By the time a World Series makes its first scene change, the easy stories have been told, and the stock characters have been introduced. Each teams’ ace or aces have had their days, and even if the top gun is to return on short rest, he’s a game away. There may be tricks yet up each manager’s sleeve, but there are no strategic secrets between the teams. Each knows which players on the other side are banged up, which are swinging the bat well, which are struggling to reach the season’s finish line.
The rule change that takes place as the sides shuttle to a new venue adds some intrigue, but it’s not enough to carry a game. The allure of the Series can no longer be captured by quick-cut shots, or ultra slow-motion, or game-face close-ups on the stars—not even when those images are laid over Pearl Jam or Fall Out Boy.
No, in Game Three, a Fall Classic passes or fails the test of its title on the merits of the action itself. Great players make, or don’t make, great plays. Managers maximize their charges’ chances for success, or they fail to do so. The teams compete relentlessly, or the game (and the Series) slowly breaks open.
On Saturday night, in St. Louis, the Cardinals had some chances to break the game open. Having won Game Two and with the home crowd in full throat from the first pitch, they also had the better of the pitching matchup early in the game.
The Red Sox went down in order in the top of the first inning, a frame highlighted by starting pitcher Joe Kelly. When second batter Shane Victorino chopped the ball back up the middle, Kelly jumped, reached to his right with his bare hand, fielded the ball cleanly and threw on easily to first base.
Boston starting hurler Jake Peavy didn’t land as smoothly. Matt Carpenter led off with a single between Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, the latter forced to play the field under National League rules, and with extremely limited range. Carlos Beltran gave the Red Sox a gift when, perhaps still feeling the effects of the bruised right ribcage he suffered in Game One, he laid down a bunt in a 3-1 count and was retired, Peavy to Ortiz, but Matt Holliday drove a fastball low and away into right field. Victorino fielded the ball cleanly, quickly and well, running to his left, but was playing too deep and had too far to go laterally to stop Carpenter from scoring. He did hold Holliday at first base, though.
First baseman Matt Adams then singled past Ortiz into right field. It’s no sure thing that regular cold-corner coverer Mike Napoli would have fielded it, but Ortiz’s lack of both reflexes and agility meant he barely moved as the ball skipped past. Victorino, who plays right field with the verve and aggression of a long-time center fielder, charged hard and held Holliday at second. Catcher Yadier Molina, though, kept the sharply-hit ground-ball parade going, bouncing one by third baseman Xander Bogaerts, to his left, to score Holliday. Third baseman David Freese and center fielder Jon Jay killed the rally, flying out to right and grounding to second, respectively, but it was 2-0.
The Cardinals had taken the lead after one inning, which led them to a 29-10 record during the regular season. They had demonstrated their best collective skill, stringing together hits at the top of the lineup in order to score quickly. They also had a month and a half of feverishly hot play at Busch Stadium behind them, and Kelly seemed in command. The Sox again went down in sequence in the second, this time thanks to a diving play by Matt Carpenter to send Daniel Nava back to the dugout.
In the bottom of the second, St. Louis went silently, adding up to five straight outs for Peavy. The bottom four of the batting order are quite bad, and Peavy, pitching always to the hands of hitters, induced a pop-up, strikeout, pop-up chain as he turned over the lineup. Boston, though, went even more quietly. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has largely spent the postseason failing to reach high fastballs, got a 97-mile-per-hour heater without nearly the requisite elevation, but still swung under it. The ball was hamstring-high, but Saltalamacchia treated it as though it were level with the hollows of his knees. Stephen Drew struck out, too. Peavy made the only contact of the inning, a weak groundout.
The Cardinals sent the best of their order to bat in the third, but one would never know it. Strikeouts by Beltran and Adams sandwiched a Holliday fly that Jacoby Ellsbury dropped, but that caused no harm thanks to Dustin Pedroia. In the typical center-field pop-up convergence, Pedroia was close enough to grab the carom, and he threw behind Holliday, who made too large a turn at first base.
The first time through the batting order, the Red Sox had exercised their usual, excruciating plate patience. It had yielded only pain, a series of 0-1 and even 0-2 counts against Kelly—who is usually not so precise with location. Changing his approach to suit the opponent’s strategy, Ellsbury led off the fourth with a single through the right side, on the first pitch. Two unproductive outs later, though, Ellsbury remained rooted to the spot. Not only had Victorino and Pedroia not moved him up, but he seemed, as ever, unwilling or unable to get into position to test Molina’s arm behind the plate. Ortiz drew a four-pitch walk, though, to put two on with two out.
