NLCS 2011: 5 Key Aspects of Phillies-Cardinals Series Heading into Game 5
While Phillies Nation (but hopefully, not the players) nervously await Friday night’s NLCS rubber game versus the Cardinals, MLB and more neutral fans must be celebrating the good fortune of three of the four division series heading to winner-take-all games.
Can baseball have drawn it up much better? It almost matches the insane drama of the last night of the regular season, featuring four climactic games being played almost simultaneously.
The drama and tension of the Phillies-Cardinals series is palpable. It’s hard to make complete sense of what has happened in the first four games (surprises have abounded, without even analyzing the baserunning skills of a certain, notorious squirrel), but is a Game 5 all that surprising?
I admit that I am a little surprised: I predicted the Phillies to win in four.
What follows is my take on Five Key Aspects of the Phillies-Cardinals NLCS.
1. Shaky Umpiring
One hates it when any game official becomes a big part of the story, but this series has seen its share of controversial calls.
In the middle of Sunday's Game 2, Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa (in quite a calculated way while speaking to the TBS telecast between innings) blasted home plate umpire Jerry Meals for having one strike zone for Phillies' pitcher Cliff Lee and a tighter one for his own ace, Chris Carpenter.
As it turned out, Lee, Carpenter and Meals all had tough evenings at the park.
It appeared (and I'm trying to view this with complete objectivity) that LaRussa's gambit worked. Cliff Lee seemed to not get any borderline strike calls after TLR's outburst.
Did that decide the outcome of the game? Perhaps not, but it was almost impossible to decipher the umpire's strike zone that night.
In Game 4, the Phillies streaked to a 2-0 run lead in the top of the first behind a double by Jimmy Rollins, a triple by Chase Utley and a single by Hunter Pence. With no outs, they were poised for a huge inning against Edwin Jackson, and then it happened.
With a full count to slugger Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence got a healthy jump off first. A few seconds later, there were two outs and nobody on, thanks to a dreaded (or welcomed, depending on your point of view) strikeout double play. Talk about a pitcher's best friend.
Great play by the Cardinals? Maybe. Only, it appeared that the pitch was six inches outside and the swipe tag by shortstop Rafael Furcal (which should have been rendered irrelevant by ball four) was late.
Two points here: I am not making a case for the extension of instant replay in baseball.
The Phillies certainly have played a role in killing their own big innings this series, but it says here that the umpires got two big calls wrong on one play, effectively killing what could have been a bigger start.
The hope here is that neither team suffers from poor calls on Friday night.
2. The Cliff Lee Factor
Sports Cliche No. 155: Baseball (like all sports) is a game of inches.
As terrific as Cliff Lee was this year—and in several past postseasons—he was a little bit off on Sunday night.
Staked to a 4-0 lead, Lee gave up three in the top of the fourth. A key hit was a seeing-eye single by John Jay that just got by Lee and the outstretched web of shortstop Jimmy Rollins’ glove. On a lot of days, given the defensive brilliance of those two players, that’s a doubleplay ball.
The Cards got to Lee again in the sixth, tying the game on another Jay single after Lee had retired the first two batters. Lee gave up another run in the seventh, and it could have been even worse.
So, what’s the point? Lee hardly imploded; the Cardinals got the better of him—that’s life. He fanned nine and walked two in six innings on a night where (pardon the whine) the home plate umpire was all over the place.
Put it this way. If the Phillies' offense did anything against a suspect bullpen after chasing Carpenter, Lee would be praised for his grit in hanging in there on a tough night.
If the Phillies lose Game 5 and the series, Lee (who can usually walk on water in this town) will face a lot of criticism in the offseason. That comes with the territory, as people are reaching for easy stats like this one: Lee has now lost his last three postseason starts with an ERA of “seven."
Okay, but I’d still take my chances with a man who pitched brilliantly this year and has a career postseason record of 7-3, 2.52, 89 K/10 BB in 82 innings and a WHIP of 0.927.
