Saturday, October 11, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again: The St. Louis Cardinals, The San Francisco Giants, and the Slow-Burning Will of the Old Guard

To date, the 2010's have been defined by two teams in the National League- the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. Since the Giants won it all in 2010, the two teams have alternated winning the senior circuit's crown, with the Cardinals taking the odd-numbered years. For the fifth straight year, either St. Louis or San Francisco will make the World Series. In the American League, the matchup is a pair of teams stretching far beyond their expectation. Quite the contrary in the NLCS. Despite the Giants qualifying as the National League's second wild card team, and the Cardinals finishing with the worst record of the division winners, these teams are built for postseason success. There is not a soul who can say they are truly surprised by the matchup we are given, but the manner in which they got here cannot be overlooked.

The Giants and Cardinals are strange. It is as if they want you to believe for most of the season that they have no plans to compete for a championship, then magically appear late in October. For San Francisco, its a rhythmic jaunt from year to year. In 2011, season after winning the World Series, the Giants finished eight games behind Los Angeles in the West Division and four back of St. Louis for the Wild Card. This was the final year without a Wild Card game, but the Giants would not have qualified for that either. Two years later, fresh off of their second title, San Francisco finished sixteen games back of Los Angeles. Now, almost as if it was planned this way, the Giants are back with a chance at their third World Series in five years. Many of the team's core players are still around from that first run. Madison Bumgarner has fully established himself as a top-flight, big-game pitcher. Matt Cain, the incumbent ace of the Giants' staff, was lost to season-ending elbow surgery. Still, the team managed to creep into the postseason, winning the National League Wild Card Game decisively over Pittsburgh. Their next test would come at the hands of the team with the National League's best record, the Washington Nationals.

Much like what Baltimore dealt with in their series with Detroit, San Francisco had to face a series of ace-quality pitchers. In game one, it was Stephen Strasburg. The Giants were able to pin two runs on him, one apiece in the third and fourth innings. Once Strasburg was pulled from the game, San Francisco added another run, raising their advantage to three. Jake Peavy was solid for the Giants, allowing only two hits in just under six full innings. At one point in 2014, Peavy had gone seventeen consecutive starts without a win. In the seventh, Bryce Harper hit a colossal solo home run to right field. Two batters later, Asdrubal Cabrera matched him, drawing the Nationals within a run. The Giants would hold on, however, and take home field advantage from the National League's best team. The next day, the Nationals sent Jordan Zimmerman to the mound, fresh off of his no-hitter on the last night of the season. Zimmerman pitched a nearly flawless game, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth, up one run. The decision would prove costly, as San Francisco scored once, sending the game to extras. And on it rolled, to the eleventh, thirteenth, sixteenth, and on into the eighteenth inning. It would become the longest game in postseason history. Brandon Belt homered, putting the road club up headed to the bottom half. Washington would go down easy in the eighteenth, only mustering a walk. The underdog Giants had escaped Washington with two wins, heading home looking to sweep.

St. Louis began in a similar position with their series against the Dodgers. The first game was set up as a duel of Cy Young candidates, but it would turn out to be closer to a full-on shootout. Los Angeles hung six runs on Wainwright over four and one third innings. Not to be outdone, the Cardinals charged eight runs to all-world ace Clayton Kershaw. By the time the seventh inning was over, St. Louis had amassed an unthinkable ten runs. This of course should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched playoff baseball the last few years. The Cardinals just find ways to beat you. You can send out the man many regard as the best pitcher in baseball, and they will find a way to beat him. Los Angeles would tally three runs over the final two frames, but ultimately fall short, losing 10-9. In game two, the Dodgers put a quick two runs on an overturned umpire call and a subsequent single. Following the slight hiccup, Lance Lynn would hold the Dodgers down through the sixth inning. In the eighth, budding superstar Matt carpenter homered to center field, scoring Oscar Taveras in the process, tying the game. In the bottom half, Matt Kemp answered with a solo shot to left, giving Dodgers' closer Kenley Jansen all the support he would need. Los Angeles tied the series, but they had lost home field advantage, and Busch Stadium in St. Louis is no easy place to win.

The Giants were at home, looking to outright destroy the Nationals' hopes. Washington would have nothing of it in game three. Scoreless going into the seventh, the red-clad road club scored four times, culminating in another Bryce Harper home run, this time to right-center field. Offseason acquisition Doug Fister earned the win, pitching seven scoreless innnings. The only blemish to Washington's game, was a run scored on a Jayson Werth sacrifice fly ball. The Nationals had taken a game back, but their outlook was still rather dark. In game four, San Francisco plated two runs in the second inning, putting pressure on Washington starter Gio Gonzalez. Bryce Harper, days shy of twenty-two years of age, put his team on his back again, doubling in a run the fifth inning. Two frames later, he crushed his third home run of the series, to knot the game at two. Washington had a chance to force a game five on their home field, but it literally slipped away. Aaron Barrett hopped a one-out pitch short of home plate. The ball bounced away from catcher Wilson Ramos, allowing Giants second baseman Joe Panik to score on the wild pitch. The fleeting mistake would be fatal to the Nationals' season, as San Francisco would win by that tally, advancing to the National League Championship Series for the second time in three years.

In St. Louis, the Dodgers would put up a fight, but ultimately disappoint the preseason championship aspirations. The home run was the key weapon for the Cardinals in game three. Matt Carpenter blasted his third home run of the series to deep center field. Three innings later, Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu was pulled from the game, with Carpenter's home run being his only fault. In the sixth inning, Hanley Ramirez doubled in Yasiel Puig to tie the game, and Los Angeles looked alive again. In the bottom half of the next inning, St. Louis put it away. Kolten Wong, looking to rectify his rookie postseason mistakes last year, blasted a two run shot to center. The wild hometown crowd could sense a fourth straight NLCS going into game four. Clayton Kershaw was given the task of keeping the Dodgers' season alive. To do so, he would have to exercise the demons of his last two postseason starts. The Cardinals had Kershaw's number. Of this, there can be no doubt. In game four, that number was 32, the number worn on the back of Matt Adams. Leading off the seventh inning up two runs, Kershaw gave up back to back singles to Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta. That brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Adams. With one of the most dramatic moments of the postseason to date, Adams locked in on Kershaw's pitch and sent it what seemed to be a mile into the night sky. By the time it landed, the broad-shouldered Adams was bouncing around the basepaths like a kid. The mighty Clayton Kershaw hung his head. They had beaten him once again. The final score- 3-2. The St. Louis Cardinals were on their way to their fourth-straight National League Championship Series.

While the American League series is a match of rising stars on the postseason stage, the National League's title will be won by a member of the old guard. Year after year, the Cardinals find their way deep into October. The Giants have a pattern to maintain. Winning three World Series in five seasons would be an incredible feat, especially given their falterings in the in-between years. If this is any indication, the Giants may have the advantage historically. In theory, the Cardinals could only make the World Series in 2011 and 2013 when the Giants were nowhere to be found. In 2012, San Francisco rallied from down three games to one to vanquish St. Louis en-route to the title. If one thing can be absolutely certain, it is that this series will not lack drama or surprises, as those are the bread and butter of these two late-blooming ball clubs.

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