The St. Louis Cardinals held a 3-1 series lead in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants as of last Thursday. One more win would have sent them to their second World Series in as many years.
Instead, the Cardinals let the series slide from their grasp, with the final nail in their coffin being a crushing 9-0 defeat at AT&T Park on Monday night. The Giants got 5.2 shutout innings from staff ace Matt Cain, and the game was well in the bag after they jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after three innings.
Given how ferociously the Giants came back, you could say that credit should be given where it's due. Instead of writing in the stars that the Cardinals lost the NLCS, perhaps we should be writing that the Giants won it. There is, after all, a fairly huge difference between these two things.
There is indeed, but I'm going to stand by my original statement. The Cardinals lost the NLCS more than the Giants won it.
Whenever a comeback such as this occurs, the same ingredients are always put in place. To win three straight games like the Giants just did, you need tons of energy, good pitching, a barrage of hits and plenty of luck.
The Giants enjoyed all of these things in Games 5, 6 and 7, none more so than the luck. The Cardinals simply made it way too easy for the Giants to complete their comeback.
Before you go rushing to the comments section to hurl sticks and stones at my intelligence, hear me out on this one. If you keep an open mind, you'll surely see what I mean about the Cardinals supplying the luck as we dive into their self-destruction in the final three games of the NLCS.
How the Cardinals Self-Destructed in Game 5
Game 5 of the NLCS shall forever be known as "the Barry Zito game."
With the Giants staring elimination in the face, Zito gave the Giants 7.2 shutout innings in which he allowed only six hits and a walk while striking out six. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo took it the rest of the way to cap off a 5-0 victory that shifted the series back to San Francisco.
Nothing should be taken away from Zito's performance. He may have gotten away with some pitches here and there, but it's by no means an exaggeration to say that Game 5 was his very best performance in a Giants uniform.
Lance Lynn's performance, on the other hand...
Lynn was dominant early on in Game 5, getting through the first three innings without allowing a hit while racking up five strikeouts. It looked like he was going to be able to match Zito pitch for pitch.
And he may have done just that had he not royally screwed up in the fourth inning. Lynn started the inning by giving up back-to-back singles to Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval. The next thing anyone knew, Lynn was throwing a potential double-play ball off of second base and into center field, thus allowing a run to score.
Lynn deserves blame for making a rotten throw to second base on the play, but young shortstop Pete Kozma deserves his share of the blame as well for being late to cover second. Lynn didn't have a target to throw to, which clearly triggered a brain malfunction that, in turn, triggered an arm malfunction.
That throw opened the floodgates for the Giants to score four runs in the inning, the last of which came courtesy of a Zito bunt down the third-base line that caught David Freese napping.
All four of the runs that were scored in the inning were unearned. Take those away, and Lynn probably gets out of the inning unscathed and continues his battle with Zito deep into the night.
Do we know for a fact that things would have panned out differently if Lynn's throw to second had resulted in a double play? Of course we don't. It's hard enough to predict baseball. It's even harder to predict baseball when alternate realities for things that actually happened are kicked around.
But the fact is that the Giants walked away from Game 5 with one run that they actually earned—on an eighth-inning homer by Sandoval—and four runs that were gifts from Lynn and the Cardinals.
For their part, the Cardinals went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, and Mike Matheny very much deserves to be second-guessed for allowing Lynn to swing away with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning. He grounded into an inning-ending double play when a bunt could have given the Cardinals a lead.
Again, the Giants wouldn't have won Game 5 without a terrific performance by Zito. But at the same time, they may not have won it without the Cardinals' various mental mistakes.
Little did we know that this storyline was to become a trend.
How the Cardinals Self-Destructed in Game 6
Zito was excellent in Game 5. But for my money, Ryan Vogelsong was even better in Game 6 back at AT&T Park.
Just as he did in Game 2 of the series, Vogelsong pitched seven innings of one-run ball in Game 6, allowing only four hits and a walk while surpassing a previous career high by notching nine strikeouts.
Just like in Game 5, the Giants were on their way once they put up a crooked number in an early inning. In the case of Game 6, it was a four spot in the bottom of the second that gave the Giants a commanding lead.
The inning started with a bang for the Giants, as Brandon Belt squared one up against Chris Carpenter and hit a laser off the right field wall that ultimately resulted in a triple. Carpenter responded by striking out Gregor Blanco, but then he was given the go-ahead to walk Brandon Crawford to set up a double play.
Matheny didn't have to issue four wide ones to Crawford that early in the game with the score only at 1-0. Crawford getting the run home from third with an out would have been a fair trade. Had he gotten on base with a hit, it still would have been fairly easy to limit the damage with Vogelsong due up next.
As it is, the decision could have worked out if Kozma had fielded the ensuing ground ball Vogelsong tapped to him after faking like he was going to bunt. Instead, he booted it, allowing a run to score and setting the Giants up to score a few more runs.
Bear in mind that this wasn't the first mistake the Cardinals made in the field in Game 6. The first inning saw Freese fail to get a grip on a ground ball hit right to him by Buster Posey, rendering it impossible—or at least very tough—for Freese to nail Scutaro at the plate after he took off from third base on contact.
There was no error on that play, so it went into the books as an earned run. Three of the four runs charged to Carpenter in the second inning went into the books as unearned runs, however.
So, conceivably, the Cardinals could have kept four runs off the board with better fielding and/or better managing. Seeing as how the Giants ended up winning 6-1, keeping those four runs off the board could have changed things quite drastically.
