It was only yesterday that many among us saw the St. Louis Cardinals as The Perfect Postseason Team. The Redbirds never got rattled, went the party line. (And there was, we concede, reason for such reasoning.) They knew how to manufacture runs. They’d be down to their last strike and still Find A Way To Win.
This just in: The Perfect Postseason Team lost.
Ahead 3-1 in the NLCS, the Cardinals were outscored 20-1 over the final 27 innings. Of the 35 runs the Giants scored in the series, 10 were unearned. The team that overcame staggering odds to beat Texas in the 2011 World Series and the Nationals in the NLDS had three chances to close out the unassuming Giants and didn’t come close in any of them. Yes, there was one massive fluke — the Game 7 double struck by Hunter Pence that actually was struck by Pence’s breaking bat three times! — but that only proves the greater point. Which is:
Even the Perfect Postseason Team isn’t immune to the vagaries of postseason baseball.
Pardon me for belaboring this point to Tim McCarver lengths, but postseason baseball defies handicapping. We need only look at these playoffs: Both wild-card games were won by the team with the lesser record; three of the four Division Series were won by the team with the lesser record, and one of the two League Championship Series was won by the team with the lesser record. Only in the Yankees-Orioles series and the Giants-Cardinals series did the team that had been better over 162 games prevail, and both times the series went the distance before a winner could be determined.
Credit Jayson Stark of ESPN for picking the Giants and Tigers to reach the World Series, but even Mr. Stark would surely concede that his prescience was more hunch than conviction.(Fun facts: Of 29 surveyed ESPN analysts, only three — Jim Caple and Michael Knisley were the others — tabbed the correct Series participants, and not one of the 29 hit the correct final four.)
For the Giants and Tigers to make it, two teams of seeming destiny had to collapse so utterly as to leave you breathless. The Cardinals had rallied from six runs down in Game 5 to beat the Nationals and stood one game from a second consecutive NL title … and then they were routed by an opponent that had lost its fearsome closer (Brian Wilson) in April, lost its All-Star Game MVP (Melky Cabrera) to steroid suspension in August and seen its presumptive best pitcher (Tim Lincecum) have such a lousy season he was reduced to spot starting and long relief in these playoffs.
As for the Tigers: They have a lot of what you’d like in a playoff team, meaning power pitching and power hitting, but they have a terrible bullpen, and that’s a flaw generally seen as an October disqualifier. Sure enough, the Detroit closer Jose Valverde faltered in the ninth inning of ALCS Game 1, yielding two-run homers to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. At that moment, you had to be saying to yourself: “No way these Yankees lose — they know how to win pressure games!”
Except that particular Perfect Postseason Team lost Game 1 in 12 innings and mustered a grand total of two runs the rest of the series. Derek Jeter broke his ankle and Alex Rodriguez got benched and the empire collapsed in a pile of pinstripes. And now the Tigers, who mustered the seventh-best record in the 14-team American League, have reached the Fall Classic and been installed as heavy favorites. Which probably means they won’t win.
After all, Detroit will face yet another Perfect Playoff Team. The Giants trailed Cincinnati 2-0 in the Division Series and won three games on the road to advance. They trailed St. Louis 3-1 and won breezing. They’re 6-0 in elimination games this October, which means they’re the new Cardinals. Which means the Giants probably won’t win, either.
I know, I know. There are only two teams left. One of them has to win, right? But that’s the thing about postseason baseball: Whatever seems to be true almost never is. Me, I figure Game 7 will go to extra innings and the rains will descend and the genius Bud Selig will intercede and declare the whole thing a tie.
By Mark Bradley