Friday, October 28, 2011

Is Game 7 Just A Formality?

I'm not a St. Louis or Texas (sign of the cross) fan, but last night's World Series Game 6 was a banquet, a feast, a festival for a baseball fan's sports fan's senses; one for the ages. Twice St. Louis were one strike away from elimination and they kept on coming. They wouldn't give up. This team's character is a tribute not only to the players, obviously, but to their manager, Tony La Russa. Whatever his magic (was it tossing those obnoxious Mafia shades that hid his eyes even on night games?) they should bottle it. La Russa harbors so many superstitions that he may be the obsessive-compulsive reality baseball version of Monk, the quirky TV detective whose detail-oriented neurosis is the source of his strength. He solves the puzzle by seeing things other people miss. In last night's battle of the managers, La Russa didn't make many game-changing moves, except to display Zen-like patience in the face of every reversal and a quiet confidence that rubbed off on his never-say-die players. In contrast, Ron Washington, the Texas manager, made (in my sports fan's opinion) some critical blunders that cost them the game and quite likely the Series.

I don't want to jinx St. Louis fans, because while I only dislike the Cardinals I hate Texas — you know, that whole scene with Nolan Ryan, George W. Bush, and its reality TV version of "Dallas" is obnoxious beyond words. And of course, I have to dive for the remote mute button before a single note of that hideous "God Bless America" is played and sung. Blame it on Major League Baseball for ramming faux patriotic religion down our throats, when we just want to enjoy the game with peanuts, Crackerjack, and a cold beer. And that goes for those "Athletes for Jesus Freaks" who credit J.C. for every goal, touchdown, or home run scored with that characteristic index fingers and eyes to the sky celebration. Sports and religious music don't mix. Period. (Much less politics. Are you listening, Albert Pujols, you jerk?)

Moving on, despite the best wingnut efforts to ruin it, the game between the lines can still be sublime, as it was last night. For all of St. Louis's moxie, Texas blew it. Ron Washington blew it. If your All-Star closer, Feliz, is on the mound and has a shaky outing, allowing two runs, a tied game, and extra innings after the Cardinals had gone 1-for-15 against him — what should the manager do? Answer: He sends his best right back out there. Well, if you hadn't scored to get those two runs back at the top of the 10th inning, you might bring in a journeyman veteran like Oliver. You figure he'll give you a couple of innings and your closer is on ice. But if you go ahead, you give the ball right back to your All-Star closer, no matter how shaky he was the previous inning. That's what he gets the big bucks for. What, is he supposed to pitch again today? You tell Feliz, "This is your lucky day. You have another chance to win this Series and be the hero, with a two-run cushion. Go back out there and get those last three outs."

Instead, and very predictably (I knew before Oliver threw his first pitch) southpaw veteran Darren Oliver promptly gave up back-to-back singles to the first two left-handed batters up for the Cardinals. The "percentages" game may work on paper, but not when you anger the stadium gods. The 41-year-old Oliver who was on the losing end of Division Series as a starter for Texas against the Yankees back in the 90s, had one save in 2010 and two in 2011 — stellar stats. But the bottom line is, you don't win a World Series with a journeyman pitcher on the mound by yanking your star closer before regaining the lead with a two-run cushion. It's a violation of stadium gods etiquette. It disrespects your adversary, and they'll let you know about it; it stiffens their spines.

Then Washington made his second mistake, which has its roots in that idiotic American League rule of the "Designated Hitter." Baseball was originally intended for all nine players to field their positions and bat, including the pitcher. So when the pitcher's s turn came up for Texas (National League rules in a NL stadium) with two outs, nobody on, Washington yanked his best middle reliever, Scott Feldman, who could have kept them in the game through extra innings with a string of scoreless innings pitched. The manager's indecision and impatience to chase a win, with a depleted bench and the premature removal of his star reliever, played itself out with Feldman grabbing a bat, then suddenly being called back in favor of a no-name pinch hitter, who ground out to end the inning. From Washington's perspective, sending his best long reliever up there with little time logged on batting practice, was conceding a bat for a pitcher. Hence the split-second confusion: do I keep him in the game or gamble with a low power/average bench player? Two outs, nobody on. Your call.

Joe Buck and Tim McCarver yucked that they'd take the trade (from the Cardinals' perspective) of Scott Feldman for Mark Lowe any day. The rest is the stuff of baseball lore. Hometown boy David Freese makes good, following his two-run game-tying triple with a game-winning homer against a Texas third-string relief pitcher. The mercilessly cruel, but just, stadium gods were smiling. What a game.

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