There is a lesson to be learned from Game Six of the National League Championship Series. It is that you don’t want that series to go to a Game Seven. It doesn’t matter if you have your best starter on the mound, ask the Philadelphia Phillies. In a decisive game of a series, the outcome often comes down to one pitch, one hit or one umpire’s call. In a longer series, heck over the span of two games, you hope that these breaks will even out. When it gets down to a single game, any one of the three can make or break a season. In Game Six, we saw all three.
If you are a Cardinals fan, the call came in the first inning when Shaun Marcum threw out Albert Pujols at the plate on a fielders choice. On replay, it appeared that Pujols’ foot touched home plate before Lucroy’s tag, but it was a very close play. It was one of those calls that could have gone either way. The call seemed to take on more significance when the next batter, David Freese, pulled an inside pitch into the left field bullpen for a three run homer. Or maybe not, because if Marcum doesn’t make the throw home and instead opts for the play at first, Freese’s homer is just a 2 run shot and you get the same score, regardless.
The real controversial call came later, in the fifth inning. Although an 11-5 lead seemed insurmountable, the Cardinals were already into their bullpen for the second reliever. A leadoff single by Carlos Gomez, followed by a wild pitch didn’t seem to bode well for Marc Rzepczynski’s success. When Ryan Braun hit a slow roller down the first base line, Albert Pujols made a lunging tag, right as Braun slide into first base. Three players came together in a tangled mass of arms, legs and a baseball. Gary Darling called Braun out on the close play. Some replays looked like Darling got the call right while others looked as if Braun was safe.
Either way, this was a turning point in the game. Unlike the Pujols call in the first, there was a ripple effect from this one. Rzepczynski, who had been struggling prior to the Braun at-bat, settled down and retired the next six batters with only one ball being struck with any authority. With a big lead, it becomes a game of outs, and Scrabble took seven of them away from the Brewers. Had that play gone differently, La Russa might have gone back to his bullpen for Mitchell Boggs or Kyle McClellan and the game might have played out differently.
This one is easy.
Fernando Salas entered the game in the third inning and it was his job to get through the next two innings. The first went according to plan, three up and three down. It was in his second inning of work, the bottom of the fourth, where things went awry. After back to back doubles, and a walk to pinch hitter Casey McGehee, Salas faced the leadoff hitter, Corey Hart. Hart had already homered in the game, and if he did so here, he would bring the Brewers back to just a one run deficit. The two battled, Hart swinging for the fences and Salas refusing to give him anything to hit. On a 3-2 pitch, perhaps with the game on the line, Salas put all of his remaining energy into a fastball, high and on the outside corner. It was a perfect pitch, and with Hart taking a huge swing, he had no chance to make contact. Hart strikes out, the once promising rally fizzles, and the Brewers season effectively ends.
There is a fascinating historical parallel to this moment. Bruce Sutter threw nearly the same pitch by Gorman Thomas to end the 1982 World Series.
For all of the huge blasts in the first 2 1/2 innings of the game, six home runs total, it was a little bouncing single off the bat of pinch hitter Allen Craig that broke the game open. It was one of those that goes into the record books as a 2 RBI single to center field, but in reality, it was a weak grounder that somehow found a tea tiny gap between the Brewers shortstop and second baseman. A seeing eye single is the difference between a 7-4 game and a 9-4 game. With the prospects of facing Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder another three times, that is a huge difference.
If these three plays, perhaps just one of them, goes against the Cardinals in a Game Seven, it might be the Brewers representing the National League in the World Series. That’s why it was so crucial for the Cardinals to win the NLCS in six games and not let it go a full seven. When it comes down to one game, anything can happen.
Congratulations to the Milwaukee Brewers players, coaches and fans. They had a tremendous season and came within two games of a trip to the World Series. Whether or not Prince Fielder returns, the Brewers will be a formidable opponent next year.