I’ve been harping on how playoff baseball can hinge on luck, happenstance, and fractions of an inch for months now. It’s been roughly utility-neutral to us as Phillies fans in recent years (I hate to go all Jeremy Bentham on you guys, but that was the best way to put it), because while the Phillies, in 2011, lost in the first round of the playoffs despite probably being the best team with the easiest road to the World Series, the same could be said of the 2008 Cubs. And if the Cubs weren’t the best team, the Rays were most likely next in line, then the Red Sox, and then the Phillies. Having the Cubs lose in the first round and the Phillies win the World Series is really no more of a karmic ball-tap than having the Phillies lose in the first round and the Cardinals win the World Series this year.
Except I can’t stand Tony La Russa and his smug self-importance and tedious overmanaging. Or the rest of the pressed-and-ironed St. Louis Cardinals, essentially Lance Berkman and a bunch of guys who are really hard to like. There’s Albert Pujols, the greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen and one of the most off-puttingly boring personalities in sports. There’s the battery of Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina, two guys whose defenders would describe as “fiery” but are so prickly they make Nyjer Morgan look like Carlos Ruiz. Then there’s the legion of anonymous, dirty-jersey grinders who run into unnecessary outs and lay down more bunts than an unimaginative pastry chef. It’s horrific baseball, an Indian burn on the forearm of progess in baseball tactics, and it’s working.
Not that anyone would confuse Ron Washington for Earl Weaver, and while I find Josh Hamilton inspiring, Adrian Beltre riveting and C.J. Wilson charming, I can see why one might have the same sort of viscerally negative reaction the Rangers that I have to the Cards. But my spiteful Ranger bandwagonism nearly came under assault last night, if not for one of those razor-thin margins that so often define baseball.
Which brings me to something I noticed in Game 2. After taking the LCS off to collect myself, I’ve watched the first two games of the World Series and watched the Rangers come back to tie the series against the hated Cardinals on a couple of near-miraculous baserunning plays in the ninth inning. If those plays had gone wrong, the Cards would be up 2-0, but if a couple of similar plays had gone right two weeks ago, we’d be looking at an entirely different World Series altogether.
With no one out in the top of the first inning of Game 4 of the NLDS, with the Phillies leading the series 2-1 and the game 2-0 after 10 pitches, Hunter Pence broke for second with the count full to Ryan Howard, who looked at strike three from Edwin Jackson. Pence–a terrible basestealer, 62-for-99 on his career–was then thrown out at second by Yadier Molina, one of the best catchers in history at eliminating would-be basestealers, got Pence by mere microns at second, and the game had turned on the head of a pin. Instead of having a lead, a baserunner, no outs, and the cleanup hitter at the plate, the Phillies had given Jackson a way out of the inning. Sure enough, the Cardinals took the lead in the bottom of the fourth and the Phillies never got it back.
Then, in the top of the sixth, down 3-2, Chase Utley tried to take the extra base on grounder to short and was TOOTBLAN by five feet. This is precisely the kind of aggressive, too-clever-by-half move that makes Utley such an exciting player, but in his eagerness to make something happen while Troy was being sacked before his eyes, Utley ran into an unnecessary out when the Phillies could ill afford to give outs away.
The third baserunning event happened two days later, and it was described by Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday’s Jonah Keri Podcast. Keri was arguing that Texas, as the best baserunning team in baseball, would have an advantage in the World Series when Jazayerli said that Molina could neutralize that baserunning edge by himself.
The interview can be found here, and the section I’m quoting starts around the 11:50 mark.
“[Yadier Molina] had the huge throw to nail Chase Utley trying to steal in that 1-0 game. Chase Utley is the best percentage basestealer in the history of baseball with 100 or more steals, successful, like 88 percent of the time. And he took off for second base on a curveball, mind you…it didn’t get to home plate as fast as the fastball would have, and Molina had the absolute perfect transfer and throw and nailed Utley at second base to kill the rally in, I think, the seventh or eighth inning, and that was the last rally the Phillies had in that game. So yeah…if Ron Washington wants to stick with what got him here and is aggressive on the basepaths, that’s going to hurt the Rangers.”
Which, of course, it did not last night. Trailing 1-0 to the Cardinals late, with everything to lose and while running out of outs rapidly, Ian Kinsler, the Rangers’ version of Chase Utley, reached base to lead off an inning and tested Molina’s arm. While Utley was out by a fraction of a second, Kinsler was safe by an even smaller amount, and rather than killing his team’s last chance for a rally, he put the tying run in scoring position with no out.
It was a stupid play, even more insanely desperate, due to the scarcity of remaining outs, than Utley’s seventh-inning SNAFU in NLDS Game 5. But it worked. Four pitches later, Jason Motte grooved a fastball that a better hitter than Elvis Andrus would have hit to Illinois, but Andrus went the other way with it for a single and Kinsler went far enough around third to warrant a throw.
On the throw, Andrus, every bit as good a basrunner as Utley, took the same kind of insane chance that Utley himself took against Furcal and Pujols in Game 4 of the NLCS and it paid off. All of a sudden, two singles and two harrowing baserunning decisions had the winning run on second and no one out for Josh Hamilton.
Baseball, at its best, is a game that doesn’t resemble gladitorial combat so much as it resembles poker, a solution composed entirely of percentages, courage, and random chance. But what Kinsler and Andrus did last night wasn’t that kind of baseball. It was a berzerker rage.
I’m sure that if you’ve made it this far you watched all three games I’ve mentioned and seen all five baserunning plays and you’re wondering what the point is of recounting those painful moments.
Consider this: take out Utley’s disastrous first-to-third and the remaining four plays were all bang-bang. I’d warrant that the difference between safe and out in all four plays put together was no more than half a second. The temporal and spatial disparity between the Cardinals being up 2-0 in the World Series and out of the playoffs altogether is so thin it beggars belief.
Inches, if that, separated the Phillies from victory, and there, but for the grace of God, go the Rangers.