Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cardinals beat the odds to become champions

BY David Villavicencio 

Boy, was I wrong.

After Game 5, I wrote that the series was essentially over. The Rangers had a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6. The Cardinals would have to win two straight games to come away as champions and Texas had not lost consecutive games since August.

Texas seemed to have all the momentum and luck on their side but the Cardinals kept fighting. Their resilience paid off as the Cardinals’ improbable postseason run culminated in a 6-2 Game 7 win over the Rangers to give the club its 11th championship in franchise history.

Last night’s game was the clincher but getting there seemed almost impossible.

The Cardinals and Rangers were tied at 4 heading to the seventh inning of Game 6. St. Louis had mustered just three hits to that point but still managed to stay in the game.

Then Texas got hot.

The Rangers opened the top of the seventh with back-to-back homers from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. Ultimately, Texas would score three runs in the seventh and the feeling everywhere was that the Rangers would win their first championship.

But the Cardinals had other plans.

Down to their final strike on two separate occasions in Game 6, the Cardinals delivered a key hit to even the score and stay alive.

”Sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can’t let it get away because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “If there’s one thing that happened in this World Series that I’ll look back on is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story.”

For as much as I tore into Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after Game 5, I have to give him credit for instilling this resilient attitude in his team.

”It was overwhelming,” La Russa said. “We were on the edge game after game after game. You might lose one, but as it got closer, elimination games, the character on this club is off the charts. And we are more talented I think than some people realize, especially as we got healthy. But you play with that urgency, it’s a little scary at times and it takes a lot out of you, but it’s really fun to compete that way.”

Plenty of clubs would have given up after making three errors and putting themselves in a hole but the Cardinals persevered and it paid off. World Series MVP David Freese clubbed an 11th inning walk off homer to even the series at 3 and force a decisive Game 7.
Freese's bat was too much for Texas

The 28-year-old St. Louis native was the Cardinals postseason hero. Freese set a record with 21 RBI in a single postseason. His two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning of Game 6 gave the Cardinals life. His solo homer to lead off the 11th might have been the dagger that killed the Rangers.

”We all know we lost the Series yesterday,” Beltre said of Game 6. “We shouldn’t have let it slip away. We came back today to try to win it, but the momentum just took them and they won it. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Heading into last night’s game, the Cardinals seemed destined to win the series. Their Game 6 heroics made a Rangers victory in Game 7 almost unfathomable.

But Texas showed their ability to spoil the fairytale ending when their potent lineup scored two runs in the first inning before a stunned Busch Stadium crowd.
But that would be the last of the Rangers’ postseason magic as Freese’s hot bat came through again, tying the game with a two-run double in the first.

Carpenter has never lost a World Series start
Texas starter Matt Harrison would last just four innings, allowing three runs, while Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter settled in to pitch six strong innings and earn his ninth career postseason win.

La Russa, whose mismanagement of the bullpen in Game 5 made headlines, was masterful with his relievers on Friday. Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte were brilliant, holding the Rangers hitless over the final three innings to seal the win.

The Cardinals did what few thought they could.

The doubts started in Spring Training when Adam Wainwright tore up his elbow. The 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up would need Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. Immediately, the Cardinals went from pre-season contender to afterthought.

“[Losing Wainwright] was a bad hit in Spring Training, and Tony was great,” Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt, Jr. said. “He said it’s not fair, but we’re not going to give up. This is a good club and we’ve got a shot. We’ll just do everything we can to win with what we’ve got.”

It got worse once the season started as All-Star closer Ryan Franklin imploded. The typically effective veteran reliever was blowing save after save. Franklin lost his closer role in April and eventually his job.

Then there was Albert Pujols’ uncharacteristic start to the season. The best player in the game hit just .245 in the first month of the season and dealt with injuries throughout the year. In June, he broke his left wrist on a tag play at first and appeared to be looking at a long stay on the Disabled List. But The Machine missed just two weeks when most players would have missed six.

Finally, the Cardinals faced an uphill battle to even make the postseason. On August 24, the team was 10½ games behind the NL Wild Card leading Braves. They had just been swept by the Dodgers and the season seemed lost but the Cardinals continued to fight and pulled off a minor miracle.

St. Louis went 23-9 the rest of the way and snuck into the postseason when the Braves completed their catastrophic collapse with a 4-3 loss to the Phillies on the final day of the regular season.

”We had a 5 percent chance (to reach the playoffs) with 35 games left in the season,” Pujols said. “We knew we had to play great. The first five months of the season were pretty bad. But it doesn’t matter. We’re world champions.”

The Cardinals would face a loaded Phillies team in the first round and were considered major underdogs. Philadelphia sported a starting rotation filled with aces while the Cardinals were running on fumes. But St. Louis silenced the doubters and advanced to the NLCS thanks to a complete game shutout from Carpenter in a decisive Game 5.