Daniel Nava had a chance to change the game, and to his credit, he had a good at-bat. He worked a full count. Kelly, who fans only one in seven batters when he starts, isn’t one who thrives in deep counts. With a stunning high-80s changeup, though, Kelly got a swinging strikeout to end the inning. It felt, given the matchup, given the impressive pitch itself, given the moment, like that was the best shot at Kelly Boston would get, before he was gone.
It should have been, too. In the bottom of the fourth inning, the Cardinals got back into Jake Peavy’s face. Molina blooped a single to center field. Freese walked. Jay singled very sharply to center (though those last two have been poor this October, they have an uncanny way of getting their hits and walks during the same trips through the order), which nearly scored Molina. At the last moment, though, St. Louis third-base coach Jose Oquendo held his man, throwing up the stop sign and jogging back toward third base with Molina. Ellsbury had played Jay fairly shallow, and charged the ball hard enough to discourage Oquendo.
Oquendo is the last of a dying breed: the non-anonymous third-base coach. He is not, as some have been, famous for his sheer aggression (bordering on stupidity) in waving runners home. Nor, though he’s a presence on the field, is he the fiery one who instigates fights with opponents in their dugout. Rather, he’s known for the way he puts himself right next to his players. Running Molina back to the base was not an unusual stunt for Oquendo. Briefly, Boston argued that he had made contact with Molina in order to stop him. While replays showed otherwise, and the umpires correctly played it down, it would not have been the first time Oquendo did that, either.
Pete Kozma was due next. Predictably, perhaps, he struck out. The league has not seen as thoroughly impotent a regular player in years. With one out, the pitcher’s spot was due, and the Cardinals’ oh-so-promising rally seemed imperiled.
Allen Craig never moved. For Mike Matheny, there had been no question, no thought given to putting his premier pinch-hitting option—and one of St. Louis’s best batters overall—in position to put the game away with a hit. The depth of his bullpen didn’t lead him to lift Kelly, despite the rough fourth inning, despite the urgency that should inform any decision made during the World Series. Perhaps it was because he’s been so reticent to use Shelby Miller, his spare starter, this postseason. Perhaps it was because he failed to anticipate this situation, and Craig needed time to loosen before entering. Perhaps Matheny simply wanted to get more outs from his starter, so as not to expose more arms to the Red Sox and their relentless lineup.
In any event, though, it was a mistake to let Kelly bat. He didn’t spare Matheny, popping out, and Matt Carpenter was unable to pick up his poor-hitting teammates, popping out himself. Peavy had turned back a bases-loaded, no-out assault, and the Cardinals really wouldn’t get another shot at him.
Xander Bogaerts hit the hardest ball of the game to that point, leading off the fifth inning. Matheny’s error in judgment became fairly glaring, fairly quickly. Bogaerts’ bounder was a slicing drive to center field, one that ran away from Jay and reached the base of the wall in right-center. Bogaerts reached third base without a throw of any consequence. Saltalamacchia and Drew came next. As bad as they have each been, for all the trouble making contact and the vexation good pitching has caused them, they work counts, and each took Kelly to 3-2. Saltalamacchia walked; Drew struck out.
With Peavy due and runners on the corners, one out, John Farrell sent Mike Carp to pinch-hit. It wasn’t much, but Carp chopped a ball to the left of second base, one Carpenter fielded but had to turn in order to pass to Kozma. Kozma made a strong turn, with a forceful throw more neck- than chest-high, his calling card, but Carp beat it, and the Red Sox halved their deficit. Ellsbury struck out to end the inning, but the worm had begun to turn.
Left-hander Felix Doubront took the ball to begin the Cardinal fifth. He got two quick outs, the second on a ground ball that occasioned a demonstration of Stephen Drew’s trademark defensive style. Drew plays fairly deep, but charges almost every ground ball, fielding in a slight bend, with his right foot forward, then planting the left and throwing, almost on the run. He got Matt Holliday fairly easily on that play in the fifth.
Matt Adams, though, got a rally going. He shot a ball into the right-field corner, and when Victorino (a career center fielder, remember, and one whose apprenticeship in right prepared him ill for balls like this one, thanks to Fenway Park’s quirky corner) didn’t field it cleanly, it was a sure double. Doubront intentionally walked Molina, and given his contact rate, perhaps that was the right call. Another single would have meant another run. On the other hand, putting a runner on base against St. Louis is a temptation of fate that the baseball gods rarely fail to punish. Fortunately for the Red Sox, David Freese is no god, and he flew out to end the inning.
