Not With a Bang
It is over: Alan Craig squeezes the fly in his mitt and at the mound the Cardinals, the team from out of nowhere, (yes, the Cardiac Cardinals, and why hasn’t someone used this tag already?) pile on. They are the champions of baseball for 2011. I had thought that the Cardinals might win Game Seven. They had as much as won the Series the day before, when the Rangers bullpen simply could not close a victory. I thought that Chris Carpenter had an advantage over Matt Harrison. I thought the home crowd might factor in a great deal. What I did not think was that the Cardinals would win a World Series because their opponents would be afraid to pitch to them.
But this is the truth. Never has an intentional walk so shaped a game of such import, confirming the pundits who for years have warned us of its dangers. Never have these dangers been so clearly confirmed as when Scott Feldman, after issuing a free pass to David Freese, proceeded to walk catcher Yadier Molina on a full count, thereby driving in Allen Craig and allowing the lead to slip to two runs. Never has a bad strategy been so completely verified as when C.J. Wilson (appropriately, since it is almost Halloween, groomed as MLB’s best imitation of a werewolf), let the ball slip from his hands to hit shortstop Rafael Furcal, widening the gap to three runs as Albert Pujols walked home from third base. And never had a two-run rally in which the baseball never left the infield so clearly closed out a game that was essentially mailed in afterwards–only David Murphy’s ground-rule double to lead off the seventh sounding a whisper of protest from the American League champions.
So the best World Series probably since the Twins and Braves in 1991 ended, not with a bang, but a whimper. Nearing the end, neither Joe Buck nor Steve Mc Carver, the announcers on FOX Network, could stop themselves from repeating that in the course of seven games, the Rangers had walked forty-one batters, a World Series record. Nor can I let go of the fact myself. Forty-one walks are not chance. Forty one walks reek with fear.
Or do they? Sitting at the computer working this article, it comes over me that the Rangers loss may not be simply the fault of the intentional walk as a strategy. Perhaps what we have witnessed is not just a failure of nerve, but also, the complete failure of the role of the designated hitter in baseball. For the DH has emphasized the sluggers, and pitching around them, and so, the intentional walk. Pitching around all those who aspire to’ be the Bambino, perhaps the American League managers have forgotten the percentages—that even Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn and Willie Mays made outs two thirds of their career. Just perhaps the figure of the slugger has so mesmerized the American League that it has forgotten the obverse rule—that even the average player makes base in some form or the other about 2.8 out of ten times. If the National League has swung the balance of dominance in the last two years with strength of pitching, Game Seven has shown us that the reason may simply be that less respect is shown the batters.
Odd that I should end this Series talking about pitching, for if 2010 was ‘The Year of the Pitcher,’ 2011 ended as ‘The-Year-of- the-Pitcher’s Sophomore Jinx.’ If a pitcher like Chris Carpenter, (who admittedly, has worked to fashion himself over the last two to three years from a rotation’s second starter to an ace) can so dominate a playoffs while sporting an ERA at 3.30; if Albert Pujol’s third home run in the third game came in an absolutely meaningless context compared to Reggie Jackson’s; if the Rangers apparently held back their best pitcher and used him only once, to win Game Four; if the main player in Game Five was not a player or a manager, but a phone to the bullpen in the Cardinal’s clubhouse; if perhaps, you don’t think there’s too much ’classic’ about a game in which the pitching is so bad that the team that bats last is fairly obviously going to win; if the deciding game features an intentional walk, a walk, and a hit batter at the height of its tensions—if all these conditions hold, and they do—then perhaps through all the excitement I am trying to tell you that this was hardly the best quality baseball.
It was a close Series, and an exciting one, and bless us, did we ever need a close and exciting Series; but beyond Games One and Two, the baseball looked pretty much what baseball looks like when baseball is exhausted—nervous, sweaty, self-conscious, over-thought, and finally, simply cold and tired.
Let me not forget that the ‘Who Dat?’ ‘Birds have earned the Commissioner’s trophy. A lot of this credit might not reside in St. Louis, but in Memphis, where the names many of us had never heard of before, Allen Craig, hometown hero David Freese, and the bullpen of Lynn and Motte and (of all absurdities) a pitcher named Boggs, were shaped to help circle the bases around Pujols and Lance Berkman. Congratulations to them.
But also, I want them to prove it to me next year, over the long course of a long warm season, with the core of the team finally intact.