Tuesday, October 22, 2013

NLCS Game 6: Daddy Took the T-Bird Away

By Jeff Kallman

There'll be no more fun, fun, fun for the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers. Daddy took the T-Bird away in Busch Stadium last Friday. And you can spend all winter debating whether or not the Dodgers themselves gave him the ammunition on a platter.

When the Best Pitcher in Baseball (as they've been calling Clayton Kershaw for the past couple of years) brings less than his best game against the one team he couldn't really solve on the regular season, and the St. Louis Cardinals refuse to relinquish control of their at-bats, the third and fourth innings of Game 6 are what result. When a Dodger team taking a team .264 National League Championship Series batting average and a 0.91 team ERA into Game 6 plays the game as though those numbers were .064 and 9.91, instead, a combined shutout by Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal is the net result.

When Wacha — a rookie barely heard of outside the Cardinals' zip code until he sent the division series against Pittsburgh (with Pedro Alvarez's mammoth solo bomb his only blemish) to a fifth game — outlasts Kershaw in Game 2 and makes a Game 6 return engagement a laugh and a half on behalf of his mates, a 9-0 combined 2-hit shutout and the National League pennant are the net results. And when Dodger manager Don Mattingly refuses to acknowledge a bitter reality staring him plain in the face, after the Cardinals ground Kershaw into powder in the bottom of the third, and sends a too-obviously-spent Kershaw out for the bottom of the fourth, a manageable and surmountable 4-0 deficit becomes a pennant-losing blowout.

Kershaw wouldn't blame anyone else. Hadn't he brought an 0.47 ERA in three October starts into Game 6? With obvious sadness, he faced postgame reporters looking to all the world like a kid who'd been caught rat-racing his father's car around town, forgetting to run the errands he promised along the way, and thus losing his keys to paradise.

"I didn't have it tonight, this one's on me," he said. "Just to know the guys have worked so hard to get here, I wanted to be part of the solution. I just didn't pitch good, man, I don't have an answer."

But it's also on a Dodger infield that allowed a few too many stoppable Game 6 grounders and bounders to turn into base hits. On a Dodger lineup that came to the plate looking as though they hadn't bothered looking at even three frames of Wacha video to find anything they could exploit or grind away. And, on a high-wire act in right field named Yasiel Puig, who rediscovered how allergic he often is to hitting cutoff men at the worst possible times Friday night.

Fairness requires us to say at least two of his ill-considered throws didn't really have that direct an impact on what was to come — Puig wasn't pitching, and he certainly wasn't managing the game, nor was he playing in the infield— but they only added to his contrapuntal reputation for exciting play and brain vapors, sometimes in the same inning, sometimes even on the same play. For most of the game Puig looked as though he'd been robbed blind in broad daylight. He — and, for that matter, his lineup mates — should have been looking straight at the Cardinals' lineup, for either fresh or remedial training in how to grind down a pitching ace with or without his best stuff.

So much for having fun, fun, fun. Somehow, the Dodgers forgot the kind of fun that made it possible for them to kick their way out of the sewer and the infirmary in June. Puig was the ignition switch then. Now he's the talented question mark. Does he learn from this? Does he sit down and watch and re-watch Game 6 and see in microcosm what not to do and how not to do it? Does anyone among the Dodger brain trust take him aside, quietly but surely, and begin his education in how to have fun, fun, fun without forgetting to put the right harnesses on that howitzer arm and the right eyes upon what comes his way at the plate?

Kershaw threw 48 pitches in the third inning heard 'round the world. The Cardinals fouled off 12 of them. They refused to swing as though they had six-run homers in mind, and also refused to let Kershaw strike them out. Matt Carpenter's 1-out, 11-pitch war with Kershaw will stand as maybe the hardest-fought, hardest-won at-bat in Cardinal history — including foulings off of five fastballs, two sliders, and one curve ball.

The 11th pitch is the one most likely to haunt Kershaw from now through spring training. He hung Carpenter a thigh-high slider, and Carpenter drilled it into the right field corner for a double. And that was just the beginning of the Cardinals' Eighth Amendment violations against the Dodger ace.

Carlos Beltran followed Carpenter and poked an RBI single into right center field that second baseman Mark Ellis, arguably, should have gotten a glove on at minimum and an out from at maximum. Puig retrieved it and threw all the way home — with no hope of bagging Carpenter, but with all the allowance Beltran needed to take second. Yadier Molina singled home the inning's second run, David Freese bounced a base hit into left field that also, arguably, should have been stopped in the infield and maybe turned into an out, and Matt Adams wrung a walk out of the clearly struggling Kershaw. Fairness, part two: Adams probably caught a phenomenal break. Home plate umpire Greg Gibson called ball four on strike three, a nice enough fastball at the knees. That strikeout probably would have kept the inning at two runs, after all.

But Adams was aboard and Shane Robinson, one of the sub scrubs on a Cardinal bench that spent the regular season as one of the league's weakest, making his first postseason start one for the memory books, squirted a two-run single through the right side of the infield. This, too, could have been stopped. But Robinson took second as Puig threw home again. The good news was that the throw might have had Freese dead on arrival except for the bad news: it arrived about four feet too high to make the kill.

