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Grieving the Loss…

There will be plenty of positive observations made about the Cardinals’ 2012 season and the promising 2013 season over the next several months…but for now, let’s process that ugly loss by the Redbirds in the NLCS just a bit.

One of the ways we help clients process traumatic events is by de-briefing – helping them tell the story of their trauma in as much detail as possible over and over again within three days of the incident. It’s negative, it’s personal, and it’s absolutely skewed by the perspective of the observer. In a way, that’s kind of the point. An overly optimistic view of the events only helps delay the grief process and could lead to difficulties later on.

For me, the loss in the NLCS would normally be difficult but not typically traumatic – except that it became personal this year. I was lucky enough to land the necessary number of tickets to take the whole family to Game 1 of the World Series in St. Louis at a reasonable price. I was able to find that perfect convergence of “number of tickets needed,” “reasonable price per ticket,” and “random opportunity to buy” in one of the rare years the Cards had a real shot at actually going to the Series. I was going to be dad of the year.

And then…the collapse happened.

I think at some point some clever fan – perhaps the guys over at Pitchers Hit 8th – should work up a post about the tragic, sudden end to the Cardinals’ season and the “end of the world” hysteria associated with 2012…but we won’t attempt to go that grandiose here.

For now, let’s just take a look at what happened game by game down that three-game stretch at the end. Then, we’ll wrap-up with a few general observations. Let’s get into it…

Game 5:  After the elation that came with winning Game 4 and going up 3 games to 1, most fans were ecstatic. They had watched Waino return to dominant form just in time to help secure the NLCS and shut down the Tigers in the World Series. The home town club was one win away from returning to the Fall Classic and a chance to repeat as World Champions. As a fan, I think I expected the Cardinals to feel the same elation and excitement I did after that win. In retrospect…I think they were just relieved. They were relieved they were “going to win” and go back to the World Series. They were relieved that they had a real chance to stay in St. Louis for the next eight days and not endure a tiring trip back to the West Coast. They were relieved to know they weren’t going to lose. And…they were relieved to finally see the end coming. Honestly, I think this Cardinal team was just flat out tired.

Since the crazy comeback and wild finish to end the 2011 season, the obligations, commitments, and work had been nearly non-stop. They were worn out. They weren’t playing to desperately hang in there, as they had before – they were simply playing it out ’til the end…and “please, God, let it come quickly.” Against another team, maybe that would have been enough to keep them down and put ’em away. But the Giants had just completed an identical comeback and were convinced they could do so again. They weren’t going to concede the series in Game 5, no matter how much the Cardinals wanted them to do it. To be clear, I don’t believe the Redbirds gave up or gave less than 100%…but I do believe they lost an edge they had up until that point. It was gone. They were already in rest mode for the World Series and the pending offseason. They were just dog tired.

Game 6:  After the Game 5 loss, the Cardinals had to return to San Francisco, jet lag and all, and get geared up for Game 6 in front of rabid Giants fans. They had already hit the shutdown switch – cooled the engines, so to speak – and now they had to fire ’em back up again. The Giants, on the other hand, were coming in hot. They had just done exactly what they expected to do in Game 5 – bring the series back to San Francisco – and they had the Cardinals right where they wanted them. In the end, it proved too much of a challenge to get the engines to peak performance again in such a short time period – especially when their biggest fire starter, Chris Carpenter, looked incapable of even lighting a candle. The Redbirds were just overwhelmed in Game 6.

But that wasn’t all…

As I looked in the eyes of the Cardinal hitters at the plate, staring intently at a pitcher (Vogelsong) that had just lulled them to sleep with on-the-corner strikes and out-of-the-zone put away pitches, I saw something I never thought I would see in this Cardinals team while they wore the uniform…I saw fear. This team was playing scared. Perhaps even terrified. They knew they were up 3 games to 2, but they couldn’t shake the feeling that they were the ones with their backs against the wall. And unlike last season, they couldn’t see a way out. Instead of playing fearless, “no one expected this from us anyway” baseball, they seemed to be playing with all the pressures and expectations reserved for defending World Champions playing with a 3 games to 1 lead and a hefty reputation as the unbeatable team. Instead of playing with that hungry desire to win, they just seemed to be playing not to lose. They just looked like they were afraid to blow it.

