NLDS Game One – It is the Little Things

It always has been and it will always continue to be the little things that win baseball games.  In a matchup of two of the best pitchers in the National League, you expect the little thing to be a hanging curveball hit into the bleachers (Randal Grichuk) or someone laying out to make a spectacular play (Adrian Gonzalez, sort of), In a 10-9 slugfest you have to look hard to find the key little thing amongst many little things, but it is there for those willing to look.

Don_Mattingly_DodgersIn a season where Cardinals fans, me included, have criticized Mike Matheny for being three batters too late to make a pitching change, it was refreshing to see the same thing happen to Don Mattingly on the other side of the diamond.  But that is the little thing that might have a large impact to this divisional series.   It was certainly the turning point in Game One.

A few days before the series started, our friend, Dan Buffa, wrote a blog and started up a twitter conversation, urging Cardinals fans to stay engaged and optimistic in the divisional series.  Dan suggested that the two teams were a lot closer than some analysts have have you believe, and I completely agree.  Local sports writer, Bernie Miklasz responded with

... and what happened last year is irrelevant.

which is the right thing to say if you are being all cool and analytical about the game, forgetting that it is played by young men that have emotions.  And memories.

There was one rather Nostradamus like reply to Bernie that I am particularly fond of

tell me that if Matt Carpenter has another 10 pitch
at bat in a close game.

OK, so it might have been only 8 pitches, but I think the point was made.   The feeling of deja vu was eerily comforting when Matt Carpenter stepped up to the plate in the seventh inning, but let’s go back and set it up to see where Don Mattingly’s mistake happened.

With two outs in the sixth inning, and the Cardinals trailing 6-1, Matt Carpenter connects with a Clayton Kershaw fastball and deposits it in the seats to make it a 6-2 game.   That was the only the second Cardinals hit of the game.  There were no signs being stolen, Kershaw was not tipping pitches.  Carpenter knew first ball fastball and took an appropriate swing.  The problem was that Kershaw left it in the fat part of the strike zone, and Carpenter did not miss.   File this away for a few moments.

In the seventh inning, the shadows were no longer a factor.  It was the third time through the batting order for the Cardinals and it was a hot night in Los Angeles.  Sorry Harold Reynolds, there were no tipping pitches and nobody was stealing signs.   The answer was much less dramatic, Kershaw lost  his control and it compounded when he was forced to pitch from the stretch.

Look at the Matt Holliday at bat to see the inning unfold.  Kershaw missed on his first two pitches, and they were not close.  Holliday swings and misses a 2-0 meatball, but takes the next pitch to run the count to 3-1.   That, Harold, is how this inning happened.   Holliday sat on a 3-1 get me over fastball and ripped it for a single.   Unlike the 2-0 pitch, Holliday hit it squarely.

The same situation happened with Jhonny Peralta, though much quicker.  Peralta smoked a single on a 1-0 fastball, over the heart of the plate.   Yadier Molina smacked the first pitch he saw, also a fastball, also over the plate.   None of these pitches were tipped, they were just left over the fat part of the plate, like the home run last inning by Matt Carpenter.   This was not vintage Clayton Kershaw, this is a pitcher that was running out of gas.

Matt Adams singled on a 1-2 pitch that again caught too much of the plate.   There is no magic here.   Control is the issue, just as it was when Adam Wainwright was struggling earlier.

Kershaw made Pete Kozma look silly at the plate and just painted a called third strike on the outside corner for the first out.  With all due respect to Kershaw, my daughter could probably strike out Pete Kozma, and I say that as a big Kozma fan.   What Don Mattingly missed here is that this was no turning point for Kershaw, he was not righting the ship.  He just struck out a .200 hitter.

After the Kozma strikeout, Jon Jay singles home Jhonny Peralta to cut the lead to 6-4.  It was a good piece of hitting by Jay, the first time where the hit was not on a Kershaw mistake.  Left hander, JP Howell, was ready in the bullpen and should have come into the game at this point.

After striking out Oscar Taveras, Don Mattingly leaves Clayton Kershaw in to pitch to Matt Carpenter.  That is the little thing that we are looking for.   There are only two people on the planet that did not see this Carpenter at bat coming, Don Mattingly and Bernie Miklasz, though I kid about Bernie. As with Kozma, Don Mattingly overlooked the batter and just saw his pitcher being successful.  Taveras, a young slugger, was overly aggressive and swung at pitches he had no business swinging at.  That strikeout was more on Taveras, than Kershaw.  Bravado and support of your players is one thing, but managers are paid to look beyond this and make tough decisions at pivotal moments of a game, especially in the playoffs.

MarpIn what almost looked like a replay from 2013, Matt Carpenter laid off pitches outside the strike zone and fouled off the close ones, waiting for his pitch.   This time it would come on the 8th pitch, a 95 mph fastball that was in nearly the exact same spot as his home run in his previous at bat.  He jumped all over it and hit it to the base of the wall, clearing the bases and giving the Cardinals a 7-6 lead.

Matt Holliday would cement the victory with a three run homer two batters later, but leaving Kershaw in to pitch the Carpenter was the turning point in the game.   With respect to Bernie Miklasz, sometimes what happened last year is still relevant.   And baseball can be just like that.

Credit the Cardinals for being aggressive and not giving up after trailing in the late innings.  On any other regular season game, they might have packed it in and started thinking about the post-game meal and a good night rest.  But this is the playoffs and you have to win one game on the road.  That means playing a hard nine innings, and they did.   Against one of the best.

This series is far from over, so we should take the Game One win in the proper context as a very exciting start to the NLDS.  There is still a lot of baseball to be played, but if you are a Cardinals fan, you have to love the way they battled in this game.  Maybe, just maybe, history will repeat itself and the Cardinals can win this series.

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