Fortunately, after putting Pete Kozma on to load up the pads, Kershaw got a gift, dispatching Wacha on a called strikeout to end the carnage. Somehow, Kershaw kept the top of the Cardinal order quiet on a grounder and two flies in the fourth. Somehow, Mattingly took the measure of his man, committed to his heart without troubling to check whether the arm had anything left in the way of living up to it, and kept his bullpen quiet as the bottom of the fifth arrived. Three straight inning-opening hits including an RBI double by Adams and finally Kershaw's evening was finished. Finally, Mattingly went to the bullpen he probably should have had active at the earliest sign that Kershaw wasn't quite Kershaw.

Unfortunately, Ronald Belisario surrendered the sixth Cardinal run the hard way, when — with Kozma free passed again to load up the pads, presumably for an inning-ending double play — Wacha himself picked up a little of the lineup's don't-even-think-about-striking-out approach. He bounced one up to second base enabling Adams to score and the bases to stay loaded. J.P. Howell took over from there. Uh oh. A sacrifice fly (Carpenter), a wild pitch allowing Robinson to score, and an RBI single (Beltran). Then he got Matt Holliday to fly out for the side.

But Wacha continued keeping the Dodgers in complete suspended animation at the plate. He'd already wiped out a game-opening single by Carl Crawford by getting Ellis to dial Area Code 5-4-3. By the time the Cardinals hung up number nine, his only other interruption was a leadoff walk to Crawford in the fourth. A.J. Ellis would open the Dodger sixth with a double, but he might as well have pulled up a chaise lounge to observe the swinging strikeout (pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker), the line out to second (Crawford), and the ground out to the same real estate (M. Ellis).

"When Carpenter fought through that at-bat, all it did for me was give me a lot more confidence," Beltran said somewhere in the middle of champagne shampoos. "Watching him fight for that at-bat and being able to come through, I just went up there with the same mentality. I said,'Man, you need to fight. Right now.' And when I saw [my RBI single] go into right field, I was so happy that I got that run in off of this guy, who is so tough."

He had plenty of right to be happy. Beltran is riding his 37th postseason career RBI to his first World Series. At long last, he's shoved the ghost of 2006 — when, as a Met, he looked at strike three from his now-teammate Adam Wainwright to end Game 7 of that NLCS — into the nearest available trash bin.

Carpenter could only express sympathy for his vanquished third-inning challenger when it was all over. "I definitely think that was a frustrating at-bat for [Kershaw]," he told reporters. "I mean, he really was making good pitches. I was just finding ways to foul them off. And he kept coming at me. He kept fighting. And that was the ultimate fight, in terms of a battle in an at-bat, that I've ever had. And I definitely think it took something out of him."

What, aside from home for the winter, does it take out of these Dodgers that they didn't accomplish anything close to the Cardinals' plate grinding, their infield defense looked asleep at one switch too many, their crazy-gifted right fielder shakes off even the most minimal harness when it's needed most, and their manager was caught just unawares enough to let their ace take what proved a seven run beating instead of getting his pen men ready at the first sign the Cardinals had the grinder hooked up to the Mixmaster?

You almost thought nobody was going to win this one when three known aces with two Cys and two runner-ups among them — Kershaw, Wainwright, and Zack Greinke — could total five NLCS starts and only one win among them.

Now, however, you say goodbye to these Dodgers for the year, these ebullient goofs who couldn't quite remember that there was a job to do in the middle of their playtime. (Did we mention Puig, for all his Game 6 misadventures, wasn't even close to the worst Dodger flop? We won't count Hanley Ramirez, who wasn't even close to the same after being drilled in Game 1, but Andre Ethier hit .150 in the set and Juan Uribe — he who hit that mammoth, proved-to-be-division-series-winner — hit .130. Puig managed to hit .227, somehow.)

The worst part of it was that they didn't have to hark too far back to remind themselves.

The 2004 Boston Red Sox reveled in their image and actuality as fun-loving Idiots — and busted an actual or alleged 86-year curse. The 2010 San Francisco Giants saw and raised those Red Sox, kind of. "I'm still trying to figure out how to fit in with these morons here," crowed Aubrey Huff, a scrap heap pickup. Those Morons also included an MVP and a two-time Cy Young Award winner — and didn't let their near-Animal House style stop them from flattening the Texas Rangers in a five-game World Series.

It's enough to make you think these Cardinals, with their we're-the-men-around-here haughtinesses despite their own moments of mirth, should have prayed to get the Detroit Tigers in the World Series to begin Wednesday. Because this year's Red Sox are another fun bunch. One that just so happens to grind things out even harder than this year's Cardinals do.

The only ones of these Cardinals around for the 2004 steamrolling were Mike Matheny — then a catcher two seasons from calling it a career thanks to post-concussion syndrome, now the Cardinals' manager — and his then-rookie backup, Molina. Matheny's men had better hope his memory bank wasn't rattled enough to forget how the fun bunch actually can bury you in the Series.

"As much as I loved Joe DiMaggio," said Dodgers broadcast icon Vin Scully earlier in the week, answering a question about the Dodgers' exuberance and referencing the Yankee legend who played the game with all the emotion of a corpse, "I would hate to see eighteen Joe DiMaggios on the field."

You might have gotten that to a certain extent in a St. Louis-Detroit Series. You won't get that in the St. Louis-Boston rematch. The management ought to fine any Dodger — yes, even those not named Puig — who misses even one game of it.

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