2012 MLB Playoffs Recap, Analysis: Cardinals-Nationals Game 5, Orioles-Yankees Game 5
The Division Series round for 2012 ends with a pair of memorable games.
A shockingly below-average result for this game, if you forget the caveats of the WPS system. What it purports to measure is excitement, and what this game had, especially early on, was not excitement. It was tension. Stomach-churning tension. Head-pounding tension. Intestines in a knot that would break a Boy Scout's spirit.
For the first half of the game, Jason Hammel and CC Sabathia were invulnerable. Virtually no threats developed, and the WPS needle barely moved. Then, in a deciding game where something had to give, Hammel gave in the fifth. Mark Teixeira singled, stole second when no Oriole expected him to try (the best time to do so), and came around on a hit by the newest Yankee immortal, Raul Ibanez.
(Note, though, that Ibanez will not necessarily be immortal for long. Yankees heroics require one of two circumstances to gain true immortality. Either you win the World Series at the end, or you beat Boston. The official bronzing will have to wait at least a couple weeks.)
Nate McLouth almost got the run back in the sixth, but his long fly just missed the right-field foul pole. One replay showed that maybe it ticked the pole, but nothing certain, and video review requires something definitive. The umpiring crew got it right. Sabathia responded to the reprieve with two shutdown innings, as his teammates added singletons in the sixth and seventh, and the coiled spring began to unwind.
Then it was Sabathia's turn to give. Three hits and a walk, including self-inflicted damage on a fielder's choice, put a run across and loaded the bases with one down. Only once in the whole series had either team scored more than two runs in an inning, but Baltimore was poised to break that barrier and either pull even or surge ahead. But Sabathia bore down, getting a strikeout and a grounder to end the eighth. He cruised through the ninth, notching the complete-game win and sending the Yankees forward to face the Tigers.
The win meant Joe Girardi will avoid second-guessing for leaving Alex Rodriguez out of the lineup for the deciding game of the ALDS. It was the most controversial playoff benching perhaps since 1977, when Billy Martin sat Reggie Jackson to start Game Five of the ALCS against Kansas City. It worked for Martin, too: Reggie ended up with an important pinch hit, and his replacement, Paul Blair, scored the tying run in the ninth-inning rally that won the series for New York.
Reggie, of course, would go on to etch his name in the record books and the collective consciousness of baseball fans in the following postseason series. Girardi can only hope A-Rod follows that precedent.
New York stays right where it is, the Detroit Tigers arriving in the Bronx to face them tonight in the start of the American League Championship Series.
Even with a sub-par WPS score for the last game, this was a special series. It edges the 1995 Braves-Rockies NLDS by a fraction to come in as the third-most exciting Division Series of all time (out of 76). It would have taken an extraordinary Game Five, something even better than Games Three and Four, to reach second place (the 2003 Boston-Oakland ALDS).
History was repeating itself, until history repeated itself.
This NLDS clincher was proceeding the way yesterday's had for San Francisco: a 6-0 lead, deflating the potential for excitement, followed by the opponents chipping away and chipping away. The Giants held off the Reds' final charge to win that series, and when the Nationals touched Jason Motte for an insurance run in the last of the eighth to move ahead 7-5, it looked like Washington would do likewise.
But in the wake of what happened next, one falls back on cliches like this: St. Louis proved itself a team that is not dead until the final out. They proved that last year and did so again for whatever poor souls missed Game Six of the 2011 World Series.
In the course of climbing out of a six-run hole, St. Louis got the go-ahead run to the plate in the fifth and the seventh before being turned back. The tying run reached the batter's box three times in the eighth but never got aboard. Then came the ninth.
Once again, the Cardinals found themselves one strike away from elimination with David Freese at the plate. This time, he drew a walk to load the bases and push the tying run to second. It fell instead to Daniel Descalso to drive the game-tying grounder up the middle. Descalso would then steal second on something close to defensive indifference. Washington should not have been so indifferent: Pete Kozma's liner to right scored two runs instead of one, making their path to a comeback all the steeper.
They could not climb it. Bryce Harper had broken his strep-related slump early with a triple and a home run, but he looked like an over-eager teenager striking out on a pitch far above the strike zone for the second out of the final frame. Ryan Zimmerman's pop-up finished the limp 1-2-3 response, and St. Louis extended itself to 6-0 in their last six elimination games. Just like the deficit they overcame against Washington.
The recriminations surely have begun already in Washington—it's a city well used to them. Nats fans may call it the Curse of Mike Rizzo (the GM who shut down Stephen Strasburg), or they may just curse Mike Rizzo. Or maybe they'll blame it on Teddy Roosevelt and replace him in the Presidential races with Millard Fillmore next year.
The St. Louis Cardinals could not care less. They are on their way to San Francisco to begin their NLCS with the Giants on Sunday night.
Congratulations to the Yankees and Cardinals, and keep watching this space. The playoffs aren't taking a day off, and neither is WPS Recap.
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