Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS--When Last We Saw Busch Stadium

Not every season at Busch Stadium ends in spectacular fashion. It usually doesn’t. If you make the playoffs, as the Cardinals often do, but don’t win the World Series, your season quite often ends with a series of whimpers. In 2013, the final game at Busch Stadium featured an insipid offensive performance from the home team in the fifth game of the World Series; the game (and the series) was won by the Boston Red Sox. In 2012, Barry Zito (said while raising my fist to the sky, shaking angrily) pitched 7.2 scoreless innings, setting the stage for a shutout of the Cardinals; in what could have been a game to clinch a World Series berth for a second consecutive year, the tables abruptly turned on an NLCS that the Cardinals eventually lost. Even in 2011, the final game of the year at Busch Stadium was anticlimactic after the previous night’s thrills—I’m not one to complain about any game that clinches a World Series for my team, but the game did lack much drama beyond the fifth inning.

Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS, on the other hand, was drama of the highest order. It was one of those games that will likely be somewhat lost in the annals of history due to the ensuing collapse of the Cardinals in the next three games, but it was a game that in the moment had as much excitement as one could reasonably want from a playoff baseball game.

None of us knew what the rest of the season held for the Cardinals, but we did know that a loss in Game 2 following a defeat in the previous game would be devastating for the team while a win would give the Cardinals a reasonable chance at a third World Series appearance in four seasons. In the end, it doesn’t matter how 2014 concluded; the true excitement of baseball lies not in retrospect but in the moment.

Game 2 was a matchup of San Francisco’s Jake Peavy and St. Louis’s Lance Lynn, two workhorse starters who each compiled over 200 innings in the 2014 regular season. Of course, in the playoffs, innings-eating starters are more anomalous, so neither lasted an especially long time, even though each starter pitched reasonably well (Lynn had a game ERA of 3.09 and a game FIP of 2.57; Peavy had a game ERA of 1.86 and a game FIP of 7.60, the latter being less than impressive but with the overall performance being one that, in the regular season, generally allows a starter with Peavy’s stamina to go longer than four innings). The game went about as steadily as you might expect a game with starters as metronomic and Peavy and Lynn to go—that is, until the relievers came aboard. And the general regard with which we perceive relief pitchers—more volatile, more dramatic for better and for worse—played out during the game.

The Cardinals struck first, scoring a run per inning in the 3rd and 4th—the first run coming via a solo Matt Carpenter home run and the second run coming via a Randal Grichuk single. Neither event seemed likely a month earlier—Carpenter, for all of his abilities, hit only eight home runs in the 2014 regular season, and Grichuk had only 48 career plate appearances before being called up to the St. Louis Cardinals for good in late August. But then, in the 5th and 6th innings, the Giants put up runs to the tie the game at two. It was a whole new ballgame entering the seventh inning. This is when the game started to unfold as a classic.

Top of the 7th

The top of the seventh began with a Brandon Crawford walk issued by Randy Choate, the divisive Cardinals LOOGY. Next out of the pen was Carlos Martinez and after a passed ball by Tony Cruz, who had entered the game after an injury to Yadier Molina, Michael Morse contributed a single and following a sacrifice bunt by Juan Perez, Gregor Blanco hit a go-ahead single for the Giants. The inning then ended quietly with flyouts from Joe Panik and Buster Posey, but damage had been done. Giants 3, Cardinals 2.

Bottom of the 7th

The Cardinals had four batters in the bottom of the seventh inning. Two went down softly; a third, Jon Jay, reached on a single but was then caught stealing. But the fourth?

The fourth batter was Oscar Taveras, who had, generously, an up and down rookie season in 2014. More accurately, his season was primarily a series of shortcomings to varying degrees—he had an OPS of .590 while providing subpar corner outfield defense and he was worth 1.3 wins below replacement level per Baseball Reference and 1.2 wins below replacement level per Fangraphs in 248 plate appearances.

Two weeks after this game, Taveras would pass away at the far too young and much too tragic age of 22. This fact, in retrospect, is impossible to ignore. It is difficult to compartmentalize future events in the scope of what happened later. But for me, the ultimate legacy of what Oscar Taveras did in the seventh inning of this game exists purely in its own moment—how awful would it be, after all, to view a man’s life only in the context of the man’s death?

What happened in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS is that a much-ballyhooed prospect with the sweetest left-handed swing I can recall this side of Ken Griffey Jr. effortlessly deposited a Jean Machi pitch into the right field seats. The swing was as beautiful as its consequence was significant. Cardinals 3, Giants 3.

Top of the 8th

A lot of us weren’t particularly excited when Pat Neshek cracked the roster for the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals. It seemed like such an indulgent signing. It seemed to be the result of an ensuing belief that the Cardinals had some kind of proprietary secret to magically convert mediocre arms into superstars. But in this case, maybe they did. I was dead wrong and I wasn’t alone.