Next came the division rival Brewers. The two teams went 9-9 against one another in the regular season but a lot of experts had the Brew Crew ticketed for their first trip to the World Series since 1982. But Freese and his teammates mashed their way past the Brewers and into the World Series after six games.

The final obstacle was the Rangers. They matched up well with the Cardinals. Both teams had potent offenses and suspect pitching staffs. Many expected a series that tilted towards the offense but the teams combined to score just eight runs over the first two games.
Pujols hit just .240 for the series but came up big in Game 3

The slugfest finally came in Game 3 as Albert Pujols joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to homer three times in a World Series game. The Cardinals’s 16-7 victory gave them a 2-1 series lead and a chance to clinch their championship in Game 5.

But Rangers’ lefty Derek Holland made sure the Cards wouldn’t be able to celebrate their championship on his team’s field. The 25-year-old was nearly flawless as he silenced the Cardinals bats in Game 4. Holland allowed just two hits over 8 1/3 shutout innings to help Texas even the series at 2.

Then came the disaster that was Game 5. The Cardinals seemed to fall apart in what many had pegged as a crucial game. Mike Napoli, who was the Rangers’ version of Freese this postseason, delivered a game-winning two-run double in the eighth that put his team one victory away from their goal.

Rain forced Game 6 to be pushed back a day and the postponement benefitted the Cardinals a bit. Not only did it force the Rangers to keep their champagne on ice a little bit longer, but it slowed some of the momentum Texas had heading into Game 6 and made Carpenter available on three days rest should the Redbirds force a Game 7.

We all know what happened after that as Freese, Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Pujols, Carpenter and the rest of the Cardinals did the improbable. They overcame their biggest obstacle, beating Texas on consecutive nights to become world champions. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

La Russa outthinks himself as Cardinals drop Game 5

BY David Villavicencio 

Tony La Russa has won a World Series in each league. He has the second-most victories in managerial history, won Manager of the Year four times and is considered by many to be a baseball genius.

He also just cost the Cardinals their 11th World Series title in franchise history.

Sure, the Cardinals stranded 12 runners on Monday night.

Yes, they did fail to get a big hit in multiple key situations.

Of course, the Rangers deserve some credit for executing in big moments.

But I am putting this disastrous loss squarely on the shoulders of the man making the decisions in the Cardinals dugout.

I am sure many of you reading this are saying, “Anyone can second-guess and look smart.” This is not second-guessing. I can’t prove it but I was predicting all these failures as he was making the moves, some of them even before he actually called for them.

Where do I begin?

How about the disgusting collapse in the eighth?

La Russa pulls starter Chris Carpenter to open the inning in favor of Octavio Dotel. The game is tied at 2 and La Russa is going to one of his better relievers.

Nothing wrong with that.

Carpenter pitched seven solid innings and deserved a better fate but his offense could not come up with the big hit to extend their lead. Dotel is devastating against right-handed hitters and the Rangers had Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz due up in the eighth.

The move makes all the sense in the world.

Young shocks everyone by opening the inning with a double off Dotel. Yes, he is a good player but it was still a surprise as righties have hit just .154 against Dotel on the year.

Next up is Beltre, the man who crushed the game-tying homer off Carpenter in the sixth. Dotel strikes him out on three pitches. One out, man on second.

Now is where Tony and I begin to disagree.

Cruz is up with the go-ahead run on second. Tony decides to intentionally walk Cruz, who struck out 116 times this season.

Never mind that Dotel absolutely kills right-handed hitters. Don’t worry that he felt Dotel was clearly capable of retiring Beltre just minutes before.

Clearly, Cruz needs to be walked to set up the double play and bring up lefty David Murphy. After all, La Russa has lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski ready to go in the bullpen.

La Russa, who is all about the match-ups, was throwing away his best match-up for a situation that could have led Rangers manager Ron Washington to go to his bench. Wash could have brought in right-handed hitting Craig Gentry to face the lefty, thus rendering La Russa’s lefty-lefty pitching change useless.

But Washington sticks with Murphy and the Rangers catch a break as he hits a ball off Rzepczynski that leaves the bases loaded for Mike Napoli.

TLR doing his favorite sign, "New pitcher, please"
Now the master of specialization and king of pitching changes decided to ignore playing the matchups he so dearly adores and sticks with Rzepczynski against the lefty-killing Napoli.

Are you baffled yet? I know I am!

Of course, Napoli rips a two-run double that ultimately leads to the Rangers 4-2 victory. But La Russa’s managerial blunders are not done yet. Not by a long shot.

Rzepczynski strikes out lefty Mitch Moreland to record the second out. Is anyone sensing a pattern here? The lefty specialist is retiring left-handed hitters while right-handers are crushing balls into the gaps. Never mind that though. Must be beneath a genius like La Russa to see it.

