Matt Holliday and the Cardinals were stymied in Game 4.
There is well-known baseball quote ascribed to Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem.
As the tale goes, an unnamed rookie pitcher complained that he was not getting strike calls on the batter at the plate, who happened to be second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a future Hall of Famer and possibly the greatest right-handed hitter in the history of the game.
"The Old Arbitrator", as Klem was known, gently told the pitcher, "Son, when you pitch a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know." (per Baseball Almanac, h/t wikipedia)
If only umpires today had such wisdom.
Though the quote is likely 80 years old, it still rings true today—major league hitters are paid to know the difference between balls and strikes, too. And they are usually very good at it.
That quote, in fact, could aptly describe the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, who led the majors in on-base percentage (.338).
When pitchers throw strikes, they let you know.
“They don’t swing at balls. They don’t really expand the strike zone very much. They don’t get out of their plan. You can tell when you face those guys that they have a plan. They don’t chase breaking balls. They don’t chase letter-high fastballs very often. They try to work and get into hitters’ counts. And they work for their pitch to hit and don’t give in to that very much."
Which team goes to the NLCS?
In Game 4, however, outstanding plate discipline was the Cardinals' undoing as home plate umpire Jim Joyce's wide strike zone created a new kind of ballgame.
For a team whose patient batting approach is specifically designed to clog the bases with runners and pressure the opposing pitcher into making a juicy mistake, this new variable completely reversed the Cardinals' season-long approach at the plate.
Holliday offered at none of them and with the strike-three call staggered back to the dugout with a laugh. Cardinal fans weren't laughing, though.
Clippard would eventually strike out the side and exulted as he danced to the dugout, apparently quite impressed with his ability to repeatedly throw a ball six inches off the plate for a strike.
Yet that is precisely where the Cardinals failed in Game 4. A team that had adjusted to so many variables throughout the year did not use the strike zone the way the Nationals' hurlers did.
Fittingly, Cardinals' reliever Lance Lynn surrendered the game-winning home run to Jayson Werth by throwing an actual strike rather than attempt to exploit the backdoor K-zone the Nationals' bullpen used so effectively in the latter innings.
A winner-take-all Game 5 awaits both clubs.
Fortunately for the Cards, Jim Joyce will not be behind the plate for the finale.
Unfortunately for all involved, he will be on the field somewhere.