ST. LOUIS -- The empty champagne bottles sat on a table in the Cardinals' clubhouse, and they seemed like they had been delivered to the wrong address. Oh, they were there for a reason -- ballplayers are often asked to sign memorabilia, and in this case the National League champs happened to sign bottles instead of hats. They just looked out of place, because for two straight nights, the Cardinals did not look like a team that played National League baseball better than anybody else all year.
The National League champs are supposed to have some kind of advantage in a National League park, with no designated hitter. They are supposed to be set up for a certain style of game. In Games 4 and 5 of this World Series, the Cardinals blew that advantage. It may cost them a chance at their 12th championship.
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They blew it in subtle ways -- a lost opportunity here, a mental error there. You can't point to one inexcusable error or a simple boneheaded managerial mistake. But you can start in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 5, with the Cardinals trailing, 3-1, and David Freese on second base.
Pete Kozma was at the plate. Those six words should make every Cardinals fan nauseous. Kozma was one of the worst hitters in the major leagues this year -- so bad that it is astounding that he got 448 plate appearances for a 97-win team. He hit .217. His on-base percentage was .275. He averaged one extra base hit every 20 at-bats.
And even that doesn't quite explain how ridiculous this was, because I didn't mention that Red Sox lefty Jon Lester was on the mound. Kozma's numbers against lefties were laughable: .184 batting average, .280 on-base percentage, .256 slugging percentage.
And even that doesn't quite explain how ridiculous this was, because I didn't mention that Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was warming up in the bullpen, and he is arguably the most dominant pitcher in the world right now. The Cardinals had five outs left, and Uehara was ready to suck up at least three of them.
This was their chance. The Cardinals were one big swing away from tying the game in the eighth inning, and Kozma had no realistic hope of providing it. Yet he batted.
How did the Cardinals get here? Manager Mike Matheny said he let Kozma hit because, "with a lefthander on the mound, we only have our backup catcher as a right-handed bat." This is true. But it is the Cardinals' fault.
They kept their excellent rookie starter Shelby Miller and relief pitcher Edward Mujica on the postseason roster, but they haven't used them. They have only pitched three postseason innings -- and two of them came when they mopped up the eighth and ninth innings of a 7-1 loss to the Pirates.
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The Cardinals know how to handle pitchers as well as any team in baseball. If they don't feel comfortable using those two, especially the prized Miller, then fine. But they are wasting two roster spots that they desperately need.
Matheny should have used centerfielder Jon Jay to pinch-hit for Kozma; Jay isn't very good against lefties either, but he is at least a major-league quality hitter. Again: This was the Cardinals' best chance. They had a man on base, down two runs. Uehara was not yet in the game.
Kozma flew out. Matt Adams pinch-hit for starter Adam Wainwright, and the Red Sox brought in Uehara, and three pitches later, Adams had struck out. And in the ninth, Matheny used Jay against Uehara -- with nobody on base in a two-run game, it just wasn't the same quality of opportunity.
This culminated two nights of blown chances. In Game 4, Boston's injured starter Clay Buchholz did not have his usual low-to-mid-90s velocity. That meant his fastball was not as lethal, but it also meant that the gap between his fastball and offspeed stuff was not as great. Two-thirds of Buchholz's pitches in Game 4 were between 80 and 89 miles per hour. The Cardinals should have been able to time his pitches and pound a few. Yet they only scored one run in four innings against Buchholz, and they needed a Jacoby Ellsbury error to get that one.
And of course, in the ninth inning of that game, the Cardinals had the tying run at the plate (Carlos Beltran), but pinch-runner Kolten Wong got picked off first base to end the game. Pinch-running is also supposed to be a National League advantage.
The Red Sox have mostly matched the Cardinals' pitching, and David Ortiz is so incredible that other hitters should cork their bats with pieces of his. Those are the biggest reasons why Boston leads these series. But these small, squandered opportunities play a role, too. The Game 5 loser, Adam Wainwright, pitched well enough to win. He summed up the series simply: "Any run you can squeeze across is huge right now. It's a game of inches tonight." The Cardinals can't afford to give away an inch. They have given away too many, and it has cost them.
So now they go to Boston, where they must win two games at Fenway Park. They are capable. Their Game 6 starter, rookie Michael Wacha, has had one of the great postseasons in memory. In Game 7, they would face Boston's Jake Peavy, who has been shaky. But the Red Sox also get to put Mike Napoli and David Ortiz in the lineup together -- their two big hitters who can only play first base or designated hitter. That is Boston's advantage in the American League park. They can use both. Let's see if the Red Sox use their advantage better than the Cardinals used theirs.