Many Cardinals fans are waking up this morning and saying…”They did it…they actually did it.” Pundits are scratching their heads and trying to figure out how they did it. Players are trying to reassure everyone willing to listen that they always knew they would do it…or at least could do it…if not should do it.
But has anyone spent time pondering exactly what it was they did?
Happy flight indeed. The St. Louis Cardinals did the unthinkable…the…uh…unexpect-able. They defeated one of the vaunted aces of the Phillies’ rotation…in Philly. The rabid fans spun terrible towels, and the mystical Cliff Lee pounded pitches inside…but in the end…
“Down goes Lee! Down goes Lee!” (think, “Joe Frazier”)
The Cardinals rallied from a less than inspiring start by The Ace – Chris Carpenter – who pitched on 3 days rest for the first time in his career. Let this be a lesson to managers everywhere. It doesn’t matter how a starting pitcher “feels” (i.e., Carp: “I feel strong”)…what matters is the routine a starting pitcher’s body settles into over the course of a 6 month-long, 162 game marathon season that breaks a hurler’s body, tears down his muscles fiber by fiber, and begins the arduous process of rebuilding both over 4 precious days of rest. And then…on the fifth day…readiness.
For whatever reason…call it mental habit, call it physical recuperation…call it whatever you want…but for whatever reason, a pitcher must be given 4 days to rest, recuperate, and…uh…ready-iate. Chris Carpenter was not given that. Instead, The Ace trotted out there…perhaps heroically…to throw his team on his shoulders and bury the Phillies. Angry Carp was determined to show up.
But it seems that Angry Carp missed the flight.
Instead, Worried and Sensitive Carp took his place…a Carpenter who took the time to gently “shoo” a mound-squatting moth prior to the game’s first pitch. In every one of Chris’ 3 innings, he looked tired, stressed, worried…and shocked. Watching from home on TV, I couldn’t help but fill in Carp’s thought bubble as follows: “Oh god. How did I get myself into this? This was a mistake.”
But Carp chugged a pot of coffee, slapped himself around in a mirror…and pulled it together to at least staunch the bleeding enough to give his team a chance…albeit a small chance…to come back and hang one on the Phillies’ bullpen (if that invincible Lee ever tired).
And then the unthinkable happened…Cliff Lee – postseason beast – faltered. Sure, he faltered under a relentless attack by Cardinals hitters…a hit parade that kept swinging with its back against the wall…but falter he did. During the assault, every Cardinal hit seemed as if Tony La Russa was in the clubhouse selling another piece of his soul to whatever baseball god dominates his dreams – and nightmares. Each felt bought and paid for with blood, sweat…and whatever else this Cardinals team is carrying around their “scrappy” frames since August. But when it was all over…Cardinal hitters had amassed a surprising total of 12 hits against the untouchable Lee. And 5 runs.
Albert Pujols had the game winning RBI. Allen Craig scored the game winning run (after looking utterly overmatched against Lee in the first inning). Octavio Dotel got “the win.” The bullpen got the accolades. And Tony La Russa got another feather to place in his Hall of Fame cap (hopefully a Cardinal red cap). But this team, collectively, got something else.
They got swagger.
Coming into this NLDS, the only question left to resolve in the baseball world was…”How many games?” Generous experts gave the Cardinals 1 win in 4 games. Wishful thinkers stretched it to 2 wins in 5. No one gave the Cardinals a chance…not really (myself included). The Phillies rotation was just too top-heavy and strong to overcome. Sure, “the plan” included a split in Philly…”the Cardinals must take one of two against Halladay/Lee to win the series”…but no one really thought it would actually happen. Halladay and Lee? Really?! A 2 and 0 start by the Phillies was in the bag. And as the 4th inning started in Philly last night…Cliff Lee had gripped both sides and started cinching that bag closed.
And then the Cardinals erupted. Three runs and a collision at home plate later, Lee was staggering…and the Cardinals offense was surging. The bats were back. The only question now…How in the name of Keith Law’s Ego was Tony La Russa going to hold his bullpen together long enough to eek out a win?
But hold together they did…and more. They dominated. Where the Phillies shut down a Cardinals offense with just the right arm of Roy Halladay the day before…the Cardinals used 6 pitchers to do the same to Phillies hitters over 6 lllllooooooooonnnggg, agonizing innings.
Now we’re tied up 1 – 1…and headed back to St. Louis. Suddenly, the Cards have a shot…a good shot…of winning this series. When faced with the overpowering, god-like status of the Phillies roster/rotation, the Cardinals cut the task down to size. And in doing so, they regained their swagger.
A Phillies team that somehow achieved “Team of Destiny” status on October 1st is now bleeding. They are vulnerable.
If nothing else…that, above all else, is what the Cardinals did last night. They made a god bleed. And in so doing…they exposed his mortality. He is mortal. He is vulnerable. He is beatable.
He is returning to St. Louis for the next two games…with a crash course seemingly laid in for the Phillies’ arch-nemesis – Jaime Garcia.
The Cardinals entered Philly with almost no chance of prevailing. They leave Philly with the odds in their favor. 2 games in Busch Stadium. Fresh off a win that achieved their one, solitary goal…a series split against the mythical Halladay and Lee. Jaime Garcia pitching a crucial Game 3.
The Cardinals must take advantage of this momentum. They must dominate the Phillies in Game 3 and then put it away in Game 4. In truth, it is perhaps fortunate that the Cardinals did not win the NL Central this year. If they had, they may be faced with playing the Phillies in the NLCS – a best of 7 series in which Lee and Halladay could pitch 4 games. As it is, the Phillies simply don’t have the option of pitching either hurler in Games 3 or 4. Only Game 5 looms large as the Cards return to The Lou.
It’s time to win this thing. Take Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis, and the Cardinals avoid Halladay for Game 5 (not to mention set Carpenter up for Game 1 of the NLCS). Drop either game…and Halladay stands between the Cardinals and their first NLCS appearance since 2006.
Step 1: Split the Series in Philly by Beating Lee or Halladay. – Check.
Step 2: Win Game 3 with Garcia in St. Louis. – TBD
Step 3: Win Game 4 with Mid-season Acquisition E-Jax on the Mound and Avoid Halladay in Game 5. – TBD
Go Crazy, Folks. Go Crazy. The Cardinals have a chance. They did it.
They made this a series.