Game 5 of the NLCS did not go quite as planned for the St. Louis Cardinals, though that should not have been much of a surprise as the game unfolded. The Redbirds now head back to San Francisco to face the Giants in Game 6 Sunday evening.
Everything started off great for the Cardinals. They weren’t hitting much off Barry Zito, but Lance Lynn held the Giants without even one hit through three innings. But for some reason, this series has been largely defined by what happens in the fourth inning. Maybe the hitters are taking that long to settle in, or maybe the second time through the lineup these starters have been easier to figure out. Regardless, the fourth seems to be the flashpoint for weird stuff to happen. And for the Cards, it was a disaster that meant the game.
Lynn forced a comebacker that could have turned into an inning-ending double play. Instead, his throw was low and Pete Kozma was late getting to second base (the replay clearly showed Kozma hesitated momentarily, like the thought the play was going to first). Lynn yipped his throw, and it caromed off the bag. The Giants scored a run, and it turned out to be the only run they would need. But Lynn never recovered to finish off the inning, and the floodgates opened. By the time the top of the fourth was over, it was 4-0 Giants.
Missed plays in the playoffs seem to have exponentially more impact on the games—and often the series—in which they occur. The list is long and distinguished, from Ian Desmond’s miss in the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5 to Don Denkinger, Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and everything in between. The big difference is that last night’s gaffe came early in the game, and the Cardinals had more than ample opportunity to mount a comeback or even simply get on the board. They accomplished neither. And that’s what really cost them Game 5.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Cardinals had second and third with no one out and failed to score. After the debacle in the top of the fourth, Allen Craig led off with a double; again, they failed to score. They outhit the Giants 7-6, but could not push a run across. In fact, aside from Lynn’s meltdown inning, the Giants only collected two hits and plated one run. They were far from great Friday night. But the breaks went their way, most of the Cards’ hardest-hit balls were hit right at them, and now the series shifts back to the West Coast. It was the perfect storm, and this time the Cardinals were on the wrong end.
When the Cardinals win games this postseason, they do it in different ways: scoring early and often, getting stellar pitching, coming through dramatically when it matters most, etc. But when they lose, the formula is always the same: they cannot string hits together and they cannot score runs. The Cards have now lost four games in these playoffs, and in those four losses their run totals are 2, 1, 1, 0. It’s the same as it was all season, really. The bats in this pretty formidable lineup have a knack for going completely silent for an entire game.
So what does it all mean? Nothing, really. Because we’ve seen this before, as recently as Game 2 of this very series. The Cardinals have won the next game after each of the previous three power outages by scores of 12-4, 9-7, and 3-1. Despite the weirdness of the top of the fourth inning, despite having a chance to close out this series at home, and despite being unable to hit Barry Zito of all people, the Cards still look…well, normal, frankly. It’s easy to look at a three games to one lead on the surface and think, “Yes! Close it out! Nail the coffin shut! Giants are done!” But before this NLCS started, who would have honestly thought the Cardinals were that much better than the Giants to predict this thing would be over in five games?
Back to San Fran they go, where Chris Carpenter will face Ryan Vogelsong in Game 6 of the NLCS. When they squared off in Game 2, Carpenter was the victim of a weird four-run fourth inning full of yipped throws and missed calls on the basepaths, and Vogelsong dominated the Cards by allowing one run over seven innings. Sounds familiar, right? Just another day at the office for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants.