his impersonation of a brick wall when Mark Ellis tried to score the tie-breaking run in the 10th inning on a flyball to Beltran in rightfield. Molina caught the ball in a crouch, then spun his body to protect himself as Ellis arrived. Replays showed that Molina's glove did not actually make contact with Ellis. Perhaps a replay challenge system next year might have overturned the call, which may be an example of technology creeping too far into the game. Nobody on the Dodgers, including Ellis, argued that Molina did not technically tag Ellis. Nobody watching the play live had a problem with the call by Gerry Davis, not when contact is made with the runner so far in front of the plate and Molina hangs on to the ball. I'm not sure a potential overrule on such a play is proper, but that's what we could be facing next year.
In any case, consider Molina as one of the impact players of Game 1, and there's no reason to think that won't be the case over the course of the series -- not when these teams are so evenly matched that the subtleties of the game can become turning points.
3. Closers need not be "proven"
The save is the most overrated statistic in baseball and now perhaps general managers will understand that those who accumulate many of them are also overrated. The past two seasons should have blown up the idea that you need a "proven closer" to reach the LCS. Check out the closers for the past eight teams to be playing for a spot in the World Series:
Seven of the eight LCS teams wound up in the postseason with a different closer than they planned on, and in most cases with a very modest financial stake. In some cases, such as with St. Louis and Boston this year, very good teams changed closers multiple times and still are one series away from the World Series. Think closers are hard to find? Over the past five seasons 49 different pitchers have saved 30 games or more. Over the past 10 seasons you find 80 different pitchers with at least one 30-save season. Now go ask the Phillies what they get from paying Jonathan Papelbon $12.5 million a year and the Nationals what they get from paying Rafael Soriano $14 million a year.