So once again, the Cardinals' bumbling made what could have at least been a close game into an easy victory for the Giants.
Naturally, the same thing happened in Game 7.
How the Cardinals Self-Destructed in Game 7
At first glance, Game 7 of the NLCS looks like a blowout. The Giants scored nine runs. The Cardinals scored zero. It doesn't get much more decisive than that, am I right?
Indeed, but we're talking about yet another offensive explosion that was fueled largely by Cardinals mistakes. Had they not once again made so many mental mistakes, Game 7 could have panned out much differently.
The first mistake of the day was, admittedly, a forgivable one. With runners on first and third and nobody out, Kyle Lohse fielded a bouncer off the bat of Sandoval to the right of the mound and was forced to settle for the out at first base when he seemed to have trouble getting the ball out of his glove in time to make a throw home to nail Angel Pagan.
What could have been a momentum-killing out thus became a run for the Giants.
The Giants picked up a much cleaner run in the second inning, but they only got it because Lohse threw a "hit me" slider over the middle of the plate to Matt Cain. He gleefully deposited it into center field to score Blanco from second base.
The Cardinals needed to stop the bleeding right then and there. As a precaution, it would have been a good idea for Matheny to get Adam Wainwright warming in the pen, as it was fairly obvious that Lohse wasn't going to be long for the game with the stuff he was featuring.
Instead, it was Joe Kelly who came on in relief of Lohse after he loaded the bases with nobody out in the second inning. Kelly had pitched well in his first six appearances in the postseason, but Matheny was going out on a limb seeing as how Kelly had notched only one strikeout while allowing four hits and a walk to that point in the NLCS. The Giants had been seeing Kelly pretty well.
Things went south immediately for Kelly, albeit in the weirdest way possible.
Such is life when Hunter Pence is involved. Kelly's first pitch shattered Pence's bat, but the ball managed to sneak past Kozma into center field. Then it managed to find its way under Jon Jay's glove in center field.
In the end, Pence's little squibber became three-run double.
To be fair to Kozma, the slow-motion replays revealed that the ball was destined to have a ton of body English after bouncing off Pence's broken bat not once, but three times. As it turned out, the ball had way too much English for Kozma.
But did Kozma misplay the ball? I think that's a fair accusation to make, as a better defensive shortstop may have been able to make the play. At the very least, it's certainly fair to accuse Jay of misplaying the ball once it got to him in the outfield.
Regardless of who you choose to blame, the ball off Pence's bat all but killed the Cardinals. It was followed by an infield single by Brandon Belt that probably could have been an out. The inning then featured a run scoring on a poor decision by Kozma to throw home rather than to first and another run scoring on a fielder's choice that saw Kozma make a bad feed to Daniel Descalso at second base for the start of what could have been a double play.
In all, five runs scored in the third inning. In an alternate universe, every single one of them could have been avoided.
In another alternate universe, the Giants would have needed those runs to tie the score rather than to take a commanding lead. After earning only three at-bats with runners in scoring position in Game 6, the Cardinals earned six at-bats with runners in scoring position in the first two innings of Game 7 against Cain.
They couldn't get even a single run home. After that, it was pretty much all downhill. The baseball gods ultimately saw fit to kill whatever chance the Cardinals had at an epic rally by unleashing a monsoon in the top of the ninth inning.
The Cardinals earned that monsoon. If there's one thing the baseball gods absolutely cannot stand, it's bad baseball.
So Why Is All of This a Big Deal?
If you're a Giants fan, you probably think that I'm some sort of Cardinals mega-fan and that all of this was nothing but a jealous rant meant to prove some sort of half-baked point.
This is not the case. I'm not a Giants fan, but I am a resident of the Bay Area and I was actually pulling for the Giants to come back and beat the Cardinals, in no small part because I wanted my prediction about them winning the series upon their return to AT&T Park to come true.
I'm not biased. Just honest. And the point of running through exactly how thoroughly the Cardinals screwed up in the final three games of the NLCS was to make one thing clear:
The Giants are lucky to be moving on to the World Series.
All hats must be tipped to the work done by Messrs. Zito, Vogelsong and Cain in the final three games of the NLCS, but the Giants owe a tip of their own hats to the pitchers and fielders that allowed them to score so many runs on what should have been harmless ground balls and the like in Games 5, 6 and 7.
The Giants can't count on their luck holding in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. They should plan on scoring runs with a considerably more conventional offensive attack—one with hard-hit balls and everything.
What really happened in the NLCS?
And therein lies the dilemma. If there's one pitching staff out there that does not suffer runs of any kind to be scored, it belongs to the Tigers.
The Tigers are bringing an absurdly strong rotation into the World Series. Combined, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer went 5-1 with a 1.02 ERA and a 9.6 K/9 between the ALDS and the ALCS.
Barring a sweep, the Giants can count on seeing Verlander twice, and that means they better get what they can against Fister, Sanchez and Scherzer. The odds of the Giants beating Verlander once are slim. The odds of them beating Verlander twice are somewhere between slim and none.
Beyond getting runs off of Detroit's pitching, the Giants also have to worry about keeping Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the yard. In addition, they must not underestimate Austin Jackson and Delmon Young after what they did to the New York Yankees in the ALCS.
The Tigers are not an unbeatable team, but they got to the World Series by knocking off the American League's two best teams in the Yankees and the Oakland A's. To boot, they did so in impressive fashion.
The Giants can beat the Tigers, but they're going to have to beat them fair and square.
The Cardinals, after all, will be too busy playing golf to keep the luck coming for the Giants.
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