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October 10, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

That Escalated Quickly

by Jay Jaffe

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Zack Greinke versus "phony" Chris Carpenter. Tony Plush, er, Nyjer Morgan versus "Alberta" Pujols. A showcase for the coming winter's two top free-agent first basemen. A rematch of the 1982 World Series. A good old-fashioned NL Central grudge match featuring the league's top two slugging teams, and six of the league's top 13 sluggers according to slugging percentage. This year's National League Championship Series between the "Beast Mode" Brewers and the more staid Cardinals does not lack for storylines, tough talk, or the potential for fireworks. On Sunday afternoon, the two teams produced plenty of the latter, albeit without the sideshows we'd been led to expect. After falling behind early, the Brewers used a two-pitch sequence to break the game open in the fifth inning, with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder each plating a pair of runs in the space of a few moments. Behind their big bats and their bullpen, the Brewers took Game One, 9-6.

The Division Series between the Diamondbacks and Brewers had generated some amount of controversy because all five games were played with the two venues' retractable roofs closed despite generally agreeable conditions. On a sunny, 76-degree Sunday in Milwaukee, Major League Baseball chose to keep the Miller Park roof open as well as the outfield panels, an arrangement that tends to favor offense. Aided by the fact that both starting pitchers struggled to find their grooves, both teams' lineups put runs on the board early.

Greinke, who had yielded three homers and four runs in five innings against the Diamondbacks in Game Two of the Division Series, fell behind three of the first six hitters he faced, and yielded a first-inning run via a one-out walk to Jon Jay, and singles by Pujols and Matt Holliday, needing 24 pitches to get three outs. Jaime Garcia, who tossed seven solid frames in a losing cause in Game Three against the Phillies in the other NLDS, was even shakier, walking Jerry Hairston Jr. with one out, and then serving up a mammoth 463-foot home run to Braun to put the Brewers on top. Garcia plunked Prince Fielder with his next pitch, eliciting a warning from home-plate umpire Gary Darling to both benches. Garcia then walked Rickie Weeks, prompting a visit to the mound from pitching coach Dave Duncan as well as action in the St. Louis bullpen. He ran his pitch count to 27 even in striking out both Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez (who started in center field while Morgan sat against the lefty).

Greinke appeared to settle in first, needing just 23 pitches to get through the next two frames, setting down the sides in order, but his streak of seven straight Cardinals retired ended when Lance Berkman beat an infield shift by punching a ball through the left side to start the fourth. One out later, Yadier Molina walked, and then David Freese sent a hanging curveball into the Cardinals' bullpen for a three-run homer on a ball that just kept carrying, to the surprise of the TBS announcers and, probably, most viewers. After yielding just five homers to right-handers in 28 starts for the season, Greinke has now yielded four in two starts in the postseason. The homer was Freese's second of the postseason, and his fourth extra-base hit; he had collected a double and a homer to power the Cardinals to victory in Game Four of the Division Series.

The Cardinals kept coming against Greinke. Rafael Furcal led off the fifth with a double into the right-center field gap, and while Fielder prevented him from scoring with an impressive diving stop on a Jay grounder, Berkman brought him home with a sharp single to right, extending the lead to 5-2. Holliday followed with a single right through Betancourt; like the Freese homer, it came on a curveball that stayed up for too long. "Better with the yacking than the yakker," observed Joe Posnanski on Twitter. Indeed, when all was said and done, Greinke threw 36 curveballs among his 107 pitches, getting just two swings-and-misses (both capping strikeouts) while surrendering five hits, including Freese's homer. On his other 71 pitches, he got six swings-and-misses, capped four strikeouts (one looking), and gave up three hits (including Furcal's double). Had he been less stubborn about returning to the hook when it wasn't working, the game might have been a blowout.

Garcia settled down after the first as well, getting seven ground-ball outs over the next three frames while allowing just a pair of two-out baserunners. After throwing 46 pitches over the first two innings, he needed just 24 over the next two, including seven to get through the fourth, his only 1-2-3 inning of the game. To that point he had thrown 70 pitches, 43 for strikes; the suddenness with which his afternoon unraveled thereafter was shocking. Corey Hart led off the fifth with a single to left, followed by a Hairston double, with Hart stopping at third.

Tony La Russa had Octavio Dotel, who had struck out Braun six times in eight career at-bats, warming up in the bullpen, but he chose to stick with his starter, who was still south of 80 pitches. The move was defensible given the pitch count and the three-run lead, but the Cardinals paid for it, big time. Braun sliced a double into the right-field corner for a pair of runs, and Fielder crushed Garcia's very next pitch, an 87 mph fastball right down Broadway, for a two-run homer off the back of the visitors' bullpen wall, giving Milwaukee a 6-5 lead. According to ESPN, the ball traveled at 119.2 mph off his bat, the highest for any homer hit all season. If you want to fault the Cardinals' manager, you could fault him for not visiting the mound (or sending Duncan to do so) to slow the game down and help Garcia collect himself after Braun's hit.

