Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hunting Fastballs, Not Squirrels

If you happened to watch game 4 between the Phillies and Cardinals, you undoubtedly noticed how many times Bob Brenly — who I actually think has done a fine job calling this series — mentioned that the St. Louis hitters were "hunting fastballs" last night.

The Phillies began the game doing the exact same thing, attacking Edwin Jackson right out of the gate and not waiting around for him to unveil his slider. That strategy worked extremely well in the first inning, with Jimmy Rollins mashing a leadoff ground-rule double — with a little help from the sun and John Jay's lack of vision — that bounced off the warning track, Chase Utley ripping a triple down the line and Hunter Pence driving Chase home with an RBI single. Sadly, that was the end of the Phillies hunting fastballs.

Despite scoring those two runs on three hits to start the game, the offense essentially shut down after that. Ryan Howard and Pence combined for a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play to relieve the first-inning pressure, and the Phils stopped attacking balls in the strike zone after that. No one outside of Rollins and Utley took notice as to what Edwin Jackson was doing on the mound. Maybe they needed Joe Blanton out there.

To Jackson's credit, he adjusted by throwing more sliders to start hitters off, but it was almost as if the Phillies stopped looking for fastballs early in the count to hit. And that's been the case all series long actually. In game 3, Jaime Garcia was making a habit of throwing first-pitch fastballs, no harder than 89 mph, right down the middle of the plate to get ahead, yet time and time again, the Phillies were taking for strike one. It took a pinch hitter in the 7th inning to finally attack on the first pitch, and it turned into the game-winning home run.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have been showing exactly why they were the top hitting club in the NL. In a lineup full of smart hitters, the Cardinals have been attacking any and all gimme fastballs early in the count, and then laying off the low pitches just waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake and elevate the ball. That's why they have so many hits in this series.

I don't think anyone would dispute that heading into the series the Phillies had the better team on paper, particularly with the starting rotation. Yes, St. Louis has a potent lineup, but the Phils have guys who can hit as well. But what has been the biggest difference is the Cardinals are playing smarter baseball all across the board — smarter at-bats, smarter in-game decisions, smarter plays in the field.

Just look at the at-bats put together by the Cards last night. If they saw a meatball, they went right after it. Roy Oswalt left some pitches up and over the plate, and they made him pay, just as they did with Roy Halladay in the first inning of the series, like they did the entire game against Cliff Lee, and like they did early in making Hamels earn every out he got in game 3.

They've been running the bases extremely well, like Matt Holliday of all people scoring from first on a double to left field. And they've been making the smart defensive plays, like somehow holding a runner on second on a grounder hit to the right side, and a guy like Albert Pujols wisely coming off the bag to nail Chase Utley at third.

Meanwhile, you have Roy Oswalt leading off an inning by walking the first batter and hitting the second before leaving a meatball out over the plate for David Freese, or hanging an 0-2 pitch to Matt Holliday for a hit instead of burying one in the dirt.

You have Chase Utley making an absolutely boneheaded, indefensible base-running gaff, one that took the air out of the balloon for a rally, though probably wouldn't have mattered given how god-awful Ryan Howard has been in his home town. And don't give me the bullshit line that Chase was just trying to make something happen on that play. It was stupid, infinitely more stupid when you consider Rafael Furcal has a gun at short, meaning the ball is getting to the first baseman very quickly, and that Albert Pujols easily has the best arm of any first baseman in the league, one so strong that Tony La Russa didn't hesitate to put him at third, the position he used to play back in the day, this year when David Freese was hurt. The chances of making it there are not very good. It was a dumb play, plain and simple, like the time Chase hurt himself trying to stretch a single into a double even though there was absolutely no chance he could. There's a difference between aggressive and stupid. Normally, Chase toes that line really well. Last night he did not.

Though it's hard to get on Chase too much, because even if he stayed at second, Pence would have been thrown out at first for out 1. Then Howard flew out for out two, and Victorino got out as well. Still, he would have been on second as the tying run in the 6th, with RBI-machine Howard up. It could have changed the complexion of the inning. Instead Chase killed a rally before it started.

Though to be fair, at least Utley is hitting the ball. He and Rollins have been the two guys consistently putting together quality at-bats and getting on base. It's the rest of the lineup that is killing them. Howard has two huge hits in this series, but that's it. Since coming to St. Louis, his hometown where he usually mashes, Howard has been invisible. Literally. The guy did not get a single hit or even reach base once in games 3 or 4, going a combined 0-for-8 with 5 strikeouts. That's not going to cut it if the Phillies expect to win.

And Howard has hardly been alone. Pence has gotten some hits, but he's yet to be close to the hitter he was closing out the regular season in the red pinstripes. The 7-8-9 hole has been just that, a black hole. Where the Cards have given the Phils problems at the bottom of the order, whether it be good at-bats by John Jay, soul-crushing hits by Ryan Theriot or last night David Freese mashing a double and the basically game-clinching home run for a 4-RBI night, the 7 and 8 hitters for St. Louis have been excellent. For the Phillies, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz haven't done shit. Polanco is so anemic at the plate right now that I wouldn't even mind seeing Wilson Valdez or Michael Martinez get a start, which speaks volumes considering those two can't hit for shit. And Ruiz, who finished the regular season with an impressive .283 batting average, has been anything but El Senor Octubre.

The good news is that the Phillies have their man on the mound tomorrow night, the guy they brought in exactly for this moment. It's hard to feel anything but confident with Roy Halladay taking the ball. Though it certainly won't be an easy task. The Cards have their ace on the hill as well, this time on full rest, and if it comes down to the bullpen, well, the Cardinals have had the advantage in the series to everyone's surprise. It may take a complete-game shutout by Doc to advance, and honestly, there's no one I'd rather have out there to do just that.

On a side note, what's up with the squirrels in St. Louis?

Seriously, someone tell those jerks to stay off the field.


  1. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have been showing exactly why they were the top hitting club in the NL. In a lineup full of smart hitters, the Cardinals have been attacking any and all gimme fastballs early in the count, and then laying off the low pitches just waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake and elevate the ball. That's why they have so many hits in this series.

    Now that's awesome analysis right there. Great stuff fam...should be an epic Game 5.


  2. Appreciate it ... and wish I didn't have to write that. Sunday is going to be excruciating to watch.