For the seventh time in two Octobers, the Cardinals' season comes down to one game.
What I love most about baseball is the length of the season. Pitchers and catchers report in February, spring training games start up in March, the 162-game season lasts from April through September, and then, for those teams lucky and skilled enough, there is the month-long postseason. Baseball is a way of life for many, whether it's listening to Mike Shannon on the radio at night, checking the box scores in the morning, or watching the games on cable. The game draws you in with a compelling mix of highs, lows, silliness, and unpredictability.
As Ebby Calvin LaLoosh said in his first interview upon being called up to The Show (and Adam Wainwright quoted during his in-game interview with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver), "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains." It's a wonderful "ah shucks" summary of the regular season grind. For, if one gets too caught up in celebrating regular season wins or too down after regular season losses, it's easy to get burned out on the National Pastime.
Some nights the Cardinals can't buy a hit; on others, they have a surplus. That's baseball. Some games the Cardinals starter in lights out and in other contests he gets lit up. That's baseball. No matter the outcome today, there is always tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Such is the nature of the game.
When the air begins to cool and summer turns to fall, the tomorrows become fewer. As the days shorten, the stakes rise. After the tense race to the finish line in postseason qualifying, the fans of those clubs who have won a playoff berth get a brief reprieve, when they can relax in the knowledge that their club has had its ticket punched for the postseason tournament.
For the fans of Oakland, Texas, Atlanta, and St. Louis, the peace of mind of a Wild Card berth was short-lived. The season's end was at hand as soon as the postseason began in Bud Selig's nasty, brutish, and short one-game eliminator. The October tension that comes with an elimination game was immediate. After a roller coaster nine innings that featured homers, errors, an infield fly rule call, and a near-riot that featured debris tossing, the Cardinals had survived and moved on to the NLDS.
The promise of at least three more ballgames (and as many as five) offered a brief respite from elimination delirium. For Cardinals fans, that reprieve was short-lived. After jumping into the driver's seat with a 2-1 series lead, the Cardinals squandered a great Kyle Lohse start and were once again staring elimination in the face for the sixth time in two Octobers. A miracle comeback capped by the one-two punch of Descalso-Kozma caused elimination to blink and the Cards to play again.
Awaiting an opponent and flight destination on the tarmac in Cincinnati were the San Francisco Giants, a club that had also just stared down elimination. With an NLCS matchup against the Giants, the dread of elimination never left me. Since NLDS Game 5, it has been over a week straight of postseason delirium for your author.
1987 was the first year my parents let me stay up late and watch postseason games in their entirety on T.V. The St. Louis Cardinals squared off against the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS that year. That series 25 years ago was the first time I felt the dread of being a baseball fan--the butterflies that come with every pitch in a close game and flutter with every fly ball off the opposing team's bats. They're feelings of fandom, feelings that haven't gone away with age or the wisdom of BABIP, wOBA, or WPA.
With black caps and Jeffrey Leonard's "one flap down," the '87 Giants were straight out of central casting as the villains for a young Cards fan. To my child self, it felt like Leonard got a hit every time he dug into the batter's box. The adult me still marvels at his hitting line that series. The Cardinals stared down elimination at Busch II 25 years and ended the Giants' season after an epic series. Nonetheless, a child's hatred still burns for the Giants in my baseball fan's heart. For this year's Game 7, the butterflies will be felt in full force once again, spanning twenty-five years.
The '87 NLCS was a roller-coaster ride of emotion. I didn't even really know what a Game 7 was until that series. It offered a crash course in the high-stakes lottery that is postseason baseball. Every inning, every out, and every pitch could determine the outcome of the game, series, and season. As Cards fans, we've been blessed with six straight wins in postseason games that would have ended our club's season. For this year's NLCS Game 7, the previous dramas will fade away. There will be only the elimination game at hand.
Like the 2012 regular season and NLDS, this NLCS has had sky-high peaks and rock-bottom valleys. Entering Game 7, the Cardinals have fallen into a dip with two straight crushing losses to the black caps. As a result, our Birdos stand once again with their season facing a nasty, brutish, and short eliminator. As a baseball fan with 25 years of elimination game experience, I can't wait.