Game 7:  This game, more than any of the other games, came down to luck. Bad, bad luck for the Cardinals and fortunate luck for the Giants. Had Kyle Lohse’s hit made it over Crawford’s glove, the Cards take an early lead. If Pence’s wonky line drive had been a routine liner, Kozma catches it and maybe even doubles off a runner at second. If just one of Holliday or Craig’s near miss drives drop or come off the bat just a hair differently, the Cards have a big inning. If one of those fabulous snags by Belt at first base don’t get made, a rally happens. But, unfortunately for the normally fortunate Cardinals, none of those things happened. The breaks all went the Giants way. The Cardinals seemed to have answered the bell a bit and stoked the fires to somewhat typical levels of competitiveness, but it just wasn’t enough. Players were clapping hands in frustration, or grimacing as well-struck balls fell just short of the track – Beltran even stole a base – but in the end, it was too little, too late.

Of course, just because luck seemed to be the primary factor, that doesn’t mean a move or two couldn’t have been made by the Redbird manager to force luck’s hand a bit…

Before the game, Holliday’s back had been acting up. It was so bad, Holliday and the Cardinals had him undergo an MRI during Game 6 to determine its severity. As a credit to his toughness and desire to leave it all on the field, Holliday deemed himself capable of playing. In hindsight, perhaps Matt Carpenter should have been given the chance to swing away a few times. Carpenter had punished a Cain slider for a two run home run – and the difference in the game – earlier in the series. He finished that game with career numbers of 5 for 6 against the Giants’ ace and a relative ton of RBIs. And, just to make a personal observation, Carpenter seemed to be one of the few Cardinal hitters to maintain a level of concentration and fearless comfort in the box. But Matheny went with Holliday, and the Cardinals’ best bullet against Cain never picked up a bat. It should be noted, of course, that Holliday narrowly missed crushing more than one Cain pitch. Also, many fans felt it should have been Craig and not Holliday that sat in favor of Cain – but I had seen Craig take much better at-bats in Game 6 and believed him ready to contribute for Game 7 (that gap drive early on would have dropped if not for the LF shifting towards CF one pitch earlier in the AB). Ultimately, however, the Cardinal hitters just couldn’t get it done. Cain had nothing – he looked to be throwing a BP session until the 5th inning – but the Redbirds couldn’t punish him for it.

Oh, and about that pitching change with the bases loaded…

Matheny’s standard move is to bring in Joe Kelly in that situation…but in this case, most game watchers were left wondering, “Why not Trevor Rosenthal?” I understand Matheny was looking for innings there – his starter had just been knocked out of Game 7 of the NLCS with tons of innings left to cover – but Kelly is the call with a couple men on and one out. With the bases loaded, no outs, and the game on the line, regardless of the inning, Rosenthal is the only reliever in the ‘pen – outside of Motte – capable of getting out of that inning unscathed. Instead, Rosenthal made a somewhat meaningless appearance later in the game and promptly sat the Giants down with ease. It should have been Rosenthal, not Kelly, to enter the game for a couple shut down innings. Restore order and get those big Cardinal bats back to the plate.

Wrap-Up:

Maybe we’ll say more as we go along, but for the most part, this series was winnable – more than winnable – for the Cardinals. But when it came down to it, the Giants did the things the Cardinals did not, and the breaks fell their way as a result of it. Do I have a bone or two to pick with Matheny? Sure I do…

1. The rookie manager should have done more during September to keep his bench players sharp. Instead, he buried guys like Skip Schumaker on the roster and then asked them to enter meaningful playoff games in critical situations and take good at-bats. That has to change next season.

2. Matheny’s stubbornness with “the standard lineup” is a nice change from TLR’s lineup merry-go-round, but Mike went too far in the opposite direction. When hitters like Carpenter are clear weapons against a pitcher like Cain and two players he could sub for – Craig or Holliday – are either struggling significantly or dealing with real injuries, a manager has to find a way to get his bat in the lineup.

…but to get within one win of a World Series in his first season as manager is more than satisfactory.

As I said, we’ll talk much more about this season and next as the months between now and Spring Training stretch on…but for now, this series leaves a desperately sour taste in my mouth.

Until next year…

Go Cards.

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