A Strange Opener? That’s Baseball

(published October 20, 2011)

Good pitching stops good hitting, and vice versa.

It’s the mirror-in-mirror reflection of baseball, the game’s perpetual Moebius strip: good pitching is bad hitting, good hitting is bad pitching.

It shouldn’t be surprising in 2011, the latest Year of the Pitcher, that the two surviving teams are stronger at the plate than on the mound.  A pitching year – and this was the fifth consecutive year in which scoring declined – means a shortage of hitting; the advantage goes to those teams that have the scarce commodity.

Six of the eight playoff teams ranked higher in their league in runs scored than runs allowed.  The two teams that did better on the defensive side – Tampa Bay and Philadelphia — were knocked out in the first round.

The Cardinals led the NL in runs despite playing in a pitcher’s park, one that depressed scoring by 10 percent this season.  The Rangers ranked third in the majors in scoring, but also third in ERA+ (team ERA compared to league ERA, adjusted for the home park, which in Texas’s case significantly favors the hitter).

The two teams in the playoff finals share some strengths, chiefly their offenses and bullpens.  Texas lacks an obvious ace like the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter, but they have greater depth in the starting staff that has given them the luxury of moving All-Star starting pitcher Alexi Ogando to the pen.

(Can we agree that “World Series” is a title that’s far too grand for what the event has become?  When it matched the champions of two wholly separate leagues at the finish of their long seasons, it deserved the hyperbole.  Today, it’s the conclusion of a string of similar series, one that feels completely disconnected  from the season that led up to it.  The NBA and NHL don’t use a completely different name for the finals of their playoffs; the NFL does, but hype is what the NFL is all about.)

The matchup of the men in the dugout provides a greater contrast.  In general, Tony La Russa plays chess, while Ron Washington plays with shiny objects that catch his attention.

Washington has fallen in love with the “don’t let Player X beat you” philosophy; in ALCS Game Four, with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, he intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera with one out and the bases empty; no runs scored.  Wednesday night, he ordered four wide to Albert Pujols in the fifth inning with a man on second and one out, bringing up Matt Holliday with Lance Berkman behind him.  He got away with it, as C.J. Wilson induced a double-play grounder to end the inning, but it’s a strategy that can lead to disaster quickly.

He’ll have to deal with another variable for the games in St. Louis: in the first game, he only got one out from Ogando before having to pinch-hit for him.  The pitcher’s slot was scheduled to come up fifth in the top of the seventh, after first baseman Michael Young had made the last out in the sixth.  A double switch, bringing in Mitch Moreland to play first and bat ninth, would have enabled Washington to keep Ogando on the mound and not rely on Mike Gonzalez and Scott Feldman to get him through the rest of the game.

As is typical of a single baseball game, however, none of the foregoing made any real difference.  Carpenter was more effective than Wilson, who allowed eleven base runners in five and two thirds innings, including six walks (two intentional) and a hit batsman.  But Wilson mostly worked out of his jams, getting two double plays and stranding five runners, while Mike Napoli homered off Carpenter with a man on in the fifth, so the score was 2-2 when both pitchers exited the game on the same at-bat.

With Lance Berkman on third and Nick Punto on second with two out, Allen Craig came up to pinch-hit for Carpenter, and Washington took out Wilson and brought in Ogando.  Craig hit a liner down the right-field line.  Nelson Cruz tried to make a sliding catch, and the ball just missed his glove and bounced against his foot as Berkman scored.

That was it for the scoring, as both bullpens shut down the offenses – Texas using two pitchers to get through two innings, La Russa using five to get nine outs.

So let’s review: Two teams expected to display offensive fireworks combined for a taut 3-2 St. Louis victory.  Neither team had a quality start in the League Championship Series, so Carpenter delivered one for the Cardinals and Wilson missed one by one out.  Ron Washington got the matchup he wanted on what proved to be the crucial at-bat of the game, with Ogando (who has held right-handed batters to a .201 average) facing Craig.  And Craig hit a catchable ball down the line that Cruz couldn’t quite get to.

It’s baseball.  Anything can happen in one game, or four.  Nobody knows nothing.  Enjoy the show.





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