Chase Utley might be my favorite non-Cardinal. I've probably mentioned this before. What I like about Utley is that he's good at everything you can do on a baseball diamond—he's a high-average hitter with a good eye and thirty-home-run power; he plays a rangy, effortless second base. He rarely grounds into the double play, he gets hit by a ton of pitches, and when he chooses to steal a base he's successful almost ninety percent of the time.
Albert Pujols does all those things, but with Albert Pujols you can see the gears turning; lately, as he limps from base to base, you can just about hear them. His famous swing and his heads-up defense both come out of a tense, angry-looking pounce, and after he's finished with either one you can watch him unselfconsciously wince and take inventory of his limbs, like a pinball machine self-testing after the lights come back on.
Chase Utley made an Albert Pujols decision Wednesday night—he got a great jump on Edwin Jackson, which isn't hard to do, and then he rounded second on a groundball to Rafael Furcal and broke for third base. But then Albert Pujols made an Albert Pujols decision; he didn't just catch Utley running, he gave up the out at first like it had never existed, caught Furcal's throw on a little jog-step like the play had been drawn up that way, and threw the ball at David Freese like he'd never been moved off third base because of how shredded his arm was. Utley took a hard tag to his face, realized the jig was up, and walked quietly off the field. The camera was still focusing on Freese flipping the ball out of his glove, trying to act casual, so I can't be sure, but Pujols probably winced.
That's the postseason baseball you hope for: Baseball as played by two guys who have internalized it so completely that each one thinks he's seeing a different game than everybody else. For every other first baseman Chase Utley thinks about running that play against, it's probably true.
Whatever happens Game 5, the Cardinals have maneuvered through the first four games such that they are now the best team they could possibly field in 2011. Matt Holliday's back, Rafael Furcal's back, and Chris Carpenter's lined up on full rest.
I'm always worried about how much Carpenter has left in the tank at the end of a long season. It's something I've internalized from that awful September he had in 2005—those four starts where he allowed 23 runs in 22 innings and not only missed his chance to win 25 games and get some Justin Verlander vibes but also nearly gave up the Cy Young Award to Dontrelle Willis. That, two bad starts at the end of the 2006 season, and his postseason losses in New York and Los Angeles are all it takes to draw a pattern, if you're as dumb as my brain.
I try not to be as dumb as my brain. Chris Carpenter has thrown 240 innings this year, and his last 110 have been about as good as he's ever pitched. If the Cardinals can give him some runs, he can beat Roy Halladay.
And then these Cardinals—who all summer became a symbol of disappointment and grinding frustration, the predestined end of the Tony La Russa Era—can reach the National League Championship Series, somehow.