The Day After: A Few Scrambled Afterthoughts
A day has yet to pass since the Cardinals stunned baseball yet again by defeating the favored Washington Nationals and advancing to the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants. It was the sixth consecutive time the Cardinals have won an elimination game, and the first time in NLDS history that a team came back from more than four runs down to win a game.
The only people left without a stunned look of incredulity are the St. Louis Cardinals.
Watch the replay of those final innings; the Cardinals all had looks of supreme peace and confidence. Even rookies like Pete Kozma showed no signs of terror or inner turmoil while battling inside the eye of the postseason hurricane. Meanwhile, the Nationals were clearly rattled; Drew Storen was visibly shaking on the mound in the ninth. And that’s the difference.
While watching the Cardinals mount another impossible comeback, I was reminded of the famous quote by Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett in the movie Unforgiven. Asked what makes a gunslinger truly deadly, Hackman’s character responds this way:
Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya.
The Cardinals aren’t always the best shot. They fumble easy plays, swing wildly at inappropriate times, and strand more runners than they score. They are seemingly in constant trouble, much of it their own doing. But they never rattle, they never give up. They remain cool under pressure when they’re at their bleakest and most terrifying moments. That, more than almost everything else, is the secret of their shocking success.
I wrote something similar about the 2011 Cardinals after their overwhelming World Championship. In that article, I called that team “battle tested,” refined through the heat of hardship into an impregnable unit. Well, most of that team is still together. If they were battle tested last year, then they went through the emotional and physical wringer this year. They are even harder, more resolved. I think their upcoming postseason opponents should be very, very concerned about the Cardinals advancing.
This team is like a terrifying zombie horde. Cut off an arm, and they just keep coming. Cut off a leg, and they just keep coming. Even if you try to cut off their head, the body still twitches for one last kill. Two savory series remain, and this club has caught a whiff of blood. Look out, baseball.
Here are a few more random thoughts:
* Congratulations to the Washington Nationals for a wonderful season of hard-nosed, old-school baseball. They earned baseball’s best record the right way. I’m sure the loss really hurts this close-knit group of talented youngsters right now. That disappointment will fade, replaced by a hunger tempered with experience. This is a good team sure to blossom into a great one very soon. They simply had some tough lessons to learn here that will make them battle tested for the triumphs to come.
* I was impressed by the throaty, enthusiastic crowds at Nationals Park. They were loud, locked-in, and riveted. Their participation helped the Nationals get off the canvas and fight back to the brink of victory. My only question – where were these fans all season long? And will they come back next year to cheer this wonderful baseball team like they did this week?
* Matt Holliday needs to take better at-bats, period. He seems so desperate to make something happen that he expands his strike zone, then flails weakly at the offerings. He’s not driving the ball. He’s also not pushing the pitchers to throw strikes, either.
* Do you think Carlos Beltran wants that World Series ring? After a second half full of struggling and scuffling, Beltran has suddenly exploded offensively. One of the TBS announcers described Beltran as “one of the greatest postseason hitters in history.” Yeah, that sounds about right.
* If I had to pick an MVP for the series, I think I’d give it to Pete Kozma for his two huge game-winning hits. This is Kozma’s first taste of the Cardinals’ playoff karma, and he’s responding in a clutch way reminiscent of the transformation of David Freese last year. The Cardinals’ hopes and effort regarding Kozma over the years is starting to pay off. We may have a future shortstop in the system after all!
* Hand it to Mike Matheny – there were very few of his usual bizarre moves in this five game series. He’s trusting his hitters to swing the bat rather than bunt every other inning. He also used his bullpen well in most circumstances, although I question why he left Adam Wainwright out there to absorb that beating last night. Still, Matheny has suddenly upped his game when it really counts.
* Speaking of Wainwright, the Cardinals need to give him another day of rest. He looked tired, and his pitches lacked the usual bite (obviously). From what I hear, that extra day of rest might be coming for him. Wainwright has the stuff to be a stopper on par with Chris Carpenter, but I think his arm is still a year away from having that kind of control again.
* Jon Jay and Yadier Molina need to stop swinging at stuff at eye-level. The Nationals had keyed-in on that, and were throwing high heat at both of them throughout the series. Molina’s walk in the ninth indicates that he’s starting to realize that.
Words cannot really do justice to what we witnessed last night or in the past two years. This Cardinals team is the equivalent of Sugar Ray Leonard, dancing around the ring and wearing out his opponent before delivering a knockout punch in the final round.
As fans, we are so fortunate to be living at this point in Cardinal history. Since 2000, the Cardinals have been transformed into a dynasty of winning. Through a dazzling combination of talent and determination, our beloved Cardinals have dominated a game that has often abandoned and ignored them.
What a shame. They’re missing the best baseball has to offer.