Cardinals ride Beltran heroics, Dodgers' mistakes to NLCS Game 1 win
ST. LOUIS -- What might happen, when you pinch run for your cleanup hitter in the eighth inning of a tied game, and then turn over his spot in the lineup to Michael Young, is this: your opponent twice walks your best hitter in order to face Michael Young. Then Michael Young hits into two double plays.
On Friday afternoon, long before the Cardinals finally won the 13-inning, four-hour-and-47-minute Game 1 of the NLCS by the score of 3-2, someone asked their manager, Mike Matheny, if he told his players they must play at another level -- if they have to play somehow differently -- because they have gotten this deep into the playoffs. "If I did that, I should be slapped," Matheny said. "That's everything contradictory to what we've done all season long. We've been very consistent about going about this in the same way."
The Cardinals went about Game 1 in the same way they went about a regular season in which they won more games than anyone else in the National League. They got a strong outing from their starter, Joe Kelly, who pitched six innings and allowed two runs. They got stronger outings from a collection of six relievers, who threw seven shutout innings.
And they got heroics from the often heroic Carlos Beltran, who drove in all of their runs -- two on a third inning double, the third on a walk-off 13th inning single (top) -- and, for good measure, threw out Mark Ellis at home plate to complete one of those Young double plays (right), the first one, in the 10th.
Don Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager, is known for his steadiness -- it was particularly exemplary during his club's desultory start to 2013, during which it seemed as if he might get fired any day -- but he has seemed to have managed the beginning of this series differently than he did during L.A's long run to the playoffs.
For one thing, he left mainstay left-handed pitchers Chris Capuano and Paco Rodriguez off the NLCS roster ("Doing the rosters is probably one of the worst things that I've had to do.") in favor of the sometimes shaky righties Carlos Marmol and Edinson Volquez, whom he then didn't appear to trust enough to insert into a game that lasted 13 innings.
Then, in the top of the ninth inning of Friday night's game, he pulled his starter Zack Greinke in favor of pinch hitter Skip Schumaker. This was curious for a few reasons. One, was that this season Greinke was actually a better hitter than Schumaker, as he batted .328 with an OPS of .788, to Schumaker's .263 and .665. Another, was that Greinke had thrown 104 generally masterful pitches -- he struck out ten, allowed four hits and only those two Beltran-produced runs. And he had thrown 104 or more pitches in 14 of his 28 starts this year, including 122 on Aug. 26. Anyway, Schumaker struck out. "Kind of probably could have kept going, really," Mattingly admitted of his starter -- therefore delaying the need to resort to the bullpen.
It was Mattingly's decision to pinch-run for his cleanup hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, with the speedy Dee Gordon with no outs in the eighth that seemed the most questionable. Gonzalez was by most measures the Dodgers' third most productive hitter this season, after Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. In his 149 starts he played into at least the ninth in 136 of them, and when he didn't it was usually because the game was a blowout or he had suffered a minor injury. In this case, Mattingly said, "You've got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance." The bullet missed rather quickly, when Puig hit a grounder that resulted in Gordon being forced out at second.
Then, for the rest of the game, the chamber was empty. Young -- who is 36 and two years removed from his All-Star best -- came up in the 10th, with one out and after Ellis had tripled and Ramirez had been intentionally walked. He hit a flyball to Beltran that wasn't deep enough. (And you know what happened next.) There is a reason Ellis had hit just four regular season triples since 2008, and it has to do with his footspeed. Young came up again with one out in the 12th, after Ellis had sacrificed Carl Crawford to second and Ramirez had, obviously, again been intentionally walked, and he grounded into an easy double play. It is not hard to imagine Gonzalez might have done better, nor that Ramirez wouldn't have been walked twice with him looming.
This is called second-guessing. To be fair, the Dodgers came very close to winning a few times, and you might even say they should have won, despite the fact Mattingly's moves did not work out. They went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and even though Beltran's throw to gun down Ellis at the plate beat him there by several feet, replays appeared to show Cardinals' catcher Yadier Molina failed to apply his glove to Ellis' body at any point during their mildly violent collision, suggesting he was technically safe. This seemed less a botched call -- the play is probably still being freeze-framed and debated on Twitter -- than another case for expanding instant replay review.
The end result, though, was the Dodgers mixed up their usual approach, and lost, while the Cardinals stayed true to theirs, and won. And the Dodgers' dream scenario, in which they would head back to L.A. after Saturday afternoon's game with a two games to none lead, thanks to their co-aces Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, is now gone, and it is fair to wonder if their normally steady manager contributed to that.
"Whether they want to admit it or not, that's a tough game," said Cardinals' leadoff man Matt Carpenter, who drew a 13th inning walk just before Beltran did what he has so often done in the playoffs. "Huge to get the first win." It was.