In the brief interludes between arguing whether the Cardinals do indeed have “the best fans in baseball” and if they should or should not be offended by Yasiel Puig, a popular discussion topic on social media has centered on St. Louis’ so-called “Cardinals Devil Magic,” i.e., the sense that everything always seems to go the Cardinals’ way in October.
Setting aside the obvious fact that it didn’t help them out much last year when they frittered away a 3-1 NLCS lead to San Francisco, you can understand why, really. The Cardinals are in their ninth NLCS since 1996 and are just a single game away from their fourth World Series in ten seasons, but they’re not really outplaying the Dodgers. Los Angeles has outhit the Cardinals in each of the four games of the series, and held them to just a .134/.190/.175 line through three games; cumulatively, the Cardinals have outscored the Dodgers by just a single run, 8-7. But it’s the Cardinals who are up three games to one, and the Dodgers who find themselves in a desperate position in Wednesday’s Game 5.
The Cardinals are on the verge of winning this series because they’re deeper, they’re healthier, and they’re making fewer mistakes. Sure, they’ve had a few balls bounce their way, but as we saw in Game 3, the Dodgers have had their share as well (thanks in large part to Jon Jay). This has been an incredibly close series fought by two evenly-matched teams, and it’s not hard at all to see a scenario where the NLCS might otherwise be tied or even tilted in the favor of Los Angeles.
Just look at all the little things from each victory that add up to a series lead:
Game 1: Andre Ethier fails to come down with an admittedly tough ball at the wall in center that allows the tying runs to score. Joe Kelly hits Hanley Ramirez in the ribs, causing a fracture, and while few think it was intentional, Ramirez missed Game 2 and came out early in Game 4 after striking out three times. Don Mattingly inexplicably lifts Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning, then refuses to use Kenley Jansen until it was too late. Michael Young had only two plate appearances, yet still had the sixth-worst WPA playoff game ever. Carlos Beltran nails Mark Ellis with a perfect throw to the plate in the tenth inning, denying a possible go-ahead run.
Game 2: Rookie Michael Wacha matches future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. A.J. Ellis‘ passed ball plays a big part in the only run of the game scoring, but so does Carl Crawford not being able to come anywhere near the plate with his throw on the sacrifice fly. Wacha and four relievers combine to strike out Puig all four times he’s up, while neither Ethier nor Ramirez start.
Game 4: Light-hitting outfielder Shane Robinson (!) hits a pinch-hit homer, his first hit in 12 career postseason plate appearances. Veteran Nick Punto makes a rookie mistake for the Dodgers, getting picked off second just after doubling in the seventh. Carlos Martinez, who had a 5.08 ERA in the regular season, pumps in 13 of his pitches at 97 or higher while easily getting through two innings of relief. David Freese leaves with an injury, just in time for Daniel Descalso to slide to third and the defensively-superior Pete Kozma to turn this double play…
…one of three the Cardinals turned on the night, including getting Puig to kill a possible rally in the ninth after Ethier reached. In the four games, St. Louis has seven double plays.
Cardinals magic is being able to replace your closer 97% of the way through the season with a far-more-dominant one in Trevor Rosenthal. It’s losing Allen Craig and having Matt Adams available to step right in. It’s the ability to take one of the 30 or so best starters in the league, Shelby Miller, simply bury him due to perceived fatigue, and not suffer much of a drop-off at all. It’s keeping Puig at bay, bat-flip triples aside, and completely disarming Juan Uribe, who had hurt the Braves so much in the NLDS.
It’s having a guy like Kelly who succeeds despite all evidence saying that he shouldn’t; it’s having being able to add guys like Wacha mid-season. It’s being fortunate enough to face a team that has a hobbled Ramirez and Ethier and no Matt Kemp at all, though it’s fair to remember that the Cardinals are without Craig and Jason Motte and Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia themselves.
The Cardinals aren’t perfect, of course, because we’ve seen them make mistakes too. (Other than Jay, I’m looking at Descalso getting doubled off second by Crawford.) But unlike the Dodgers, they’ve largely contained them to one game, and their endless supply of pitching talent has more than made up for any mistakes their manager might have made and the lack of damage their own offense has done against good Dodger pitching.
It’s not magic, and it’s not whatever the “Midwestern good guys against rich Hollywood types” narrative has been floating around. It’s simply a good, deep team that’s done just tiny bit more than another good, deep team, and it’s got them on the verge of going to the World Series.
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