earn your pennant

three weeks ago they were gutless wonders, staggering around in a daze, perfectly helpless as the astros took game after game off their nl central lead. they were possessed by the spirit of the '64 phillies, choke artists for the ages. . . .

guess they do have some guts after all. just a little.

their courage rode on the arm of jeff suppan, who calmly preserved a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the 6th after Fate had seemingly gone all-in on the mets -- first guiding scott rolen's 6th-inning homer into endy chavez's glove and then, in the bottom half of the inning, wafting a rolen throw into the mezzanine of shea stadium to put the go-ahead run at 3d with 1 out. two game-changing plays in the span of 4 batters, both adverse to the underdog's hopes; Fate appeared not to be bluffing. but ol' supps calmly called the bet. in recent years we've seen many a cardinal pitcher go tiptoeing into make-or-break postseason at-bats -- nibbling at the corners, trying to make perfect pitches, above all trying to avoid mistakes. suppan did nothing such; he just tossed in his chips and showed his cards. threw a curveball down and inside to jose valentin, then a fastball up and away; curveball down, fastball up, curve down and in. four of the five pitches got part of the plate; suppan gave valentin his hacks. jose fouled the fastballs off and whiffed at the curves and struck out. supps then went straight after chavez -- whose halo was still glowing in the aftermath of his divine intervention of the previous half-inning -- and threw him a high fastball right down the middle. chavez took an anxious first-pitch swing and popped out to center.

perhaps the cardinals' greatest asset this postseason has been their license to lose; no expectations to uphold, no golden summer that demands to be redeemed with a championship. recall this observation from texbird, offered right before the series began:

playoff baseball seems to be an "approach goal" task--- you try to go out and achieve and win the series. the problem comes when the players get into an "avoidance" mindset-- this mismatch causes performance to suffer. it seems that the 2006 cards are in a "promotion focus"--- they've got nothing to lose, and they're striving for a goal (as opposed to past years when we were trying to "prevent" losing because we were expected to win).
the license to lose enabled suppan to make pitches with little regard for the consequences -- to say, in essence: "ah, what the hell -- here's a strike, jose valentin, let's see you earn your pennant." the same spirit carried the day in the 9th, when wainwright -- doing a suberb impression of a) jason isringhausen, and more disturbingly b) calvin schiraldi -- loaded the bases in front of carlos beltran. talk about a high-leverage at-bat . . . . . not just a game but a pennant hanging in the balance. but like supps, wainwright didn't nibble, didn't tiptoe. he strode right into the at-bat with an unflinching fastball on the outer half for strike one. adam dared to catch a decent chunk of the plate with it, too -- put it where carlos could reach it, possibly drive it the other way for a game-tying single or even (and no cardinal fan would have been shocked to see it) launch it into the alley for a series-winning double. what the hell; here's a strike, earn your pennant. beltran took the pitch, then foul-tipped the ensuing 0-1 curveball, which started right down the middle and broke inside. ahead 0-2, wainwright still didn't tiptoe; he bent another curve right over the plate and put the series away.

when i previewed the nlds, i thought the padres' great bullpen might give them a decisive advantage over the cardinals -- but i added "wouldn't it be funny -- wouldn't it be baseball -- if, when it mattered, the cardinals won because the other guy's bullpen screwed up?" that last remark came a series too soon; it was the mets who got betrayed by a superior (on paper) relief corps. what they lacked in starting pitching in this series, they were going to make up for with chad bradford and guillermo mota and aaron heilman and billy wagner. but those relievers couldn't hold a 6-4 lead with 7 outs to go in game 2, and they couldn't preserve a 1-1 tie in game 7 against the bottom of the st louis order. the game 2 loss was the pivotal one of the series -- the lone "giveaway" game, the only instance in which a team lost after they had already mostly won. st louis' win expectancy had dwindled to about 10 percent by the 7th inning of game 2; at no other point in the series did a team come back against those type of odds. (the cards' win expectancy had fallen to 28 percent when valentin batted with the sacks jammed last night.) new york hadn't lost a single game all season which they led after 6 innings, a rather incredible performance; the one such lead they did blow cost them the pennant. over the final 2 games, the cardinals mustered only 1 run in 11+ innings against john maine and oliver perez -- but they posted 4 runs in 6+ innings against the met bullpen. they got no wins from carpenter and only 1 ribbie from el hombre; they won the series because so taguchi and yadi molina and scott spiezio got big hits off the met relievers.

my only regret is that gary bennett didn't get in on the act.

as the innings dwindled away and the score remained tied, i'm sure i was not the only cardinal fan who recalled this series-ending ballgame, and/or this one -- 1-1 ties that slipped out of the cardinals' grip in the bottom of the 9th. has any team in history endured season-ending walkoff losses 3 times in a 6-year span? i can't believe it has ever happened. that's the spectre the cardinals confronted last night -- and they stared it down. but they'd already looked the ghost of the '64 phils right in the face without blinking. maybe there's nothing out there that can scare these guys anymore.

worthwhile readings:

i've seen surprisingly little conversation out there about randolph's decision not to bunt the runners over and get the tying run into scoring position after the two leadoff singles in the 9th inning. i thought it was the correct call; wainwright was really struggling, the lineup was about to turn over, and the mets had a real opportunity not just to tie but to win the game. when you've only got 3 outs left, you don't give one away.

i have seen plenty of discussion, however, about randolph's decision to let oliver perez pitch to rolen in the sixth after the one-out walk to edmonds. if not for chavez's great catch, randolph would be a goat for leaving perez in and not going to bradford, who had been warming up for, like, the whole game.

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