Three Strikes: How Giants and Cardinals reached NLCS yet again
Are you ready for something new or are you someone who digs stability? The American and National League Championship Series have something for everyone.
The ALCS, which begins Friday, will be the first one ever staged in which neither team has been to the World Series in more than a quarter of a century. The NLCS, which begins Saturday, will look like a recurring serial drama. While the Royals (no pennants since 1985) and Orioles (no pennants since 1983) decide which drought will end, it seems like the Cardinals and Giants have been fighting over the NL flag every year. Since the wild-card system began in 1995, there have been more NLCS played with either St. Louis, San Francisco or both (11) than without (9).
The Cards and Giants have been especially good in October over the past five seasons. Since 2010, they have:
• Filled seven of the past 10 spots in the NLCS.
• Won all five NL pennants (with the latest to be decided between them).
• Gone 49-14 (.778) in postseason games against all other teams.
• Gone 15-1 in postseason series against all other teams (including Wild-Card Games).
Why is it that the Cardinals and Giants continue to have repeat success in the postseason while Oakland can't get out of the first round, the Dodgers and Tigers can't figure out how to hold a lead and the Yankees can't even get in the tournament? St. Louis and San Francisco are teams that play baseball in eerily similar fashion. Both franchises place a premium on pitching and defense over slugging, both have loyal fan bases that turn out even in the rare down years, both have tremendous stability in the front office and coaching staffs, and both play such fundamentally sound baseball that they become opportunistic teams in October, taking advantage of far more chances than they give.
When Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti addressed his team at a pre-NLDS meeting, he gave the best summation yet of how the Cardinals play baseball: "They'll steal your lunch money, they'll steal your signs and they'll take advantage of every opportunity you give them." The same report could be filed on the Giants.
How similar are the Cards and Giants? Check out these league ranks in various categories:
|Strikeouts by batter (fewest)||1||5|
|Late & Close Batting Average||5||1|
|Opposite Field BA (righties)||5||2|
|Opposite Field BA (lefties)||7||3|
|BA Allowed on Balls in Play||4||1|
|Bullpen Losses (fewest)||4||1|
The Giants somehow won a four-game LDS while scoring nine runs, as many as they allowed. The Cardinals won a four-game LDS with an 18-15 run differential. Neither team had a player hit 25 home runs or drive in 100 runs this season.
What they do is play modern team baseball better than anybody else in the league. What does that mean? In an era of record strikeouts, depleted power and sophisticated defensive shifts, they use hitters who put the ball in play and who use the whole field. When on defense, they combine rangy, athletic defenders who bring out the best in their pitching staff. And their managers, former catchers Bruce Bochy in San Francisco and Mike Matheny in St. Louis, are among the very best at bullpen deployment — the biggest separator of in-game managing skills in baseball.
Both clubs are fun to watch because they are good rally teams that make few mistakes. And if you're looking for a winner in the NLCS, the best bet would be fans of October drama. The Cardinals and Giants are so similar that anything short of a seven-game series would be a disappointment.
2. The mystery of Clayton Kershaw
It makes no sense. Clayton Kershaw can't win in October. You can second-guess Dodgers manager Don Mattingly all you want, wonder why St. Louis has Kershaw's number in the postseason, and guess how much pitching on three days of rest sapped his strength. But the seventh inning of NLDS Game 4 is best left to the unexplainable vagaries of baseball. There is no one neat and tidy reason why the seventh inning happened.
Kershaw took a one-hit shutout and a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning. He had thrown 94 pitches. Mattingly hoped to squeeze three more outs out of him. But then the Cardinals managed two singles, each of which flicked off the glove of a middle infielder.
Now Kershaw was in trouble. He had to grind with the tying runs on base with his gas tank near empty. Three of the next four hitters were lefthanded, but Mattingly didn't even bother to have either of his two lefty relievers, J.P. Howell and Scott Elbert, warming in the bullpen. It's amazing that a team can spend $240 million on payroll and still not have a reliable lefthanded specialist. The Cardinals' lefthanded hitters hammered the Dodgers' lefthanded pitchers for a .366 average in the series.
The first pitch to Matt Adams had trouble written all over it: a fastball that catcher A.J. Ellis wanted down and away that wound up high and over the plate. Adams chased it and tipped it. It was an ominous sign because Kershaw's location was failing him. It didn't take long for disaster to show up.
Kershaw threw a curveball next, his 102nd pitch. It hung over the middle of the plate. Adams walloped it into the St. Louis bullpen. A 2-0 game had become 3-2 Cardinals, and what remained of Los Angeles' season and Kershaw's October reputation was shot.
The word that fits best is "stunning." Over the past five years, Kershaw had thrown 1,686 curveballs, only two of which were hit for home runs. And yet the Cardinals had bombed two Kershaw curves for homers in this series alone. The homers made for a matching set of bookends: a dinger by Randal Grichuk in Kershaw's first inning and the blast by Adams in his last.
What the heck happened? Kershaw was, in part, unlucky; the singles by Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta to start the inning each came so close to being turned into outs. Then he hung one pitch to Adams, likely the result of fatigue. Still, a tired Kershaw was better than any other option Mattingly had at that point.
Now Kershaw goes home for a second straight winter sitting after enduring a stinging loss in an elimination game. He has pitched three times in potential elimination games and the Dodgers have lost them all, with Kershaw absorbing 12 runs in 12 innings. The greatest pitcher in baseball is now 1-5 in the postseason with a 5.12 ERA. Now we can start to cool the comparisons to Sandy Koufax.
Go figure. Kershaw blows seventh-inning leads twice. Mike Trout bats .083 in his first postseason. The team with the best record in baseball, the Angels, gets swept by the only team in history to finish last in homers and walks and still make the playoffs, the Royals. We all want simple one-sentence reasons why what we expect to happen didn't happen. It's the blame game. But sometimes, as with Kershaw's October infamy, it simply makes no sense.
3. News and notes
• Tell me again why seeing a lot of pitches matters, especially with umpires calling more strikes, velocity climbing and relievers more difficult to hit than starters. All of the four remaining teams rank below average in total pitches seen: Baltimore 18, St. Louis 19, San Francisco 22 and Kansas City 27. Three of the top four teams at seeing the most pitches (Boston, Minnesota and Cleveland) didn't even make the postseason, and none of the top 11 teams won a postseason game. Taking strikes is fighting the last war.
• If a potential hit by pitch can be reviewed, why not a potential foul ball that strikes the batter in the batter's box? Add the weird, non-reviewable play involving Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong in NLDS Game 4 to the to-do list this winter regarding how to improve the replay system.
• Speaking of rules changes, home plate umpires need to be strongly discouraged from calling strikes on borderline check swings. The third-strike call by Hunter Wendelstedt on Ian Desmond with the Nationals down to the last two outs of their season was abysmal. The home plate umpire has no business making a ruling on anything other than an obvious swing. That's work better suited for base umpires. And if you can appeal a no-swing call, why can't you appeal a swing call?
• If you were thinking that the Dodgers should have pressed closer Kenley Jansen into emergency duty in Game 4, just remember how the formulaic use of closers leaves them ill-prepared for any heavy lifting in October. Jansen may be built like a house, but he's never had a save of more than four outs.
• Kershaw is now one of only three pitchers with at least eight postseason starts who has never won more than once while posting an ERA worse than 5.00. His company: C.J. Wilson (1-6, 5.40) and Andy Benes (1-1, 5.22).
• Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter became one of three lefthanded hitters to homer off three lefthanded pitchers in the same postseason series. The others: Rusty Staub of the 1973 Mets and Josh Hamilton of the 2010 Rangers.