The Phils fan in me would love to see No. 33 on the hill in Game 1 of the NLCS; stay tuned to see if that happens.
3. Ryan Howard: Everyone's Favorite Hero-Goat
If I were designing a realistic figurine of how Ryan Howard were perceived, it would contain three elements.
1. It would be bigger than life
2. He would be wearing a cape
3. He would also be wearing goat horns
This series, of course, has been no different for the Big Piece.
He had THE big hit, a titanic three-run shot in the bottom of the sixth inning in Game 1 to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Furthermore, he added a sacrifice fly later in the game.
In Game 2, he singled in two runs in the first inning. The man had six RBI after four official at-bats.
It hasn't gone well since (he was 0-8 with five strikeouts in the two games in St. Louis) and Howard's cumulative series stats are: 2-15 with six strikeouts.
One can't discount what Howard did to win Game 1, and to stake the team to a 2-0 lead in what could have been another win. But, this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and his six RBI seem like they happened a month ago.
The Phillies may very well need a big, timely hit or two from their most powerful hitter in Game 5.
4. That Chase Utley-Albert Pujols Play
You've seen the play, perhaps multiple times.
Game 4, Cardinals up 3-2, despite the Phillies scoring two in the top of the first.
Chase Utley draws a walk to start the top half of the sixth. He gets a big jump from first before Hunter Pence hits a grounder that shortstop Rafael Furcal sits back on. Utley holds for a split second around second base (so Furcal won't have an easy tag play on him) and then motors to third.
Cardinals' first baseman Albert Pujols notices Utley and concedes the force out at first. He cheats two steps off the bag and throws a strike to third baseman David Freese who tags Utley out "by a mile."
Was it a reckless, bonehead play by Utley? No. Was it a great and equally aggressive play by Pujols? Absolutely.
Yes, I realize that one never should make the first out of the inning at third base, but consider this: The Phillies have been criticized for playing passively this series, and being scared to lose. Utley's gamble was the antithesis of this: It was flat-out, spheroids to the wall, if you will.
Pujols took a big gamble by not taking what would have been an out (albeit close, with Pence busting it) and made the play look much easier than it was. How many first basemen have the IQ and guts to cheat off the bag by a couple steps and then the skill to make a perfect 3-5 throw to nail the lead runner?
From Utley's perspective, his being thrown out was the difference between a man on second, and a man on first, one out.
In many respects, Pujols took the bigger risk. If you think what he did was easy, I implore you to think again or watch more baseball.
One more thing about Utley's gamble. The five hitters after Pence (No. 4-8) in the lineup were a combined 1-19 (a single) yesterday with no walks and seven Ks.
5. Game 5: Doc V. Carp
For all the twists and turns, surprises, controversial umpiring calls, shadows and (gasp) squirrels, the season for both teams comes down to one game.
Game 5 is almost upon us, with ace and defending Cy Young winner Roy Halladay matching pitches and nerves (what nerves?) versus ace and former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter.
We have two former Toronto Blue Jays teammates; Doc was up north from 1998-2009, and Carp toiled there from 1997-2002. They both stand tall at 6'6", and when on their game, look even bigger and more menacing to opposing hitters.
The Cardinals must be thrilled to be in a Game 5, with their ace on the hill. Many did not expect them to extend the series to a rubber game.
The Phillies? Yes, it would have been preferable to be sitting in the clubhouse, awaiting the Brewers-Diamondbacks winner, but they get to play before another raucous, sellout crowd with their own ace of aces toeing the rubber.
After a hopeful spring training and an exhausting first 166 games, it all comes down to this.
Any true baseball fan should have his/her heart racing with anticipation.
Matt Goldberg, a featured columnist for the Philadelphia Phillies and all-around baseball fanatic, is also a noted humor author and speaker. For more information, please visit www.tipofthegoldberg.com