Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Mighty Have Fallen

By Jeff Kallman

With the second-best regular-season record in baseball, the New York Yankees couldn't out-hit their pitching issues while the Detroit Tigers figured out ways to hang in against both the Empire Emeritus's batting holes and pitching inconsistencies. With the best regular season in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies couldn't out-pitch their hitting issues, while the tenacious St. Louis Cardinals — who weren't even supposed to be in the postseason picture, you may remember — figured out ways to make the ballyhooed Four Aces resemble the Four Lads.

Now the mighty have fallen. Did I mention that they fell before their home audiences, ending in cascades of boos that make you shudder at the senses of entitlement that have come to surround some fans and riveting baseball on the field be damned?

It's not that anybody might have expected anything less than an all guns blazing Game Five pitching duel to settle a National League Division Series. But I don't think anyone really expected the lone run of the game to cross the plate on a first-inning double while golf-and-fish buddies Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay went at it the rest of the way. And, considering his injury history, I don't think anyone really expected Carpenter, game as he usually is, to outlast Halladay and go the distance no matter how delicious the matchup looked on the marquee.

Except, maybe, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Maybe.

Remember: these Cardinals needed the Atlanta Braves's stupefying plotz and a little help from the Phillies themselves to get here in the first place. La Russa may take a back seat to few men for believing in his ability to claw his way out from under an avalanche, but it may stretch even the most surrealistic imagination to believe going in that they could overcome Halladay and the Phillies' firepower in Game 1. From there:

* The Phillies staked Cliff Lee to a 4-0 lead in Game 2 and the Cardinals still found ways to keep the Phillies' boots off their throats.

* The Cardinals lost Game Three only because Ben Francisco came, seemingly out of nowhere, or at least from deep in the Phillies' afterthoughts, to bat for Cole Hamels and hit a 3-run homer into the visitors' bullpen at Busch Stadium.

* The Phillies may have thought they had it made for Game Four, sending Roy Oswalt out to the mound against a team he's manhandled well enough in his postseason career, but David Freese thought nothing of the sort. He dragged the Cardinals over Oswalt's hump with a 2-run double in the fourth and a 2-run bomb in the sixth. Until then, Freese had been a measly 2-for-12 in the series and the Phillies were probably planning for him to be a reasonably easy out.

* The top of the Phillies lineup (Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley) acquitted themselves well enough. Hell, those two pieces were bristling — Rollins entering Game Five hitting .563, slugging .813, and reaching base to the tune of a .588 on-base percentage, Utley equaling the slugging and on-base percentage while batting .462 to the same point. Yet the scoring between the teams broke even at 20 runs each, and it wasn't enough to get the Phillies past round one.

* Ryan Howard went 2-for-19 in the set, ending the clincher somewhat ignominiously by grounding out to end the game, set, and match, and going down in a sad heap after feeling a pop in his Achilles tendon as he broke out of the batter's box.

* After that eleven-run Game 1 explosion, the Phillies played mostly as though they had no powder left in their lineup or bench guns. Five Phillies — Hunter Pence (the right-handed power acquisition at the non-waiver trade deadline), Raul Ibanez, Howard, Placido Polanco, and Carlos Ruiz — who hit .250 or better on the regular season hit .211 (Pence) or worse, way worse (from Ruiz's .059 to Ibanez's .200, with Howard and Polanco each going .105) in the division series.

Some think the Phillies' age caught up to them at last; the average age was 31. Some think they bore a distinct resemblance to the early-Aughts Yankees, overloaded with veteran savvy but unable to match it to complete across-the-board talent and winning but one World Series. Some people thought the Phillies got awfully old, awfully quick, though others in the same conversation brushed it off and noted that they could still bloody well play.

The Cardinals' average age was a mere two years younger. In baseball years, Carpenter took the Game Five mound as the oldest rotation member (36); the rotation's average age is 30. In baseball years, two years makes a difference enough over a long season's grind even if you did need somebody else to take a complete swan dive off the mountaintop to hit the rocks below. Carpenter is also two years older than Halladay.

And Carpenter may have put things into stronger perspective in the middle of the Cardinals' champagne shampoo. "I think guys we're just relaxed and having fun," he told reporters. "We put ourselves into position where everybody was expecting us to have no chance and we just started playing like the team we knew we were. And we were fortunate to get some help back into it with Atlanta losing and we were playing well the rest of that month."

He went out in Game 5 and pitched a masterpiece against a best-bud who was pitching his own heart and soul out and came up one buck short. To find any previous 1-0 pitching wins in postseason sudden death, you have to cross decades, back to Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series and Ralph Terry (who needed help from Bobby Richardson's glove snapping Willie McCovey's bullet liner to end it) in the 1962 World Series. Since the 1960s, only six pitchers have won any 1-0 postseason game, if not necessarily a sudden-death one: Carpenter, Morris, Vida Blue, Mike Scott, Curt Schilling, and Tim Lincecum.

Make note of this: while the Braves were going Hindenburg, the Cardinals spent September going 18-8, never losing more than two straight, and putting together winning streaks of five, four, and three while they were at it. The Phillies spent September going 15-14, including a horrific eight-game losing streak and a spell of dropping three out of four to the Cardinals themselves.

Make note of this, too: with the Phillies getting the heave-ho a day after the Yankees got theirs, the biggest payrolls in baseball are nowhere near the League Championship Series, never mind the World Series. "Competitive balance" and "parity" and "salary cap" yappers, please make note: baseball has a great chance, even if the Cardinals hang in, hang on, maybe even get a rematch with the Detroit Tigers, and take the lease on the Promised Land, to continue as the one sport since the advent of free agency to crown more individual World Series champions without a salary cap than the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL with salary caps have crowned different league champions in the same era.

Still, the Cardinals actually held off on pulling the corks when it was all over. They waited for Carpenter. He'd been buttonholed for television interviews after the masterpiece was done, and they weren't going to start the party without him. Let the Phillies have the Four Aces, they must have been thinking when he arrived in the clubhouse at last, Elvis has entered the building.

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