Posted: Saturday October 13, 2012 12:04PM ; Updated: Saturday October 13, 2012 12:04PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>FIVE CUTS

Cardinals latest miracle rally more methodical than magical

Story Highlights

St. Louis was down to its last strike twice but came back to beat the Nationals

Carlos Beltran and David Freese continued to be hufe in pressure situations

Home-field advantage isn't nearly as important as having the better pitcher

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David Freese and Daniel Descalso
David Freese (left) was in the middle of another stunning St. Louis rally in an elimination game.
Reuters

The rally team won again. So continues the trend in this age of the strikeout: The team that uses the whole field, grinds out at-bats and puts the ball in play with runners in scoring position wins in the postseason.

I noted before the tournament started that the four of the past six World Series teams ranked in the top five with runners in scoring position and five of the past six World Series teams ranked in the top five for fewest strikeouts.

Only four of the 10 playoff teams this year fit the profile by ranking in the top five in both key categories: Texas, Detroit, St. Louis and San Francisco. Texas checked out with a one-and-done loss to Baltimore in the wild-card game. But Detroit, St. Louis and San Francisco all made it to the final four.

Why did the Cardinals win the World Series last year? Because the Rangers could not get something that's never been easier to get in baseball history: strike three. And why are the Cardinals moving on to the NLCS to play San Francisco? Because the Nationals couldn't get strike three against them, either.

Washington closer Drew Storen was one pitch away from eliminating the Cardinals 13 times last night in NLDS Game 5. He was one strike away five times. But neither Yadier Molina nor David Freese ever let Storen get that last strike.

It was hard watching the Orioles and Yankees play such a lousy style of baseball. Yes, the pitching was good, but night after night your stomach turned watching such poor approaches at the plate. Baltimore's Chris Davis and Adam Jones and New York's Curtis Granderson in particular kept missing breaking balls way out of the strike zone. The Orioles' righthanded hitters kept trying to pull outside pitches, apparently unaware of that farce of a wall in rightfield at Yankee Stadium. Nick Swisher paid more attention to the application of his stylish eye black than his approach at the plate. Darren O'Day -- check that, any righthanded pitcher -- versus Alex Rodriguez was an ugly mismatch. Defensive shifts happened way too often, an indication of how many of the Baltimore and New York hitters use only half the field.

The next time you watch a Cardinals game, pay attention to how teams defend them. You won't see a shift all night, not even in the middle of the order.

Postseason games this year are averaging 17.2 strikeouts per game. That's up 15 percent from the regular season rate (15.0). Can't anybody here grind out an at-bat and mount a rally? The answer is a resounding yes: the Cardinals can.

It doesn't matter what happens from here on out, not even in the NLCS against a team with a similar profile, the Giants. St. Louis has cemented its place among the greatest rally teams in baseball history. Last year the Cardinals joined the 1986 Mets as the only teams to win the World Series after being one strike away from losing it -- and St. Louis uniquely was in that last-breath spot twice.

And last night the Cardinals added something else that never had been done among all the rallies in baseball history: they became the first team to rally from six runs down to win a postseason winner-take-all game. No other team had even come back from more than four runs down in such an elimination game for both teams.

Finally, the Cardinals now have played six postseason elimination games in the past two years. They have trailed in five of those six games. And yet they are 6-0 in those do-or-die games. This truly is one historic team -- and there is no "magic" about how it has happened.

2. Freese, A-Rod and being clutch

Nah, clutch hitting doesn't exist. No such thing. So what are we to make of Freese, who twice refused to go down when he was one strike away from ending his team's postseason, and Rodriguez, the Yankees third baseman who was (understandably) benched in a winner-take-all game and has struck out to end more postseason games than any player in history? Nah, just coincidence.

Freese is a remarkable player for his ability to grind through at-bats in the most intense situations. He stayed off three borderline pitches from Storen in the Cardinals' winning rally in NLDS Game 5 -- the last one with the team on strike from ending its season -- consolidating the reputation he earned in World Series Game 6 last year.

But since clutch hitting doesn't exist (shhhh: on paper, anyway), just for fun check out this comparison of the third basemen, starting with records when they have played in elimination games, Rodriguez for the Yankees and Freese for the Cardinals:

Alex Rodriguez vs. David Freese
Facing Elimination, 2004-12
Player G W-L AB H RBI AVG
Rodriguez 10* 4-6 36 8 2 .222
Freese 6 6-0 19 8 10 .421
* Does not include his instantly infamous 2012 DNP (manager's decision)

Now a quick thumbnail of the career splits for the third basemen:

Player Overall RISP 2-out RISP Postseason
Rodriguez .300 .297 .267 .268
Freese .296 .310 .296 .392

3. Votto on Posey

Reds first baseman Joey Votto talked for a few minutes about clutch hitting after Cincinnati didn't get it done in the clutch over three straight NLDS losses at home to the Giants. Votto mentioned the Giants' Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey and the Braves' Martin Prado as hitters who he considered clutch.

"You have to be have the ability to put the ball in play," Votto said when explain why some guys are clutch, "you have to have the ability to use the entire field, and you have to be [platoon] neutral when it comes to matchups. Prado, Scutaro and Posey spread the ball around and they don't strike out much. I think Buster's clutch because he spreads the ball and he doesn't strike out much. He has a flat swing that stays through the zone and he spreads the ball all over the field."

Posey effectively decided the NLDS with one swing: a grand slam . . . when Mat Latos had two strikes on him.

4. Real advantage isn't home-field

Did you notice anything about the four LDS Game 5s? Everybody wants to make a big deal out of home-field advantage, but if you count the wild card games, home teams are 1-5 in winner-take-all games this year and are 9-15 in such games since 2002.

What counts more than having home-field advantage is having the better, more accomplished starting pitcher. Okay, Adam Wainwright did not pitch well for St. Louis in NLDS Game 5. But check out who had the edge in the Game 5 starting pitcher matchups and who won the game:

1. Matt Cain (San Francisco) over Mat Latos (Cincinnati): San Francisco won.

2. Justin Verlander (Detroit) over Jarrod Parker (Oakland): Detroit won.

3. CC Sabathia (New York) over Jason Hammel (Baltimore): New York won.

4. Adam Wainwright (St. Louis) over Gio Gonzalez (Washington): St. Louis won.

5. Beltran an October stud again

Carlos Beltran may be a borderline Hall of Famer at best -- and that requires some metric gymnastics -- but there is no disputing that his postseason credentials are all-time great. Beltran reached base all five times last night in NLDS Game 5: two doubles, one single, and two walks. Beltran is the all-time postseason leader in slugging (.817) and OPS (1.305) and ranks fourth in OBP (.488) -- and that's over the fairly thick sample of 28 games. The guy fits right in with the Cardinals.

 
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