ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs may yet win this year’s World Series, build a dynasty, and allow their currently lovable fan base to become insufferable. But they will have to go through baseball’s best record, baseball’s self-proclaimed best fans, and baseball’s most maligned winning manager, and that won’t be easy. Beating the St. Louis Cardinals never is.
The Cardinals don’t have a lot of star power. But they are the sport’s ultimate pros, masters of detail, and one of the best moments of their 4–0 win over the Cubs on Friday night was when catcher Yadier Molina requested two changes in the ninth inning. One change was to the Cardinals’ defensive alignment. The other was to a lit-up advertisement in the outfield, which was affecting his sightlines as he caught hard-throwing closer Trevor Rosenthal.
In a series between baseball’s longest-running rivals, with fan bases (especially in Chicago) that are ready to run through the streets naked with every rally, the Cardinals won the way they always do: methodically. That’s how they won 100 games, with great defense, pitching, tenacity, and a roster that makes up for a lack of MVP candidates with depth and flexibility. It’s hard to say exactly why the Cardinals won two more games than the Pirates and three more than the Cubs, but you can say this: Those three games might be the difference in this series.
Think about it. The Cubs had to burn ace Jake Arrieta in the wild-card game. Jon Lester was fantastic in Game 1 against St. Louis, but that isn’t the point. The Cubs would have much preferred to run Arrieta out in Game 1 and have Lester ready for Game 2, while Lackey had to watch both. Those little differences over the course of a season added up.
Methodical is not always exciting. It doesn’t even always make sense. Consider the case of the Cardinals’ manager, Mike Matheny, who could win the World Series and still drive Cardinals fans crazy.
Matheny pulled Lackey after 86 pitches, with a 1–0 lead. That’s not conventional postseason managing. Matheny later described Lackey as “incredible” and Rosenthal, the closer, said, “I think Lackey could have definitely finished it off.” But these are Matheny’s St. Louis Cardinals, and Rosenthal must know as well as anybody: That’s not how Matheny operates. The Cardinals threw one complete game all year, and even that wasn’t a real complete game: On May 23rd, Lackey pitched five innings of a rain-shortened loss in Kansas City.
And you know what? Matheny’s decision worked better than even he could have dreamed. Kevin Siegrist replaced Lackey and got two outs to finish the eighth. Then Tommy Pham pinch hit for Siegrist and hit a home run. This gave St. Louis a 2–0 lead, and Stephen Piscotty soon added a two-run home run of his own. Afterward, Piscotty sat next to Pham in a postgame press conference, and Piscotty said Pham’s home run helped him relax.
“Maybe I don’t hit that home run if he doesn’t come through,” Piscotty said.
Maybe that’s every step of the Cardinal Way right there: Cardinals fans get irritated with Matheny, players who are barely known outside of St. Louis play well and support each other, the Cardinals win, and then a guy like Rosenthal says this about his manager:
“If he told any guy in here to run through a brick wall, we’d all try our hardest.”
There is no stat for that (yet). I don’t even know what it means. But it sure seems to be true.
Now the Cardinals lead the series, 1–0. There is a long way to go. But here is what that first win means: the Cardinals can win this series even if they can’t solve Arrieta in Chicago in Game 3, and they won’t even have to beat Lester again. If they win Games 2 and 4 (or Game 5 if Lester pitches Game 4 on three days rest), that will be enough. And Arrieta can wait for the Cy Young voting, Cubs fans can wait for next year, and Cardinals fans can wait for Matheny to drive them crazy against the Mets or Dodgers.
This series is not just between heated rivals. It’s a fight between one of the greatest stories in sports, a Cubs World Series, and a story that America has seen a million times: the Cardinals winning. You might be weary of the Cardinals. Unfortunately for you, the Cardinals never seem weary. On nights like Friday, they seem like they will keep winning, pretty much forever.