La Russa's rare strategic blunder costs Cardinals in Game 1 of NLCS
MILWAUKEE -- It was the bottom of the fifth inning in Game 1 of the NLCS, and though he had staked his Cardinals to what seemed to be a commanding 5-2 lead over the Brewers, Jaime Garcia had nothing left. Garcia, the 25-year-old St. Louis starter, had at the game's beginning appeared to have little of the feel or command that he'd displayed five days before, when his otherwise brilliant NLDS start against the Phillies had been ruined by one bad pitch, which pinch-hitter Ben Francisco had turned into a three-run home run that proved to be the game-winner. It took Garcia 27 pitches to work through the first inning on Sunday afternoon. Only 14 of those pitches were strikes, most of those dangerously up in the zone. One of those strikes -- a 90 mile-an-hour fastball -- became a 463-foot, two-run homer by Ryan Braun.
Though Garcia managed to make it through the next three innings without sustaining further damage, he still wasn't pitching particularly well or efficiently -- in all, he threw just 51 of his 82 pitches for strikes -- and, by the fifth, he was clearly laboring. His pitches were still coming in high. He had, in consecutive five-pitch at-bats, allowed a bouncing single to leadoff man Corey Hart, and a sharp double to Jerry Hairston, Jr. The Brewers had men on second and third, with no outs, and two of the best hitters in the National League next up in the order, Braun and Prince Fielder, against a pitcher whose hadn't been notably sharp all afternoon.
Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' manager, has thrived so far this postseason using tactics that often subvert convention, but there seemed little reason, here, to leave Garcia dangling out on the line. Not only had Garcia completely lost his already sub-par stuff, not only was he due to face two of the three or four best hitters in the National League, but La Russa had a man warming up in the bullpen, Octavio Dotel, who has had unusual success against those hitters. Braun and Fielder had a nearly identical record of futility against Dotel: they were both 2-for-8 against him in their careers, with six strikeouts apiece. La Russa's aim, at that crucial point of the game, should have been to best position his team to make it past Braun and Fielder unscathed, even if that meant going to his bullpen slightly earlier than he would have liked, as the rest of the Brewers' lineup, for all the club's success, is populated mostly with hitters whose on-base percentages would be considered rather mediocre were they instead batting averages.
La Russa, though, stuck with Garcia. His next pitch, to Braun, was a changeup that hung over the middle of the plate. Braun hit it the opposite way, down the right field line, and it bounced over the wall, driving in Hart and Hairston. Then, with his club clinging to a 5-4 lead, La Russa left Garcia in to face Fielder ("Fielder was Jaime's last batter," La Russa would say of his plan). Garcia's first pitch to Fielder -- who this season trailed only the Dodgers' Matt Kemp in home runs and RBI's -- was not only an 87-mile-an-hour, two-seam fastball, but an 87-mile-an-hour two-seam fastball that appeared to exactly bisect the strike zone in both its width and its height. That is to say, the pitch could not have been more centered. Fielder hit not just a two-run home run, to give the Brewers a 6-5 lead in a game they would ultimately win 9-6, but the hardest-struck home run in professional baseball this year. The ball was measured coming off Fielder's bat at 119.2 miles per hour. "I was fortunate that I was on second base, got a good view of it," Braun would say. "Got out of there in a hurry."
So, too, did the Cardinals' chances of racing out to a 1-0 series lead on the Brewers' home turf. "Three straight pitches right in the middle of the plate, and they didn't miss any of them, just went like that," said La Russa. "It was a weird thing. [Garcia] was really good, then three pitches -- bam, bam, bam."
"Bam, bam, bam," he would repeat later. "It was unusual."
The normally savvy La Russa might have been the only one at Miller Park to have been surprised by what resulted when a clearly struggling pitcher met Ryan Braun and then Prince Fielder. The Brewers would score two more runs in the fifth, on a two-run home run by shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, enough to overcome a shaky outing by starter Zack Greinke (Greinke allowed six runs and eight hits in his six innings), and a potentially-troubling situation in the top of the seventh, when Albert Pujols came to the plate with two men on and no outs against reliever Takashi Saito. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Saito grooved a fastball down the middle that Pujols was still thinking about after the game ("You throw me that pitch, I'd bet seven out of 10 times I'd hit it in the seats," he said). In this case, though, Pujols fouled it back, and then grounded into a double play, and the Cardinals never really threatened the lead the Brewers had gained in the fifth, a lead that would prove insurmountable.
Game 1 of this NLCS featured a good deal of scoring, and a bit of controversy (both benches were warned in the first after Garcia hit Fielder with the first pitch after Braun's homer), but in the end, its story was simple: La Russa, the Cardinals' normally brilliant manager, left a struggling pitcher in to face the Brewers' best two hitters in a situation in which the Cardinals couldn't afford to be hurt. The results were as impressive, on the Brewers' part, as they were predictable.