June 9, 2012 – Grinding out a Win


grind (n) - any severe continuous work or occupation

I don’t believe there is any better word to describe this Cardinals 2-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians.  Of all the players who contributed to that win, the word most applies to the effort of Kyle Lohse (7 2/3 IP,  3 h, 0R, 2BB, 4K, 105 pitches – 66 for strikes). For those 7 2/3 innings, Lohse mixed his curve, slider, changeup and 4 seam fastball effectively, keeping the ball on the corner of the strikezone.  Some may call that nibbling, and it did lead to a pair of walks, but that is the essence of Lohse’s game.  There was very little drama in Lohse’s game until he left a pitch over the plate that Asdrubal Cabrera nearly hit into the right field bleachers.

That one pitch takes me to my favorite part of the sport of baseball – the game within the game.  The entire outcome of this one was determined in a span of less than 11 minutes, starting with that pitch to Cabrera.  Fans that do not understand the beauty of a pitching duel really need to follow this closely, as this is the heart and soul of baseball.

Play #1 – Carlos Beltran (the play)

Carlos Beltran was clearly one of the stars from this win, but more important than his NL Leading 17th home run earlier in the game was this defensive beauty on Cabrera’s hit.  The ball was hit on a rope off the right field wall.  Beltran played it perfectly for one bounce, turn and throw to second base.  Cabrera has good speed and was probably thinking double all the way.  Beltran’s perfect defensive play and strong throw kept him at first base.   The tying run is on base with two outs, 270 feet from home plate.  He would never get there.

Play #2 – Mike Matheny (the decision)

Kyle Lohse had been pitching a gem, but Cabrera’s single created a difficult position for the Cardinals manager.  Four of the next five batters were left handed hitters (Santana, the other is a switch hitter).  Matheny made the right call in lifting Lohse for a fresh Marc Rzepczynski.  He made only one pitch, which leads to the next key play.

For those that think Matheny made the wrong call here, it should be noted that Kyle Lohse does a great job of holding runners on first base.  He also has a very quick move to home plate, and would have been just as likely to get Cabrera on the stolen base attempt as Rzepczyski.  Perhaps even more so.

But…..

Bringing in Rzepczynski here gives the Cardinals reliever a wider margin of error than if he did so after Lohse gives up another hit.  Remember that the on deck batter is a switch hitter, so this is all about getting an out right now.   Matheny’s choice was all about maximizing the Cardinals chances of leaving the inning with the lead, and it was absolutely the right call.

Play #3 – Yadier Molina (the throw)

You would think that news of the youngest of the Molina brothers’ arm would have made it’s way to Cleveland, but their desire to manufacture a run was greater than their common sense not to run on the Cardinals catcher.  In defense of Cabrera and manager, Manny Acta, it was the right call, and Rzepczynski’s first pitch was probably the right time to do it.  Cabrera has good speed, and it would take a perfect throw by Molina to throw him out.   But perfect throws, and this one was from his knees, is what has led to four consecutive gold gloves, probably five at the end of this season.   From his knees, Molina put the ball low and on the runner’s side of second base.  All Rafael Furcal had to do was catch the ball and let Cabrera run into the inning ending tag.

Play #4 – Shane Robinson (the hit)

Shane Robinson (the Wee Lil’ Man) has quietly put together a solid season while playing for the injured Jon Jay.  He is 26 for 94 with 5 doubles, 2 home runs, and 11 runs scored.  That adds up to a slash line of .277 / .310 / .394.  While that may not light up your fantasy roster, it is a very respectable performance that might just keep him on the active roster when Jay returns from his shoulder injury.

Of those five doubles, none were bigger than the one he hit off reliever Jeremy Accardo to start the eighth inning.  Unlike Cabrera’s line drive, Robinson’s rolled into the corner for an easy stand up double.  Robinson might have made it into third base, but the conservative play here leads us to the next crucial play.

Play #5 – Adron Chambers (the bunt)

Again, Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, made the right call sending Adron Chambers into the game as a pinch hitter for Marc Rzepczynski.  With all the left handed hitters coming up in the ninth, some may question Matheny’s decision to lift Rzepczynski after a single pitch, but the decision of who would start the ninth was already made – Jason Motte.   The only question remained is what score Motte would inherit.

An all important insurance run was standing on second base with nobody out.  Two well executed sacrifice hits could easily score the speedy Robinson.   It was a matter of getting him to third base.   And that required a good bunt down the third base line, which meant a left handed hitter.   The Cardinals have three good lefty bunters, but two of them are already in the game (Daniel Descalso and Rafael Furcal).  Fortunately, the other is Adron Chambers, who Matheny chooses for this spot in the game.

One of the things that makes Adron Chambers so exciting is his football mentality – every play is a scoring chance.  Occasionally, it does get the better of him, and when he tries to drag a bunt for a single (one run is just not enough for Adron), third base coach Jose Oquendo runs down to give Chambers some coaching.   It probably goes something like this.  “All you need to do is get Robinson to third base.  Don’t be a hero and make an unproductive out here.  You have one job to do, lay down that $*#&$&# bunt”.

After that “coaching”, Chambers did lay down a perfect bunt, and it took a very good play by Lonnie Chisenhall to get Chambers at first.  It was very close, but Chambers was out.  After a moment of disappointment, he returned to the Cardinals dugout knowing that he did exactly what his manager wanted him to do.

That leads to the final key play.

Play #6 – Rafael Furcal (the RBI)

On the first pitch, Rafael Furcal lifted a perfect sacrifice fly ball to center field.   He hit it over the centerfielder’s head, so all Michael Brantley could do is run to the ball and catch it with his back to home plate.   He had no chance to throw out the speedy Shane Robsinson.

The elapsed time in these six plays, 10 minutes and 52 seconds.   Oh, there were other good plays in the game, but these 10 minutes and 52 seconds were the Antietam or Gettysburg of the Civil War, Vally Forge, Chesapeake or Yorktown of the American Revolutionary War – genuine turning points where the games were won or lost.

Coming into this game, the Cardinals had been losing more of these than winning, so it was a very encouraging sight to see them grind out this victory.

For those fans of American League slugfests, where can you see game turning play after game turning play like you do in these 11 minutes tonight ?  You just can’t.  Probably not in any sport, except for overtime in hockey.  That’s why pitchers duels are the delicacies of the game of baseball.  They don’t come along that often, but when they do, you savor every single moment, because you don’t know when the next one is coming.

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