Back to the action!

La Russa goes back to his bullpen as right-handed hitting second baseman Ian Kinsler heads to the plate with two outs and a runner on second. Tony signals for hard-throwing rookie Lance Lynn to enter the game from the bullpen to face the dangerous Kinsler.

Some may have gone to Jason Motte in that spot but La Russa went with Lynn. No big deal. Maybe he was saving Motte in case the Cardinals tied it in the ninth? Maybe he felt Lynn could handle Kinsler and pitch the ninth as well in case the Cardinals made up the deficit but did not surpass it.

Apparently La Russa went with door number 3 and here is where my blood pressure starts rising again. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina stands up and calls for an intentional walk. Few things drive me crazy more than changing pitchers and immediately issuing an intentional walk.

Why not have the departing pitcher walk the guy so the new pitcher can come in and hopefully pound the strike zone? Guess decisions like that are left to the geniuses like La Russa. I can’t possibly be competent enough to see the benefits of having the new guy walk the hitter instead of the old guy. But I digress.

So Kinsler is walked and Elvis Andrus is coming up. Lynn is on the mound with a force out set up and a ground ball hitter at the plate.

The kid is a talented rookie pitching in a big spot and the Cardinals… wait a minute, what? Why is La Russa walking out to the mound? Must be going out to give some words of encouragement to the kid as he is set to pitch to the most important batter of his career.

Did he just ask for the ball? Holy crap, he’s pulling him! Tony La Russa just brought in a pitcher to issue an intentional walk and he is removing him from the game in favor of someone else!

My disgust has now multiplied exponentially and I am doing everything in my power to not go nuts in front of the family members and guest watching the game with me at my house.

Jason Motte came in and struck out Andrus to end the inning but that is not the point. How can anyone justify the move La Russa made?

He claims it was “too loud” and the bullpen heard “Lynn” instead of “Motte” over the phone because clearly those two names sound so similar. I think Tony just loves to change pitchers and he couldn’t help himself. Why use three pitchers to complete an inning when you can use four!

But La Russa’s managerial mishaps did not end there. Sure, he made plenty of questionable decisions throughout the game. I just outlined what felt like 40 of them in the eighth inning alone but things continued in the top of the ninth.

The Cardinals caught a break when Rangers closer Neftali Feliz hit Allen Craig with a 1-2 breaking ball. That brought the tying run to the plate in Albert Pujols. This is the same player who crushed three homers two nights ago and is widely considered the best in the game. There is no one better for the Cardinals to have up than Albert.

Pujols works a full count and Tony gets that itch inside him that drives him to needlessly tinker.

On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Pujols fouls off a pitch to stay alive but something interesting happened. Craig, who had been thrown out by about 87 feet earlier in the game, was on the move. I immediately turned to my dad and said something like “why would he be running? That run is meaningless.”

It was probably to avoid the double play but this is Albert Pujols at the plate. Almost everything he hits is a rocket that would be tough to field unless it is hit right at someone. I think you take your chances that Albert finds a hole somewhere as your defense of a potential double play instead of starting a runner who is not the swiftest but that’s just my opinion.

Here comes pitch number seven of the at-bat. Again Pujols fouls it off and again Craig was running. Now I am really starting to get angry at this ridiculous decision by La Russa and say something about how that move is going to cost them.

Sure enough, Pujols swings through the next pitch and Craig is gunned down by about 17 football fields at second. That, my friends, is your World Series.

The momentum swung completely back in the Rangers’ favor as the biggest threat was eliminated and they were two outs away from a 3-2 series lead.

Matt Holliday worked a walk to give the Cardinals a glimmer of hope but Feliz squashed it quickly as he struck out Lance Berkman on five pitches to seal the victory.

The Cardinals head back to St. Louis to play Game 6 on Tuesday. If they should manage to win that game, they will play in a decisive Game 7 the next night. Anything can happen in a Game 7 but I am telling you what will happen if it gets to that point.

The Rangers will win.

How do I know this?

Because they have not lost consecutive games since they lost three in a row from August 23-25. I also know this because the Cardinals are scheduled to start Kyle Lohse in that game and he hasn’t been able to get anybody out lately.

But mostly, I know the Rangers will win because La Russa will continue to do everything he can to show off how brilliant he is. He will double-switch and play the matchups with his bullpen but only when he feels like it. He will continue to trot out automatic outs like Nick Punto when his team needs to score runs against a team that can outslug anyone. And lastly, he will find a way to snatch the 11th World Series title in franchise history away from the Cardinals and instead hand the Rangers their first ever World Championship.

Thanks, Tony.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baseball Goes Beyond the Diamond

BY David Villavicencio
October 19, 1986 is not a historic day in baseball history.

The Red Sox clobbered Dwight Gooden and the Mets that night. Boston beat New York, 9-3, to take a 2-0 lead in the World Series that the Mets would eventually come back to win in seven games.