When Dotel finally arrived, he made La Russa's reluctance to call his number earlier look justified. He began by throwing Weeks' sharp comebacker past Pujols—who didn't even bend down for the ball—for a two-base error, and poured even more gasoline on the fire by hanging a curveball to Betancourt, who didn't miss it, whacking a two-run homer to left-center. One out later, he served up a double down the left-field line to Jonathan Lucroy. While the Brewers couldn't capitalize further, they had turned a three-run deficit into a three-run lead in the space of one half-inning. In the legendary words of Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly."

Greinke shut down the Cardinals 1-2-3 in the sixth, but yielded to 41-year-old Takashi Saito after surrendering a leadoff single to Furcal in the seventh. Jay singled through the hole at shortstop left when Betancourt covered second on a hit-and-run, sending Furcal to third and bringing Pujols to the plate representing the tying run. Saito, who is still hell on righties when he's available (.167/.250/.315 this season, .177/.254/.278 for his stateside career), fell behind 2-0 but battled back to a 2-2 count using nothing but fastballs, then threw a low-and-away curveball that Pujols could only ground into a 5-4-3 double play, scoring the run but stifling the threat.

(As an aside, it should be noted that the Cardinals set an NL record by grounding into 169 double plays, with Pujols (29), Holliday and Molina (21 apiece) ranking as the league's top three; adjusting for opportunities, Pujols ranked second in Net DP, with 9.56; the double play in the seventh was right in keeping with his season.)

The Brewers recovered the run in the bottom of the seventh against Kyle McClellan, when Betancourt pounded a leadoff double to left field, his fourth extra-base hit in six post-season games, tied with Fielder for second on the team behind only Braun, with seven. He advanced to third on a sacrifice by Gomez, and scored when Lucroy battled through an eight-pitch at-bat to slap a slider up the middle for an RBI single.  The bullpen took care of business the rest of the way. Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford combined to strike out four of the seven hitters they faced, with K-Rod's eighth-inning walk of Freese the only blemish; thanks to their efficiency, the game ended with Pujols on deck, unable to atone for his GIDP. Axford did get a bit of a scare on the final play when he took Jay's liner off his right forearm, near his elbow; his throw to first was awkward. Postgame x-rays proved negative, though his availability for Monday's game is in doubt.

During the regular season, the Brewers scored 4.80 runs per game at home on .277/.344/.461 hitting en route to a 57-24 record, tied for 13th in the post-1960 expansion era. On Sunday, they showed their typical Miller Park punch, as eight of the team's 11 hits went for extra bases, including the two on consecutive pitches in the fifth—three, if you count Hairston's double in that sequence. Every starter save for Gomez reached base at least twice.

That onslaught helped the team preserve its amazing streak of winning every single one of Greinke's home starts this year, 15 during the regular season, plus one in the Division Series. While Greinke pitched to a 3.13 ERA at home during the regular season, he's been roughed up for 10 runs in 11 innings during the postseason; the streak has remained alive only because he's been backed by 18 runs in his two starts. Furthermore, it must rate as some concern that through six post-season games, Yovani Gallardo is the only Brewers' starter to deliver a quality start, with Greinke, Shaun Marcum (on tap to start Monday's Game Two), and Randy Wolf combining for an 11.57 ERA thus far this postseason. Braun (.500/.577/1.000), Fielder (.286/.423/.667), and company can only carry that performance so far, and will only get so many chances to turn the game on two pitches before a certain Genius wises up.

As for the Cardinals, both the six runs they scored and the nine they surrendered were their highest totals since Game One of the Division Series; they had scored just eight runs while allowing six over their past three games. Pujols (.333/.409/.458) has yet to homer this postseason, though he's been productive. That Berkman and Holliday both collected two hits after combining to go 5-for-27 against Philadelphia rates as good news despite the loss, as does the continued punch of Freese and the fact that this was just the second game of the playoffs in which Furcal reached base more than once.

 The Cardinals are down in this series, but in sending Edwin Jackson to the mound to face Marcum, they've got the hotter hand. Including his Division Series start, Jackson has put up quality starts in six of his last seven turns while allowing just one homer in 45 2/3 innings. Marcum, in addition to getting bombed in the Division Series, has delivered just one quality start out of his last five, while surrendering six homers in 29 innings. Perhaps the Brewers should push for MLB to close the Miller Park roof closed on Monday.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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