There were two more narrow moments, though, that changed the game most. It was still scoreless in the third inning when Matt Carpenter walked to the plate with one out. Kershaw had held the Cardinals to two hits and no runs with three strikeouts. Kershaw had thrown 37 pitches and was mostly doing his Kershaw thing.
In the regular season, Carpenter led the National League in hits and runs scored. In the playoffs, including his first-inning whiff on Friday, Carpenter had gone 6 for 39 with 11 strikeouts. But in the midst of his slump and despite Kershaw cruising, Carpenter submitted the most epic at-bat of these playoffs.
He took a borderline slider outside for ball one, then he fouled off eight pitches, including seven in a row, before he whacked the 11th pitch he saw – an 86-mph slider – into the right field corner for a stand-up double. Once Carpenter had two strikes, Kershaw threw him six fastballs, two curveballs and two sliders. Nothing could put him away.
As Carpenter battled Kershsaw, all but one of his eight fouls came on a pitch outside the strike zone. He flicked away strikes he couldn’t hit and, with one exception, looked at balls until he got his pitch. Against the best pitcher on the planet, it was a clinic.
Carpenter’s double sparked the Cardinals’ four-run fourth, but one other pitch in the inning stood out to me, too. It represented something great about baseball, the way tectonic shifts can happen because of nearly imperceptible actions.
It was still a game in the when Matt Adams lumbered to the plate with two outs. The Cardinals had taken a 2-0 lead on hits from Carlos Beltran and David Freese, with some help from Puig’s bumbling in right field. Despite Wacha’s domination, it was still a game. There were two men on, and if Kershaw could retire a lefty, the Dodgers could come back from a two-run deficit.
The count ran 3-2 to Adams. Kershaw poured a 94-mph fastball down the middle of the plate at the bottom of the strike zone. Adams took it. A.J. Ellis snatched the ball. Rather than making a subtle turn of his glove or a slight movement, Ellis jerked his mitt a few inches higher. The sloppy frame job was all home plate umpire Greg Gibson needed to see. He called ball four, and Adams loaded the bases.
The next hitter, Shane Robinson, swatted a two-run single, and that was the ballgame. Could Ellis have changed Gibson’s mind with a better frame? It’s impossible to say. Pitch FX deemed the pitch a ball, anyway, but Kershaw protested and it was damn close. Ellis’s work certainly didn’t help, and it highlighted how the tiniest of plays can make big differences.
Tonight in the ALCS, the Tigers will try to stay alive against the Red Sox. There may be no larger factor than Prince Fielder, who has not driven home a run in a staggering 16 games. Barry Svrluga outlines the impact of Fielder’s slump. Speaking of little things, the Red Sox may have their edge in the series because of base-running.