Victorino worked a full-count walk to lead the sixth inning off, putting Kelly firmly on the ropes. A patented Dustin Pedroia liner, yanked low and hard down third, turned into an out thanks to Freese’s positioning close to the line with a runner on first. Still, Kelly was done, with lefty specialist Randy Choate coming in to face Ortiz. The great Boston slugger didn’t wait to be set up for Choate’s side-slung outside junk, though, and pulled the first pitch wide of first base for a single, too sharply stung for an only half-shifted Carpenter to get to. Victorino took third base easily.
Seth Maness came on to face Nava. The switch-hitting Nava does much better facing righties, batting left, but then again, Choate struggled against any right-handed batter, and the value of a potential double-play ball—a specialty for Maness—overrode platoon considerations.
Maness’s surname, by the way, sounds like ‘heinous,’ not ‘finesse,’ and that about sums up his lone pitch to Nava. The master of getting the ball down, the duke of double plays, elevated a pitch that Nava happily stroked on a soft line into left field. Tie game, 2-2. Bogaerts gave Maness his double-play grounder, but a batter late.
Jay led off the bottom of the sixth, and bunted hard past the mound, on the right. Jay hits lefty pitchers poorly, and Doubront falls off the mound a bit toward third base, and Ortiz’s limitations afield are perpetually in evidence. The problem: Jay bunted too hard by half. Pedroia fielded it, even with the first-base bag, and tossed to Ortiz to get him. Kozma then struck one well, catching the eye and the breath of cynical analysts everywhere for a moment, but Lady Luck did not attend the ball in its flight. Nava hauled it in at the edge of the warning track. The Cardinals’ second-best bench bat, Shane Robinson, popped up to end the inning. The disparity in the lengths of turns at bat began to stretch.
Kevin Siegrist, the hard-throwing left-hander, was the next man out of the Cardinal bullpen. Saltalamacchia struck out, no better able to corral good heat from the right side than from the left. Will Middlebrooks batted for Drew, but flew to Jay. Jonny Gomes then batted for Doubront, but with the same empty result.
The significance of that sequence might be lost to history, but let us not lose it yet, so close to the moment. Siegrist’s left-handedness induced Farrell to empty his bench and weaken his defense, in a single motion. Gomes was wasted on a two-out, bases-empty spot, which is no tragedy since Boston still had Mike Napoli in reserve, but David Ross might have been a better option. As for Middlebrooks, he certainly had a better chance to start something against Siegrist than Drew did, but once he failed to do so, the Sox simply had a tie game and a worse left side of the infield (Middlebrooks at third base, Bogaerts sliding to shortstop) to show for their effort.
This was not a tactical gaffe. Rather, it was a moment of triumph for an unheralded but excellent middle-relief pitcher. Farrell and the Red Sox make no secret of their desire to draw the secondary relief corps into the fray as often as possible. Siegrist, though, typifies a Cardinals bullpen that defies, even punishes, that paradigm. A left-hander chosen as chaff, in the 41st round in the draft five years ago, a man who eluded mention in Baseball Prospectus’s ranking of the Cardinals’ top 10 (and really, 16) prospects prior to this season, got three huge outs for St. Louis, despite the best efforts of the best offense and best bench in baseball.
Siegrist turned 21 in July, 2010. Two years after signing with the Cardinals, he had only just, finally, conquered the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He didn’t even pitch well during a brief promotion to short-season A-ball, in the New York-Penn League. He was getting shelled by hitters his age, precious few of them prospects, and most fresh out of college, not two-year veterans with dimming futures. For many players, and in many organizations, a 7.29 ERA in a second stint in the New York-Penn League is the end of the road.
Beginning in 2011, he began to find success. He didn’t even transition into relief until 2013, but he began to climb the ladder. Once he did become a reliever, he really took off. He started 2013 in Double-A, but was in the Majors by mid-June. Since arriving, and including his postseason work, he now boasts a line of 431. innings pitched, 23 hits allowed, five runs (four earned), two home runs surrendered, 18 walks and 52 strikeouts. On Saturday, he deftly bridged the gap, in a tied World Series game, to the Cardinals’ ace relievers.
