The Cardinals are going to the World Series again. Get used to it
The best organization in baseball is back in the World Series for the fourth time in 10 years, a decade in which the St. Louis Cardinals have won more pennants than the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers combined. Having dispatched the Dodgers with a 9-0 NLCS Game 6 blowout on Friday night, St. Louis is positioned well not only to win the World Series but also for the chance to win more over the next decade as well.
The team's leading RBI hitter, Allen Craig, should be activated for the World Series after missing the first two rounds with a foot injury. That will allow the Cardinals to start an American League-style lineup for Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, 6 and 7, to be played in Detroit or Boston. It will include both Craig and Matt Adams at the DH and first base positions in some order.
Moreover, St. Louis can start its ace, Adam Wainwright, in Game 1 and its breakout star, Michael Wacha, in Game 2. All those two have done this postseason is go 5-1 with a 1.02 ERA over 44 innings with 42 strikeouts and only five walks. It is a re-make of the Curt Schilling-Randy Johnson October tandem of the 2001 Diamondbacks -- only younger. Wacha and Wainwright can beat hitters with stuff in the strike zone while not walking people -- exactly the kind of approach that can beat the lineups of the Red Sox and Tigers.
(Unlike Schilling, however, Wainwright is not likely to be used twice on short rest. He has never started a game on short rest and has thrown 253 ⅓ innings this year.)
There is a telling story of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner running into manager Joe Torre in the visiting clubhouse in the sixth inning of Game 7 of that 2001 World Series. Steinbrenner was a nervous wreck, worried that his team could not hit Schilling and the Arizona pitching. The 2001 Yankees, like the 2013 Red Sox, made a living on wearing down pitchers by grinding out at-bats. But it was a strategy that didn't work against premier strike-throwing starters like Schilling and Johnson.
"What do you think?" Steinbrenner asked Torre.
"Boss," Torre said, "I wish I could give you something positive. But I don't know if we're ever going to score a run here. I wish the hell I knew."
Wacha could well emerge as a similarly dominant force for this World Series, if not the next decade in the NL (along with Jose Fernandez of Miami and a rebuilt Matt Harvey, who will miss next season after having Tommy John surgery, of the Mets). He is that good and that cool.
Wacha was a 175-pound kid in high school who threw 88 miles an hour, which is why nobody drafted him. He grew into a hard-throwing pitcher at Texas A&M, where the Cardinals scouted all of his games and figured he was so good he would be off the 2012 draft board by the time they picked 19th -- with the compensation pick for losing Albert Pujols to the Angels. Instead, 18 picks came and went -- seven of them on pitchers -- without anybody taking Wacha. So the Cardinals selected him.
Sixteen months later, Wacha may be the greatest rookie pitcher in postseason history. He is the sixth rookie starter to win three games in a postseason, but none of the others did so with less experience than Wacha:
It is amazing what the Cardinals have done in the past decade, a period that has seen massive changes in how the game is played. Pitching became the coin of the realm in the Testing Era, and with increased revenues and increased sharing of those revenues, the development of homegrown pitching is the most important asset in today's game. St. Louis has figured out the drafting and developing of pitchers better than any other organization. And that is why the team the Cardinals will take to the World Series is not some one-hit wonder that survived the postseason gauntlet with lucky breaks and career-best performances. No, the 2013 Cardinals are a sustainable model. Only one pitcher, the seldom-used former closer Edward Mujica, is not under team control for next year. Wainwright, Wacha, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal are all under team control through at least 2017.
The Cardinals have become a model organization, as the Braves were in the 1990s. Unlike the Braves, however, St. Louis already has two championships in this 10-year run, and it is well positioned for a third and even more.
