An unlikely duo saves the Cardinals in Game 4 of the NLCS
LOS ANGELES -- One cleared the bullpen and the other skimmed the fence. One looked like it might dent the Chevy Silverado off the left-field concourse and the other looked like it might get caught in front of the scoreboard on the left-field wall. One was hammered by a ten-year veteran with 251 career home runs who makes $120 million and looks like a middle linebacker. The other was popped by a pinch hitter with five career home runs who makes $498,000 and looks like a jockey. The Cardinals list Matt Holliday at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, and Shane Robinson at 5-foot-9, 165. Both can reach the seats, one can just hit it farther than the other.
Through three games of the National League Championship Series, nobody hit a home run, a power outage unlike any in the past 65 years of playoff baseball. There had been precise pitching, a walkoff single by Carlos Beltran, a game-changing double by David Freese, and an outrageous triple by Yasiel Puig. But no long balls. It was a series -- same as the 1985 NLCS between St. Louis and Dodgers had been -- that Whitey Herzog would love. And this one, like that one, may be remembered for two Cardinals dingers. You can't compare Holliday and Robinson to Jack Clark and Ozzie Smith, except to say that one was the most predictable source of power, while the other was the least.
Holliday delivered the 426-foot blast in the third inning that would have flown over a relief pitcher's head if one had been warming up. "I was screaming the whole time it was in the air -- the whole two minutes it was in the air," Robinson said. "I sometimes hit them that way." He was joking. Robinson supplied the 370-foot fly in the seventh that bounced atop the left-field wall and into the stands. "For a little guy," Holliday said, "he's got surprisingly good thump." Holliday was speaking from a press-conference podium, Robinson from a crammed locker. So it goes in October, when every team needs both a star and a scrub to survive.
In this series, two home runs constitute a derby, and St. Louis is now one win from its fourth World Series in the last 10 years. The Cardinals beat Los Angeles on Tuesday, 4-2, and might have broken the Dodgers in the process. L.A. will have starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw ready for the next two games, but perhaps not shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
The National League's MVP when healthy this season, Ramirez is trying to play through a broken rib. He struck out all three times he batted Tuesday and winced with each whiff. "It got worse as we went along," manager Don Mattingly said. Ramirez was mercifully pulled for Michael Young, who's logged just 48 innings at shortstop in the past five years. The Dodgers will remind themselves that they rallied all summer, from nine-and-a-half games back in late June, but that was with Ramirez leading the surge and anchoring the lineup.
St. Louis also lost a key infielder trying to play hurt, third baseman David Freese, but the Cardinals shuffled their lineup, inserted shortstop Pete Kozma, and he turned in two sparkling plays. St. Louis, like its 2006 and '11 teams, doesn't often beat itself, but instead unfailingly allows opponents to self-destruct. In the game, Los Angeles pitchers issued six walks, a wild pitch and a balk, and A.J. Ellis was called for catcher's interference. After pinch hitter Nick Punto doubled in the seventh, he took a lackadaisical lead off second, and was promptly picked off by Cardinals starter Lance Lynn.
When Holliday came to bat in the third inning, he was 0-for-13 in the series, but 12-for-27 against Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco, who was pitching on 15 days of rest. Nolasco had jammed Holliday in his first at-bat, inducing a pop-up, and tried to do the same in his second. He bore a fastball inside, but not nearly inside enough, and Holliday was waiting for it. His homer almost reached the San Gabriel Mountains.
Robinson came up four innings later against reliever J.P. Howell, having never hit a home run in 85 pinch-hit appearances (according to ESPN Stats and Info). Robinson, who was also 0-for-10 in his playoff career, is particularly vulnerable on change-ups. So Howell threw him one, and in the long tradition of improbable October heroes, the diminutive outfielder turned on it. L.A. left fielder Carl Crawford drifted back, as if he did not really believe the ball would leave the park, until it was really gone. "I know I have that pop in the tank," said Robinson, whose uniform always looks a size too big. He knew and the St. Louis knew. Everybody else just found out.
The Cardinals were characteristically subdued after their win Tuesday night, perhaps because they have been in this position so many times before, close enough to sniff the ultimate destination. In 2004, '06 and '11, they took the final step to the World Series. Last year, though, they squandered a 3-1 series lead and watched the Giants advance. Here they are again, facing another NL West foe, and with another 3-1 edge. The way this NLCS is unfolding, they are only one blast away.