November 12, 2019

Is 2019 the Post Season of the Pitcher?

October 13, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Whoever said it, the old mantra that pitching wins the World Series has an early lead in 2019, even in the modern game where the home run is the attention grabber, the defining moment that lifts everyone from their seats to track the flight of the ball as it heads toward the light standard. But as the days grow shorter and sunset comes earlier, the pitchers are asserting themselves over the game once again, and nowhere was that more apparent than in St. Louis, where the Cardinals dropped the first two games to the very dominant pitching showcased by the Washington Nationals.

The attention never strayed far from the storied franchise of the Gateway City, where the game is played beneath the shining silver Arch, visible through center field in Busch Stadium. All those rich traditions that connect from Adam Wainwright back to Bob Gibson and Dizzy Dean, from Marcel Ozuna to Curt Flood marched forth, but the Washington Nationals proved a bridge too far for all of it. Major League baseball would have you believe the Nationals are heir to the empty legacy of the Montreal Expos rather than that of Walter Johnson and Clark Griffith. But it is that latter tradition and those two rather formidable pitching geniuses that stalked the Cardinals and all their rich heritage in the first two games of the National League Championship Series (NLCS).

At times there was more narrative about the ball in use for the games, or the mistakes that Cardinal manager, Mike Schilt, committed than the two near-no hitters spun by Washington pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. As a traditionalist, the idea that MLB switched out the smooth, low-seamed baseball for something more in keeping with what was used in 1968, is fine with me. Cardinal pitchers were throwing the same baseball as the Nationals and Mike Schilt is hardly more experienced in playoff baseball than Davey Martinez. The teams–for all their minor imperfections–are remarkably evenly matched if the first two contests are any indication.

The games were won on the field by the better team, at least for the two games in St. Louis that began the NLCS. Anibal Sanchez was as masterful as he had been in his heyday with the Tigers and after Ryan Zimmerman’s fine play on a line drive in the eighth inning, it seemed as though the gods were shining on Sanchez, that he might complete the game without allowing a safety. That was the story that compounded with each additional out and it was almost a great one before Jose Martinez laced a single to center for the only Redbird base knock of the day.

Then Max Scherzer matched it as the future Hall of Famer wrote out a similar narrative pitch-by-pitch in Game Two. He has done it twice before, in 2015, and though that golden season–probably his best, is four years in the rear view mirror, he can still throw a fastball 96-97 mph and mix in some of the nastiest secondary pitches in the game. His gem lasted until the seventh inning on a line drive that a better, more seasoned left fielder than Juan Soto might have caught. Mad Max was not happy, but he finished like a champ and handed the ball to the Nationals bullpen.

The tension roiling beneath those two games is baseball at its best. Could the two pitchers pull a miracle out of a conjurer’s hat? Could the Nationals hang onto their precarious lead? Batter by batter it unfolded quietly, steadily, like the tortured beauty of an Albert Hitchcock thriller–google it–it was serene and beautiful in its conception. MLB executives may have been sent running for the phones to tell their minions to change out the balls used in the World Series, but for now it is the Post-Season of the Pitcher, 1968 all over again. There were no fans doing the wave, there was no loud rock and roll, no walk up music, just baseball the way it is meant to be played for those with a love of the game who don’t need constant stimulation to keep them focused on their score card.

In a game of batting glove rituals, where each player has a unique plate tapping custom, it was the new kids on the block whose conventions ruled the day. The Washington Nationals got the clutch hits. Adam Eaton had one in both games and  contributions by Howie Kendrick and Michael A. Taylor pushed across a paltry five runs for the DC nine. FIVE runs in two games were enough to win two games, by 2-0 and 3-1 scores respectively. In a season where the average runs per game was 8.3, there were only six scored in the first two. Yes, fly balls died on the warning track in the cool temperatures, but each team hit them there and only one found the seats, Michael Taylor’s that gave the Nationals the early lead in Game Two.

In truth the games played out as forecast. The Nationals superior starting pitching was better than that of the Cardinals. The Nationals offense was just a bit better than that of St. Louis. The Cardinal bullpen–where they had a distinct advantage–did not get a chance to make itself felt as both Sanchez and Scherzer pitched late into the two games. Where does it go from here? To Nationals Park along the Potomac’s scant tributary where the temperatures are forecast to remain fall-like.

The momentum shifts heavily in the Nationals favor on this off-day, but it is a seven-game series and much baseball is yet to be played. The Cardinals will need to reach deep into their history of excellence to get a foothold in this series. If the two teams can find their run-scoring mojo, if offense is to rule the remaining contests, then the Nationals hold an edge there with 5.3 runs per game in 2019 versus 4.7 for the Cardinals. But the Nationals will need to get great starting pitching again to make it all work their way. There are only a few magic beans to be found in their bullpen and Davey Martinez will need all the smoke and mirrors he can summon if a starter fails.

Regardless which team prevails, the game of baseball was a very real winner in St. Louis at the end of the first two contests. It is a slow game, played in a pastoral setting that invites calm and attention to detail. The beauty of it is the tension between pitches, between batters, between innings. It is all about the waiting, about the building anticipation that bubbles like a witch’s cauldron, one that never quite spills and yet weaves an inescapable spell. It was that tension on display in all its glory in those tight pitcher’s duels as we saw in the first two games between Washington and St. Louis. Baseball can hardly be played any better than that.

Nationals Park is a noisy place where ownership believes it needs all the gaudy flim-flam to entertain those who did not grow up with baseball and must learn it from scratch. Game One and Game Two of the NLCS are the best teachers anyone could need. Let’s hope we have more of that grand old game when the action shifts back to DC. Strasburg versus Flaherty?? Two of the National League’s best pitchers in 2019 going head-to-head in Game Three. What could be better?? My palms are sweating already. Let’s do it! Let’s play two!

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