But this post is not about Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson or anyone who actually played in that World Series. This is about how that World Series was literally the beginning of my love affair with the game of baseball.

Game 2 of the 1986 World Series started at 8:30 PM in New York and all eyes were on Shea Stadium that night. Roger Clemens and Gooden squared off in a battle of young aces that ended up a slugfest.

Regardless of the result, the anticipation heading into the game was great and baseball fans everywhere found a way to tune in. For Osvaldo Villavicencio, it meant watching from a hospital delivery room as his wife, Omaira, was about to give birth to their first child.

As excited as my dad was to meet me, he was just as excited about the World Series.
From what I have been told, he was as passionate about the game then as he is now and he hated the Mets because of their division rivalry with his beloved Cardinals.

My parents have told me that he spent most of the night running in and out of the delivery room to check the score or watch a couple of pitches. He was even updating my mom’s doctor on what was going in the game.

Three hours and thirty-six minutes after Game 2 began, it was all over and the Red Sox had won. About 15 minutes later, my dad knew his first child was also going to be his first son. 

My mom had given birth to me at about 12:20 AM on October 20, literally minutes after the conclusion of a World Series game. From the very beginning, baseball was a part of my life. It even was involved in my birth and I take that as a sign that I was destined to be connected to this game that I am so passionate about.

A huge part of that passion came because of my dad. He is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. My dad is knowledgeable and passionate about baseball. He passed that knowledge and passion on to his son from the very beginning.

I can still remember him buying me my first baseball set. Of course, it was Cardinal red. I still have the wood bat with the Cardinals logo, along with my first pair of Cardinals shoes and my first Cardinals hat. I wish I still had my Cardinal red glove!

I will never forget playing catch in the yard and going to Marlins games with him as a young boy. I will always remember sitting next to him at the 1997 World Series games and travelling all over the country to watch games in different ballparks.

I will also never forget the trip we took together to St. Louis in 2006. It was our first time ever seeing the Cardinals in their home stadium. I have to thank my mom for that trip because it was her idea and it was one of the best three days of my life. I hope to share something special like that with my son one day.

My Dad and I at Busch Stadium in 2006
We do not get to watch games together as much as we used to. Over the past three years, I have been watching from the press box while he is in the stands or watching at home. But we sit together and watch whenever we can, like we did Wednesday night. It was just like when I was a kid again. He was in a seat and I was next to him. When the Cardinals finished off the Game 1 win, we hugged and high-fived. It was perfect. Father and son sharing another special moment thanks to baseball.

So as I write this exactly 25 years after Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley retired Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez to clinch a Game 2 win, I want to say thank you to my mom for allowing my dad to watch the game that night and for embracing how my dad and I have bonded so much over a game we both love.

I also want to thank my dad for taking the time to introduce me to the game. Without him, I would have never developed a love for baseball and sports in general. Because of baseball, we have built a special bond that we will share forever. 

Lastly, I want to thank all of you for reading my work. You make it possible for me to do something I love and I appreciate your support.

Who ever would have thought that a random World Series game 25 years ago would have made such a profound impact on a person’s life?

I am certainly glad that it did.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Potential Marlins playing in World Series

BY David Villavicencio 

Shortly after the World Series starts tonight, Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols will step into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning to face Rangers ace C.J. Wilson.

Rangers fans will be hoping for an out while Cardinals fans will be looking for a big hit. But what will Marlins fans be looking at? Possibly future teammates.

The Marlins are expected to be major players in free agency this off-season and Pujols and Wilson figure to be two of their main targets.

Could Pujols be a Miami Marlin?
Baseball sources have told me the Marlins are very interested in the 31-year-old Pujols and will be heavily involved in the bidding for his services.

The Marlins currently have Gaby Sanchez at first base. Sanchez is coming off an All-Star season and played hurt for most of the year. He will likely continue to improve as he heads into his third full season in the big leagues.

Even with a solid player like Sanchez on the roster, it’s hard to blame the Marlins for being interested in a player like Pujols. The all-everything slugger is the best player in baseball today and instantly vaults their team into relevancy.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria wants to make a big splash as his team moves into their new ballpark next season and no splash would be bigger than the one created by luring a gargantuan free agent like Pujols.

Wilson could strengthen rotation
Wilson is not as big a name as Pujols but he will be the best free agent pitcher not named C.C. Sabathia this winter. The fact that he is left-handed makes him even more appealing to the right-hander heavy Marlins.

While Wilson is not a true ace, he has earned consecutive All-Star selections and would be an excellent number two starter behind Josh Johnson.  

Signing Wilson will not be easy or cheap. The pitching market is barren and Wilson is expected to garner a lot of attention when he hits free agency in a few weeks. The Marlins figure to be one of the teams showing interest.