The loose nature of the Dodgers, which served them so well with a 42-8 surge in the middle of the season, backfired on them in their NLCS ouster. Manager Don Mattingly was unsure about whether to start Hanley Ramirez in Game 6, and finally decided to play him. Ramirez, who has been dealing with a fractured rib, was a non-factor. It was too much pregame drama about an ineffective player. Yasiel Puig, the Wild Horse of L.A., played rightfield like a Little Leaguer -- making awful, out-of-control throws and missing a one-bounce liner. Mattingly intentionally walked St. Louis' eighth-place hitter, Pete Kozma, with one out in the fifth--- choosing to pitch to Wacha and leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter rather than Kozma and Wacha. (He also got up his lefthanded reliever, J.P. Howell, very late, meaning he did not anticipate the Carpenter at-bat.)
The worst part of the Dodgers' loss, however, is how they let an asset like Clayton Kershaw just wither on the mound with nothing left in his gas tank. Kershaw threw 48 pitches in the third inning, 33 of them out of the stretch. By then he had thrown 81 pitches and the score was 4-0. Mattingly had already pitched him on short rest in the NLDS in a non-elimination game. Kershaw had thrown 258 innings for the year -- 25 innings past his career high. He had thrown 1,180 regular season innings through age 25 -- the fourth most at such a young age over the past 30 years. (Only Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez and Bret Saberhagen were used so much so young.)
There is no way Kershaw should have been back on the mound after a 48-pitch inning that deep into a season. Forty-eight pitches! And yet he went back out there for the fourth and he went back out there for the fifth. Only when the fifth inning began single-single-double did Mattingly finally take the ball from Kershaw. The lefthander's velocity had sunk to 91-92 mph by then. His slider, which was flat all night (three of the five St. Louis hits in the third came on do-nothing sliders), stayed flat.
Kershaw, who can be a free-agent after the 2014 season, deserves all the money he can get. But it's difficult to understand why the Dodgers would push such an asset. Yes, it was an elimination game. But Kershaw was not about to get any better after throwing 48 pitches in one inning, no matter how much was on the line.
This winter the Dodgers will try to sign Kershaw to a contract extension. He is a $200 million asset. Other than Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, he is the most valuable commodity in baseball. It didn't look that way in Game 6.
. . . about baseball's Cardinal rule: pitching wins.
• The team that scored first won 65 percent of regular season games this year. But this postseason, with runs at a premium, places an even greater emphasis on scoring first. The team that scored first has won 74 percent of the games (23-8).
• Keep this in mind for the middle three games of the World Series: The Cardinals have played 32 straight home games without losing two in a row. They are 26-6 in that time, spanning 10 weeks.
• Go figure: St. Louis went 4-0 against Kershaw this season and 17-25 in games against all other lefthanded starters.
• Wacha in his past four starts: 4-0 with a 0.31 ERA (one run in 29 1/3 innings) and nine hits allowed. File this away, however: He has thrown 36 1/3 more innings this year than he did last year -- and counting.
• Matt Carpenter tied his career high with that epic 11-pitch at-bat against Kershaw in the third inning. He fouled off eight pitches in that plate appearance before whacking a double. Kershaw had allowed only three singles all year -- no extra-base hits -- on full-counts to lefthanded batters. Lefties have hit .162 off Kershaw in full counts over his career.
• So much for the theory that teams will figure out Wacha with a second look. He has faced the same team a second time five times in his brief career (Braves, Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Dodgers -- four of them playoff teams). He is unscored upon in 22 ⅔ innings in those second looks.
• Very weird season for the Dodgers. They started with the fourth-worst record in baseball through 72 games (30-42), ran off one of the best 50-game stretches of all time (42-8), then finished the year, including the postseason, with the definition of a mediocre 50-game stretch (25-25).
• There is still hope for the Tigers. The theory still holds true that as strikeouts rise in baseball the teams that are best at avoiding them thrive in the postseason. The Cardinals' hitters ranked 14th -- next to last -- in the NL in strikeouts. Here are the league rankings in strikeouts for the past nine World Series teams: 14, 15, 9, 16, 14, 12, 11, 13, 9. Meanwhile, with Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland bowing out, teams that finished in the top five in strikeouts over the past four years are 4-13 in postseason series. Boston ranked fourth this year. Detroit ranked 13th.