Here’s one reason the baseball playoffs are, as always, so unpredictable: Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and now Adam Wainwright have started games in this round of the playoffs, allowed the combined total of six runs, and their teams haven’t won any of the four games.
Coming off two dominant starts against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the division series, Wainwright was once again outstanding for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series and, if not for a miscommunication in the outfield, might have pitched scoreless baseball. But he ended up getting upstaged Monday by Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who pitched the game of his life when the Dodgers most needed it.
Ryu is a rookie, but he’s a 26-year-old veteran of the Korean pro ranks, so he came over to the Dodgers as a polished product with a four-pitch arsenal, good command and the ability to pitch down in the zone. He went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts, but had pitched scoreless ball in just one of those starts, a two-hit shutout against the Angels in May.
Against the Cardinals on Monday, he was brilliant, allowing just three hits and a walk in seven innings while striking out four -- and all three hits were makeable plays. David Freese got the first one, a blooper to right leading off the fifth inning that Yasiel Puig made a valiant dive on but saw the ball hit the heel of his glove. Matt Adams followed with a hard single under the glove of second baseman Mark Ellis. In the seventh, Yadier Molina reached on another flare, on which hobbled center fielder Andre Ethier got a bad read and just missed.
You know, one of the reasons baseball men initially rebelled against sabermetrics -- first when Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts were big sellers in the 1980s and later when Michael Lewis’ "Moneyball" brought a new wave of attention -- is they believed it didn’t properly acknowledge many of the little things that go into winning baseball games.
Yes, home runs and walks are important, but so are laying down a perfect bunt or hitting behind a runner, turning a double play or hitting the cutoff men. Baseball men, of course, spend their lives teaching these skills to raw youngsters, and now a bunch of math nerds were dismissing their importance. Sabermetricians didn’t actually say that, instead primarily suggesting that the little things don’t add up in value to the big things. Over the course of 162 games, doing the big things well will win you more games than the little things.
Little things, however, can be a huge factor in any single game, and in October, every game can be the game that swings a series.
The first major mistake came in the Dodgers’ two-run fourth, when Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran miscommunicated on a Mark Ellis fly ball, letting it drop for a double. (Jay had about as bad game as you can have in center field, also failing to make plays on three other catchable balls.) That misplay would cost the Cardinals two runs when Adrian Gonzalez doubled in Ellis and then Puig tripled home Gonzalez with two outs -- his first hit of the series, coming in full Puig glory, with a huge bat flip and raising both arms in the belief he’d hit it out. Instead, the ball hit the base of the wall in right.
The one rally the Cardinals attempted to mount was derailed by one of the worst baserunning mistakes you’ll see. After Freese and Adams singled to begin the fifth, Daniel Descalso pinch-ran for Freese, who had to leave with a cramp in his calf. Jay flew routinely to left field, but Descalso somehow misread the play and Carl Crawford easily turned the double play.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Crawford came up with a bloop single that Jay failed to catch. The mistake came later in the inning, Crawford now on second base. Hanley Ramirez -- playing with a hairline fracture suffered after getting hit by a pitch in Game 1 -- hit yet another blooper, just over the head of rookie second baseman Kolten Wong, who had just come into the game after pinch-hitting in the top of the inning.
Rather than looking home to see if Crawford would try to score from second, Wong inexplicably threw to shortstop Descalso at second base. Descalso’s relay home was a hair too late to get Crawford.
"It wasn’t very characteristic of how we played all season," a very perturbed Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We’re a better club than this."
The Cardinals usually don’t make those types of mistakes, but they’re not a great defensive team. They ranked 22nd in the majors with minus-39 defensive runs saved. Jay was credited with minus-10 DRS, and he’s looked even worse than that the past two games, a huge liability in center.
Aside from that, the Cardinals’ biggest problem is they’re hitting .134 through three games, with just 13 hits -- if anything, they’re fortunate enough to be up in the series, a testament to their pitching. When Freese left with the injury, the team’s lack of a quality bench was also revealed.
Descalso had to enter the game, leaving later pinch-hitting options to the likes of Wong (.153 in 59 at-bats), Adron Chambers (.154 in 26 at-bats) and Shane Robinson (.250, five extra-base hits in 144 at-bats). It’s a weak bench made all that much weaker if Freese is unable to go in Game 4 (if it was just a cramp as reported, we can assume he’ll be fine).
The Dodgers ended a streak of 22 scoreless innings when they finally broke through in the fourth, so this has been a series out of the dead-ball era, with no home runs yet. They have their own issues in center field with Ethier; it wouldn't surprise me to see Skip Schumaker back out there in Game 4. With the pitchers dominating, every mistake will be that much more magnified. The little things do matter.