Experience over youth? Either way, Cards hammer Nats to even NLDS
ST. LOUIS -- You have probably seen the photo already. If you haven't, look to your right.
There is Jon Jay, the Cardinals centerfielder, crashing into the outfield wall, in the process of making one of those magical catches -- this one came after an all-out sprint to left center, and then a perfectly timed leap, and robbed Danny Espinosa of a sure double -- that you will see replayed again and again, in high definition on highlight shows, until the next time someone does something similar. It is the image that will define the Cardinals' 12-4 rout of the Nationals on Monday, which tied this NLDS at one game apiece, not just because of what Jay did, but because of where he happened to do it. Mere inches from Jay's glove is a wall-high decal of Tony La Russa, looking pensive and sagacious.
The image, in many ways, nicely encapsulates what has become this series' prevailing narrative: that it is a battle of experience versus youth. That if the Cardinals win, it will be largely because of their exposure last year to the playoff fires -- and all they had instilled in them in so doing, and in winning the World Series, by the now retired La Russa. That if the Nationals do it will be as the irrepressible upstarts, the kingslayers who don't know any better. If you forget for a moment that this is the dichotomy at play, the photo of Jay will be plastered everywhere to remind you.
The thing is, however, that by the time Jay made his game-defining play, the outcome of the game had already very likely been determined. It was the top of the sixth, and the Cardinals led 7-3, putting their probability of winning, according to FanGraphs.com, at a comfortable 92.6 percent. St. Louis had gotten there in large measure by pummeling Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann -- who went 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA this season -- for five runs, on seven hits, over just three innings of work.
Afterwards, Washington manager Davey Johnson cited a predictable reason for Zimmermann's struggles. "That's some of the youth in the pitching staff," Johnson said. "That's just a little inexperience," he added. What Johnson could not say was that St. Louis simply owns Zimmermann, so what else did you expect?
Zimmermann made two starts against the Cardinals in the regular season, and he seemed to transform their already potent lineup -- which produced 765 runs, second in the NL -- into one entirely populated by Ryan Brauns and Mike Trouts. They produced a batting average of .349 against him, and an OPS of .975, and eleven earned runs in just ten innings, and this was not a new trend. In his five career starts against the Cardinals, Zimmermann is 0-2 with a 9.12 ERA -- four runs worse than it is against any other opponent he has faced more than three times -- and they have a cumulative .345 batting average, and an OPS of .959.
So was it a lack of experience that doomed Zimmermann on Monday, or was it more that his talents, as considerable as they otherwise are, simply do not match up well with the Cardinals' talents? Was it the experience of Allen Craig and David Freese that allowed them to strike decisive blows against Zimmermann -- Freese opened St. Louis's scoring against him with a opposite field double in the second, Craig ended it with a third inning home run to left -- or is it that both men are premier fastball hitters, and Zimmermann was forced to resort to throwing them nothing but fastballs? And if it is experience, then what explains their performances in their first postseasons last October, when they combined to hit nine homers and drive in 29 runs? Did Carlos Beltran hit two homers on Monday because it was his 25th playoff game, or did he do it because he is Carlos Beltran?
To be sure, experience in baseball is not without its merits, particularly in the playoffs. "Postseason experience is invaluable," Cardinals utilityman Skip Schumacher said after Game 2. "There's a lot of media, scrutiny, everything gets picked apart." It might also lead one's heart to beat a few ticks slower, particularly in crucial situations.
But it is simply false to suggest that it played a central role in the Cardinals' victory on Monday, nor in the Nationals' loss, just as it will not play such a role in this series' ultimate outcome. The Cardinals did not win because of what they did last year, but for the same reasons they won last year: they have a deep and potent lineup, and a strong bullpen that can sustain even the second inning departure of Jaime Garcia, who left with a shoulder injury. The Nationals did not lose because of their callowness, but because their strengths, on this day, did not align well with those of the Cardinals.
In other words, experience is something that seems to matter in the postseason, until it suddenly does not. It makes for a nice thing to talk about, until you realize that no team has repeated as World Series champion since 2000, and nine different clubs have won titles in the 11 intervening years. In the end, past accomplishments and heroes might produce something with which you can decorate your wall, but this year's talent is what wins out.