ST. LOUIS -- At the taxi stand outside of Lambert Airport on Tuesday, I met a tall man with a strong New Jersey accent and wearing a Tigers cap. He and his wife were going downtown and asked if I wanted to share a cab. Somewhat unfamiliar with the geography of St. Louis -- my hotel turned out to be several miles west of the city center -- I agreed.
We got to talking. I told them that I was in town to cover the game for Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus. He told me that he was Sean Casey's uncle. We had a good conversation about the relative merits of Detroit and St. Louis, the ominous weather forecast, and of course -- baseball. What I remember most distinctly is our conversation about clutch hitting. We shared the opinion that, with a few possible exceptions like David Ortiz, being a clutch hitter is largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. These guys are professionals. The same man who was a hero one night might be a goat the next -- and this has nothing to do with his character, or any of the other things you usually read about in the morning sports pages. All of this from the uncle of a man who is renowned for his clubhouse leadership, his clutch hitting ability, and any other intangible that you might think of.
Casey could have been the hero in Game 4. Until the bottom of the seventh inning, it looked like he would be. Casey had three hits in his first three at bats, including a home run, and two big RBIs.
Instead, he was an innocent bystander as the Tigers self-imploded, standing near first base as Fernando Rodney's post-bunt throw sailed over second baseman Placido Polanco's head -- not even Kevin Garnett could have come up with that one -- and waiting in the on-deck circle while Magglio Ordonez grounded to shortstop, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 series lead. It would be David Eckstein's night instead. "He's the definition of a clutch player," was the first thing Tony La Russa said of Eckstein in the postgame press conference.
None of this is to take anything away from Eckstein. He had four great at-bats in this game and a perfect night in the field. And suffice it to say there are worse guys to whom the hero torch might be passed. But if Craig Monroe has one less helping of pasta at the pregame buffet, if the wet patch in center field is three feet to Curtis Granderson's left, if Rodney had taken an extra half-second to steady himself before he threw to first, then the result would have been much different. Instead, Casey's big night will be reduced to a line in the box score, while Eckstein's will make him a national hero. Well, at least a regional one.
Unless, of course, fate intervenes again, and the Tigers come back to win this series. But that isn't very likely. The circumstances would be relatively favorable for a team down 3-1 in the series -- two of the last three games at home, a pitcher whom they've already beaten (Jeff Weaver) in Game 5, Kenny Rogers ready to go in Game 6, and the bats looking at least a little bit liver again -- if not for one big thing. Chris Carpenter. Even if everything else goes well for the Tigers, they'll have to beat Carpenter somewhere along the line. While acknowledging that the same pitcher can look very different on different nights -- I once saw a game at Wrigley Field where Ryan Vogelsong looked like Roger Clemens -- if Carpenter has the stuff he had on Tuesday, the Tigers would be lucky to beat him one time in twenty.