In the top of the eighth inning, Neshek pitched as well as he did all season, and he pitched really well often in 2014. He struck out two terrific Giants batters, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, swinging. He then induced an innocuous Brandon Belt fly ball to center field so get the Cardinals to the bottom of the eighth. Cardinals 3, Giants 3.

Bottom of the 8th

As in the bottom of the seventh, the second half of the eighth inning consisted of three quiet outs and a young, sweet-swinging lefty going yard. But this time, it was time for Matt Adams. Hitting a home run off Hunter Strickland may not have the same luster as the home run he had hit two games earlier off Clayton Kershaw, nor did it have the luster of the home run he would hit later in the series off Madison Bumgarner, but it’s hard to argue against any home run that bumps your Win Probability in an NLCS game from 56% to 87%.

If the comp for Taveras’s swing was Griffey, Matt Adams in the postseason was peak Barry Bonds. His swing was forceful and defiant and as soon as he made contact, a split second before everybody else in the stadium, he knew when the ball was destined for the bleachers. It showed, and it was delightful. Cardinals 4, Giants 3.

Top of the 9th

Trevor Rosenthal had a weird 2014. When he was pitching well, he was as unhittable as any closer in baseball is at his best, with the possible (and I wouldn’t even go as far as to say definite) exception of Aroldis Chapman. But when he was pitching poorly, his pitches were completely lost. And in this game, everything about the Trevor Rosenthal experience came into full view.

First, he struck out Brandon Crawford swinging (this is a Rosenthal hallmark). He then allowed back to back singles to Andrew Susac and Juan Perez (making fans nervous due to a sequence of relatively small events is also a Rosenthal hallmark). Next came a Gregor Blanco lineout to put the Giants against the ropes—runners on first and second but with two outs and rookie Joe Panik at the plate.

And on a 3-2 pitch, and I say this as somebody who is very much a Trevor Rosenthal fan, Trevor Rosenthal threw one of the worst pitches I have ever seen in Major League Baseball.

The pitch fell well, well short of home plate. Not only did this mean Panik walked, seemingly loading the bases for the always-dangerous Buster Posey, but the ball then got away from Tony Cruz. And Matt Duffy, who had pinch-run for Susac, scurried home and provided the tying run. Nothing about the play, theoretically, should have happened. Trevor Rosenthal should have thrown something at least in the vicinity of the strike zone. Tony Cruz, while given a tough pitch to block, should have prevented the run from scoring. But it did, and all of a sudden, the Giants had tied the game. And when Buster Posey did come to the plate, he walked.

Enter Seth Maness, who is for better and worse the exact opposite of Trevor Rosenthal. Maness doesn’t throw hard but he has pinpoint control. With the bases loaded for Pablo Sandoval, the last thing the Cardinals wanted was to issue a walk—even a free swinger like Sandoval was unlikely to ambitiously chase after Rosenthal’s inaccurate dealings. Maness was far less likely to strike out a batter than Rosenthal but at that point, the Cardinals were more inclined to depend on the infinite mercy of the BABIP gods. And their faith paid off. Sandoval hit a ball weakly, which Maness cleanly fielded and tossed to Matt Adams. It was not a good half-inning for the Cardinals, but an unmitigated disaster had been avoided. Cardinals 4, Giants 4.

Bottom of the 9th

I’ve been sick of the narrative about Kolten Wong living to atone for his egregious baserunning miscue during Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, in which the game ended with Wong being picked off first base while he represented a non-tying run, basically since it happened. It was a huge mistake at a huge time (even if, probability-wise, it probably didn’t cost the Cardinals the game, as they were quite likely to lose anyway), but young athletes make mistakes in the spotlight sometimes. Wong committed baseball’s equivalent to Chris Webber from 19 seconds to 11 seconds remaining in the final of the 1993 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and Webber wasn’t prevented from having a very productive career in the NBA. The real thing that Kolten Wong had a chance to prove when he led off the bottom of the ninth of this game was, once and for all, that he deserved to be the second baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even though he was a highly-regarded prospect, Wong struggled early in 2014 and was sent to Memphis. And even though he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting for the season, Wong was not without his critics. And perhaps those critics still exist, but for one at bat on that night in October, he united everybody from his fanboys to his detractors in unabashed jubilation.

And after a season in which the Cardinals hit 105 home runs, the second-fewest in Major League Baseball, the Cardinals hit their fourth home run of the game into deep right field. In the blink of an eye, the Cardinals’ win probability went from 63% to 100%. And, as Fox picked up on the broadcast, Kolten Wong went to A.J. Pierzynski, who it turns out had told Wong to just focus on getting a base hit before he went to the plate.

WONG: "A.J! A.J.! Did I get on base?"

PIERZYNSKI: "F*****’ A!"

Cardinals 5, Giants 4.