Craig Breslow got the ball to start the seventh inning for Boston. Matt Carpenter led off, and hit a slow grounder to shortstop. With Drew and his hard-charging, natural style, it might have been an out, but Bogaerts was slower with it. At that, he might have been quick enough, but with Ortiz still trying to man first base, the ball skipped off his glove, and Carpenter had first. Breslow then hit Beltran on the left forearm. Carpenter’s left-handedness at bat and Beltran’s splits—he has power, but no other skills, from the right side—made Breslow a natural choice for the situation, but that was on paper. In reality, St. Louis had a healthy rally started, and their best hitter coming to bat.
Boston could have countered with its best relief pitcher, but Farrell didn’t do it. He brought on Junichi Tazawa, who has been the Red Sox’s giant-slayer this postseason, but who still shines a fair bit less brightly than Koji Uehara. Tazawa got a ground ball from Holliday, yanked along the third-base line. Under the prior defensive alignment, Bogaerts would have been on the ball, and likely gotten one out on the play.
Middlebrooks, though, faltered in his effort to get going, and short-armed his dive for the ball. It bounded by him, all the way to the corner, and when Nava took too long to retrieve and return the ball, even the aging Beltran scored, from first base. Two runs, in total, and now a 4-2 advantage for the home team. The throw through to the plate, which had no hope of nailing Beltran, allowed Holliday third base with no outs.
Tazawa rallied. Long at-bats by Adams and Molina each ended with empty swings at high, mid-90s fastballs. The latter was perhaps the biggest pitch by a Red Sox hurler in the game, getting past the bat of a batter whose ability to put the ball in play underpins his whole offensive game, in a situation wherein contact of any kind would have meant a run. Freese drew a walk, and Jay flied out, although in the process, they worked Tazawa up to 24 pitches, making it impossible for Farrell to bring him back for the eighth inning.
In the top of the eighth, Daniel Descalso took over third base, having pinch-run for Freese. Carlos Martinez took over on the mound, presumably riding the wave of good vibes from two sterling innings in Game Two, holding a two-run Cardinals lead. Ellsbury, though, singled up the middle. Victorino took one off the thigh on a 1-2 count, putting two aboard with no outs.
The Victorino pitch was unfortunate, but not a mistake on Martinez’s part. His pitch missed the strike zone by inches. Victorino, though, simply crowds the plate in a way for which right-handed pitchers find it impossible to correct. A switch-hitter by trade, he had batted almost exclusively right-handed since just past mid-season because of a hamstring problem. That was the stronger of his two swings, but being physically inhibited and giving away the platoon advantage to which he was accustomed was beginning to take its toll. He couldn’t control the strike zone. He couldn’t pick up and adjust to good breaking pitches from right-handed pitchers, unless he cheated and waited for them.
Getting hit by pitches was how Victorino survived, and remained viable. He used his proximity to the plate and his fearlessness to stay productive and in the lineup, at a time when many (perhaps most, perhaps all other) players would have been forced to take an extended absence. When Martinez got ahead and tried to come inside, he played right into Victorino’s gambit.
Pedroia batted next, and the Sox did something they had yet to do against Molina and the Cardinals all series: they started the runners. A good thing, too, because the bouncer Pedroia hit to shortstop could have led to two outs if not for the motion of the runners. Farrell and the Sox had counted on Pedroia to make contact, and he had, and they had the tying runs in scoring position with one out.
The Cardinals didn’t blink before intentionally walking Ortiz. It was a strange decision, since he was the go-ahead run, but his Series to that point had made enough of an imprint to induce Matheny to load the bases anyway.
Martinez had done nothing wrong, but Matheny felt his closer was ready, so in came Trevor Rosenthal to face Nava. Matheny also made an unusual defensive choice, sliding Matt Carpenter to third base, removing the just-inserted Descalso and placing Kolten Wong at second base. With Nava batting left-handed, Matheny wanted the best defender he could get on the right side of the infield.
Nava made Matheny look like a genius, in a way. He hit a low line drive toward the hole between first and second base. Wong moved to his left, surrounding the ball. It bounced once, just in front of Wong, who was so far out over his feet that he began to fall. He maintained his body control, though, fielded the tough hop cleanly, turned and threw to get the lead runner at second base. No double play, and a run scored, but Wong’s soft hands—soft body, really, an exquisite sense of the ball and how to handle it—likely saved a second.
It was a momentary reprieve. Bogaerts hit a unique blopper, over the mound, and into center field on a high bounce. The way the ball was hit, it likely didn’t matter that Kozma came up short in trying to grab it. No out was there to be had. The Red Sox had tied the score. Rosenthal got a groundout to second from Saltalamacchia, but the game was once again a dead heat.
