NLCS: Mets vs. Cardinals: Glavine Wins the Opener

Jeff Weaver may not have been the pitcher Tom Glavine was tonight, but he was pretty darn good. In fact, through 5.2 innings and 88 pitches, Weaver looked like he just might use the postseason berth to earn himself another $9 million contract: as it is, he certainly didn’t hurt his cause on this winter’s free-agent market. He wasn’t good enough, though, to avoid falling on the wrong side of a 2-0 Mets victory.

With Paul Lo Duca on first base, Weaver’s 89th pitch, down the middle of the plate to Carlos Beltran, gave the Mets all they needed to take a 1-0 NLCS lead. Looking back, Tony La Russa may be thinking he ought to have gone to his bullpen a bit sooner; in last Thursday’s NLDS game against the Padres, Weaver went exactly five innings, stopping before he reached even the 80-pitch mark. The middle of the Cards bullpen may be soft, but one has to imagine the St. Louis skipper will take his chances with a reliever if he gets another solid five innings from Weaver in Game 5.

As it turned out, the pitching hero of the game was Glavine. It wasn’t exactly business as usual: he only struck out two in seven innings, allowing fly balls to a startling 15 of the 25 batters he faced. Of course, it doesn’t hurt too much to allow a few extra fly balls in Shea Stadium, though Weaver, who only allowed 5 fly balls on the night, might disagree.

Against seven frames of Glavine and an inning each of Guillermo Mota and Billy Wagner, the Cardinals only managed eight base runners, four of them via the base on balls. Making matters worse, three of those walks were with two outs, two of those with no one on. A walk may well be as good as a hit, but a bases-empty, two-out walk to David Eckstein with Preston Wilson coming up? Eh, might as well not bother clogging the bases.

In fact, Mota’s two-out walk to Eckstein in the 8th (and, especially, the Wilson foul out that followed) may have been what sucked the last drop of life out of St. Louis. Albert Pujols is always a threat, but when he’s leading off the 9th inning, down by two runs, he’s only dangerous insofar as the batters behind him are, as well. When those batsmen are Juan Encarnacion and an ailing Scott Rolen … well, that’s not the stuff a Brad Lidge nightmare is made of. It’s far-fetched to think that the Eckstein walk was at all intentional, but in its way, it was more effective than anything else the Mets could have done to neutralize Prince Albert.

As usual, Pujols shows up among the top plays of the game (as measured by WPA), but not in the way he usually does. The biggest single event, of course, was Beltran’s 6th-inning, two-run home run, providing all of the offense for the game. After Lo Duca’s two-out single, the Mets had a 53.4% chance of winning the tie game. The blast added 29.5% to that, sending the Mets over 82% to stay.

The second and third biggest plays were inning-ending double plays that nullified mini-rallies in the Cardinals third and fourth innings. In the third, the Mets turned an easy double play with two on and Eckstein at the plate; in the fourth, Beltran caught an Encarnacion fly ball and picked Pujols off of first. The 3rd inning twin killing improved the Mets chances by 9.8%; the 4th inning two-fer was worth 6.3%. Games with only one run-scoring play don’t generate much in the way of WPA fireworks: Albert’s 6th inning line out with one down and Wilson on first cost the Cardinals 4.4% and ranked as the 5th biggest event of the ballgame.

In a pitcher’s duel, even one decided by a single blast, the largest contributions are those amassed over many plays. Glavine out-WPAd even Beltran, racking up a total of 35.4%: 42% on the mound against a negative 6.6% in his two plate plate appearances. Beltran didn’t contribute much beyond his HR (I didn’t credit him anything for the 4th-inning double play), so he comes in second at 25.9%, followed by Mota and Wagner at 7.2% and 7.1%, respectively. Every Cardinals relief pitcher made a positive contribution, but the team leader in WPA, and the only St. Louis hitter in the plus column, was Yadier Molina, who added 5.7% with a single and a walk in two plate appearances .

The series, of course, is far from over, but when the underdog has to fight back from a deficit of any kind, the odds can quickly get long. Using the method I outlined earlier this week and the assumption that the Mets and Cardinals are .549 and .522 teams, respectively, the Mets now have a 70.7% chance of winning the series. If you prefer using each team’s 2006 pythagorean record (.562 and .509), there’s a 75% chance you can fight over World Series tickets in Queens. If you think the Mets really deserved that 97-65 record, you’ll be glad to know that inputting a .599 winning percentage for the NL East champs now gives them an 80% shot to move past the Cardinals.

However, my 13-line Python program doesn’t know that the Cards could get two outings from Chris Carpenter, or that La Russa is willing to make however many mid-inning pitching changes it takes to keep his team alive. To find out the implications of those variables, I suppose we’ll just have to watch the games.

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