Throughout the month of September as we looked ahead to the post-season, you heard myself, Ryan Sommers, and Paul Boye reference the mythical “small sample variance” as our biggest fear, more so than anything else. That variance was on display in Game Two of the NLDS tonight.
Rafael Furcal tripled to start the game, but Cliff Lee kept him there with a strikeout, an infield fly ball, and a ground out. Shortly thereafter, the Phillies got to Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter early, working deep counts and drawing walks. With the bases loaded, Ryan Howard knocked in two with a single up the middle in the first. Raul Ibanez tacked on another before the inning ended, putting the Phillies up 3-0 quickly. Carpenter walked to the dugout having thrown 30 pitches.
In the top of the second, Lee again worked around a lead-off extra-base hit, notching two strikeouts and a ground out to end the inning unscathed. In the bottom-half, the Phillies continued to work Carpenter. With two outs, the Phillies added an extra run on a double, walk, and a single. Carpenter had thrown another 26 pitches, putting him at 56 on the night through just two innings.
With a smooth third inning, it looked like an easy night for Lee. After all, how often does he cough up a four-run lead? But, as we’ve learned, a pitcher can still perform well but end up with unpleasant results. That’s exactly what happened to Lee starting in the fourth inning.
Lee got ahead of Lance Berkman 0-2, but could not put him away, eventually walking last night’s lone batsman for the Cardinals. After David Freese struck out, the Cardinals strung together three hits — a double sandwiched by two singles — scoring two runs, bringing them within two runs at 4-2. Nick Punto struck out, seemingly ending the threat, but the always-pestering Rafael Furcal hit a line drive to Raul Ibanez, plating one more run and requiring a perfect strike from the Phillies’ left fielder to prevent the tie game. Ruiz was forearm-shivered at the plate by John Jay, but held on for the third out.
The Phillies were then tasked with adding insurance runs against the Cardinals’ bullpen, something they certainly did with relative ease last night. However, Fernando Salas entered the game in the fourth and retired the Phillies in order on three ground balls. In the fifth, Lee appeared more comfortable, striking out two more Cardinals and inducing another infield pop-up. The Phillies remained silent on offense in the bottom-half of the fifth, going down in order once again.
Lee got two quick outs in the top of the sixth, seemingly on a roll. With two outs, though, Ryan Theriot doubled to left to keep the Cardinals’ offense going. Theriot quickly scored on a seeing-eye single to left by Jon Jay, tying the game. Skip Schumaker singled afterwards to continue the threat, but Lee was able to retire Furcal, allowing the sell-out crowd at Citizens Bank Park to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Phillies went down quietly again in the sixth, the Cardinals’ fourth consecutive 1-2-3 inning. Lee, with over 100 pitches thrown, took the hill for the seventh inning. Ahead of lead-off hitter Allen Craig 1-2, Lee left a change-up over the plate, which Craig smoked to deep center. Victorino misjudged it at first, which cost him. The ball glanced off his outstretched glove, rolling towards the center field fence. Craig wound up on third base without a play. Pujols plated Craig with a well-hit line drive single to left field. The hits just would not end for the Cardinals, then with 11 hits total and ahead 5-4. Berkman, hitting right-handed, blooped a single just beyond first base, the last straw for Charlie Manuel. Lee exited the game having allowed 12 hits in six innings of work with nine strikeouts and two walks. His game ERA was 7.50 but his game FIP was 1.10, showing the disparity between performance and results. Lee induced a lot of weak contact, but many of the Cardinals’ batted balls found gaps in the defense.
Brad Lidge entered the game to attempt to end the damage. In very limited playing time, Lidge stranded 90 percent of base runners during the regular season. Given the performance of Michael Stutes last night and the Phillies’ general lack of confidence in their middle-relief, a solid outing from Lidge was needed. Lidge got the first out on a David Freese ground ball fielder’s choice. Manuel then chose to load the bases by intentionally walking Yadier Molina, hoping Lidge could induce a ground ball double play out of the always-pesky Theriot. It worked — Theriot weakly grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat and the inning.
To that point, the Cardinals were batting over .500 on balls in play, while the Phillies — having been retired in order in four consecutive innings — were a shade under .300 (the league average over a significantly larger sample is .296). The Phillies, behind one run, attempted to manufacture a run in the bottom of the seventh, but their first two hitters made outs, running the streak of consecutive outs made by Phillies hitters to 17. Jimmy Rollins ended it with a line drive single to left. The TBS cameras saw Rollins being a bit liberal with his lead off of first base and was eventually picked off by lefty Marc Rzepczynski, ending the threat.
The top of the eighth was another test for the Phillies’ bullpen. Antonio Bastardo had pitched terribly in the month of September. Rich Dubee suggested the lefty was tipping his pitches, while Bastardo himself said he couldn’t get the same feel for his pitches he had previously. Bastardo didn’t really answer any questions. He walked the lead-off batter, then got two outs on a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout before giving way to Vance Worley. Worley got the third out on a fly ball to right field. All told, the Phillies ended up where they started in terms of what they felt about their middle relief.
Down one run with six outs remaining, the Phillies needed to call upon the post-season magic that had aided them in the past. The bottom of the eighth inning was taken over by Tony La Russa, however. Rzepczynski led off the inning by hitting Chase Utley with a pitch, then was taken out for right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Boggs retired Pence on a ground ball fielder’s choice. La Russa lifted him for lefty Arthur Rhodes to face Ryan Howard. Howard struck out on three pitches, and Rhodes was promptly replaced with Jason Motte. Motte finished the inning by getting Victorino to fly out to center field. Three outs, four different pitchers used by the Cardinals — seven on the night.
La Russa made his impact felt in the top of the ninth as well. Against Ryan Madson, Albert Pujols led off with a broken bat seeing-eye single to left field. Madson worked to a 2-2 count against Lance Berkman, at which point the Cardinals’ manager decided to put on a hit-and-run with Pujols at first base, even though he has been playing with a painful foot injury. Berkman swung and missed, and Ruiz fired to second base. Pujols hadn’t even made it halfway between first and second by the time the ball reached second base. The first baseman got in a lackadaisical run-down and was retired for the second out. Madson ended the inning by striking out Adron Chambers.
The Phillies went down quietly in the ninth against Motte. A strikeout, a weak fly ball, and a weak ground ball ended the game, knotting the series at 1-1. They had just one base runner reach base between the fourth and ninth innings, and the plate discipline that was so crucial to their four early runs disappeared entirely.