Still, the Cardinals had certain systemic advantages. As the game wore on, their being the home team became a larger and larger factor. The strain the scrub batters had registered on Tazawa during the seventh forced Boston to go to Brandon Workman in the eighth, in a tied game. Even with Boston’s two best set-up men faltering, it felt like a win to have some time to take aim at Workman.
With one out, Wong singled. After a Carpenter pop-up, Beltran batted, and Wong stole second as the count moved to 2-1 on him. The Red Sox elected to intentionally walk him, with first base now open. That was a disastrous decision, although no disaster followed. Beltran was batting left-handed against the right-handed Workman. Given his bunt in a favorable count in the first inning, it was clear he was far short of 100 percent. He was a much less dangerous batter, with one man on base, than Matt Holliday with two on, even giving Beltran credit for the favorable count. Holliday, though, flew out.
The Red Sox struck out twice in a silent top of the ninth. In the middle of it, Workman batted for himself, even as Mike Napoli (fastball hitter extraordinaire) watched Rosenthal reach the upper 90s from the dugout. David Ross and Quintin Berry were each available, too, if the spot simply failed Farrell’s threshold test for leveraging his best pinch-hitter, but still, Workman batted.
So it was that Workman manned the mound to begin the bottom of the ninth, and gave up a one-out single to Molina. In came Koji Uehara, as up came Allen Craig, pinch-hitting for the pitcher Rosenthal. Craig remained hobbled by a foot injury sustained in early September, but was certainly well enough to bat. He didn’t wait to see one of Uehara’s lethal splitters; he shot the first pitch, hard, down the left-field line. Molina had no chance of scoring, though perhaps 40 percent of all big-leaguers would have. Craig limped into second base. Two on, one out, the tying run almost any contact from scoring.
Almost any contact, but not the contact Jon Jay made. He hit the ball just to Pedroia’s right, with the infield drawn in, and Pedroia made a quick, easy diving play. The throw home was perfect. Molina was out by 10 feet. After Saltalamacchia tagged him, though, he saw Craig trying to make third, and threw down.
His decision was fine. His execution was poor. Middlebrooks, still trying to properly position himself to receive a throw he hadn’t anticipated, missed a wide throw. Craig slid in feet-first. The ball hit him on the inside of the trailing arm, and bounced into foul territory, down the left-field line.
That meant a foot race. Between a left fielder who, after twice being slow to field a double into the corner, was Jonny (actually Daniel; Gomes never entered as a defender) on the spot, and a gimpy first baseman who had to recover from a physical play at third. Craig and Middlebrooks had slid and dived past one another, really. There was no immediate, entangling or jarring contact. If there had been, perhaps what happened next would be even more controversial. For certain, if Craig had been healthy, and slid into the base, then popped up and taken off, it would have been avoided altogether.
Instead, the two were side-by-side in the dirt momentarily, Middlebrooks looking after the ball and trying to get up to pursue it, Craig scrambling clumsily to his feet. Craig was inside the usual baseline when he got tangled in Middlebrooks’s legs, although still well within his allowed path toward the plate. He tripped, cleared Middlebrooks, tripped again, then stumbled even as he regained his feet and his stride. Nava got to the ball, fielded it cleanly and threw the ball with both accuracy and surprising zip. Craig was out at the plate, fairly easily. Only he wasn’t. Middlebrooks had committed obstruction. Craig was, by rule, safe, and the game was over.
It all traces back to lifting Drew, putting Middlebrooks in the game. It all traces to Matheny lacking the creativity to have a pitcher run for Craig, who was a token really, since the tying run was ahead of him. It all traces back to letting Workman face Molina. It all traces back to Craig being so slow that Saltalamacchia felt he had a play at third. It all traces back to all the hits the Cardinals pushed past Ortiz and into right field. It all traces back to letting Joe Kelly bat in the bottom of the fourth, when Craig was the perfect bullet to fire. It all traces back to Kevin Siegrist shutting down the Red Sox in the seventh.
Baseball games come down to these little things. World Series games put a magnifying glass on the great plays, and the poor ones, and even on the pedestrian ones. Often, those plays are more revelatory than we know. In a Series maligned as sloppy and unwatchable, all the plays that lead up to the errors and the miscues and the strikeouts deserve far more attention than they’ve gotten. These games have refused to let you go. They’ve been gripping. That they have tended to turn on key mistakes illustrates the thin margin for error whenever one good team plays another, and the way good players pressure one another constantly, not some failure of fundamentals or focus on the part of either side.Next post: A Brief Note on a Brief Absence
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