Lack of pitching, not sloppy baserunning, doomed Cardinals in Series
Posted: Thursday October 28, 2004 11:47AM; Updated: Monday November 1, 2004 5:11PM
Don't blame Jeff Suppan. Yes, the Cardinals pitcher suffered a catastrophic brain cramp in the third inning of Game 3, turning what should have been a game-tying run into an embarrassing moment of World Series infamy in which he should heretofore be known as Jeff Supine.
OK, the tightly-wound Cardinals mailed it in thereafter, going 5-for-51 at the plate from that moment to elimination and only eight times even bothering to extend an at-bat to three balls. But you can't hang a series on any one such turning point when the outcome never was in doubt. The Red Sox and Cardinals could play 40 games instead of four and the Red Sox would win 30 of them. That's how clear was the difference between these two teams. The best team in baseball won the World Series, not the one with the best record.
Privately, the Red Sox knew before the series started that their hitters against the St. Louis pitchers was a mismatch. St. Louis had no one, other than closer Jason Isringhausen, with what scouts refer to as a "plus" pitch -- something a pitcher can throw by a hitter even in a hitter's count. The Cardinals were loaded with right-handed, finesse-style pitchers who relied on getting hitters to chase pitchers that moved out of the strike zone. Boston's lineup, however, is brutally relentless at taking pitches and making pitchers come into the strike zone (see chart).
You have no shot at winning when your starters have to work as hard as 21.3 pitches per inning, last an average of only 13 outs, and get hitters to swing and miss only 4 percent of the time. Injuries to starter Cris Carpenter, who led the team in strikeouts, and lefty reliever Steve Kline, who held hitters to a .209 average, surely hurt St. Louis.
I'll say it again after I've been saying it for years: To get through the brutal stretch of three rounds of postseason baseball you need power arms to eat up innings and get hitters to swing and miss. It was true of Florida last year, Anaheim (out of the bullpen) in 2002, Arizona in 2001, the Yankees from 1998-2000 and Florida in 1997. (And that's why I thought Houston, with Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, would have been a tougher draw for the Red Sox.)
Boston featured power/strikeout starters in Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, even if Martinez's heater is not as hot as it used to be and his increase in walks is alarming. He can still throw his fastball by hitters in hitters' counts. Want more evidence in the difference in pure stuff between the two staffs? Take a look here at some conventional pitching stats:
St. Louis put more than twice as many free runners on base than did Boston (28-13), which I liken to the turnover differential in football. The Cardinals walked more batters than they struck out. Not good, folks.
People may try to compare Suppan to Lonnie Smith, who was unable to score from first base in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series when he lost sight of a double by Terry Pendleton. Ignore such a comparison. Smith's gaffe occurred in a scoreless, deciding game of what was an intensely competitive series. His mistake was crucial. Suppan's blunder was incidental to the result.
I've covered every World Series since 1985 and this was the worst of them all. The only game that was in doubt, Game 1, was horribly played in frigid conditions in which 11 pitchers combined for 14 walks and the winning team made four errors. I don't care what the scores of the other games may suggest, St. Louis was never in the series the rest of the way. They became the fourth team in history never to have a lead in the World Series (1963 Yankees, '66 Dodgers and the '89 Giants were the others) and only the third to give up runs in the first inning of every game, and the first team to do both.
Cardinals hitters, who batted .170 if you don't count Larry Walker's 5-for-14 performance, were tremendously anxious when faced with playing uphill. The series had no signature moment of triumph, unless you count Schilling's bloody sock or Keith Foulke getting Scott Rolen to pop up with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a tie game in the opener. The Red Sox dominated the Series. So don't blame it on Jeff Supine. The best team won.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.