ST. LOUIS — In the third inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals imposed a four-run worldview on Clayton Kershaw, baseball’s best pitcher, with the unwitting help of gifted but erratic Dodger rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig.
In a span of 10 batters and 48 pitches, the new NL champs and World Series-bound Cardinals demonstrated what baseball means to them, and their fans, a group that views this sport as a quasi-religion, except for those who go the whole hog and quash the quasi.
With one hard-hit double on an 11-pitch Matt Carpenter at-bat to ignite their rally, plus four well-placed singles, a hair’s breadth full-count walk, a missed cutoff man (by Puig) and an overthrow of home (by Puig), the Cards did what no other team has done all year: score four runs in an inning off the closest thing this age has to Sandy Koufax.
Then, two innings later, with a third fielding gaffe of the night by Puig further unhinging his team, the Cardinals knocked out Kershaw and hung seven earned runs on him in a mere four-plus innings, more than Koufax allowed in his whole postseason career. By the time the inning ended, the rout had reached 9-0, the forfeit score, and a 19th St. Louis pennant was ready to be unfurled.
The Dodgers, the highest-paid team in the National League, and one of the loosest, arrived here in St. Louis, the temple of sometimes sanctimonious but always precise baseball, to meet their antithesis, a Cardinal team bent on dismantling them to prove a point. We understand baseball; you don’t. We play it right; you goof around. You have talent; we are a team. You talk; we play.
Both teams bought into it, played to it. Before this game, a St. Louis fan, known for making posters, brought an insulting one of Adrian Gonzalez, in Mickey Mouse Ears riding Dumbo, with the caption “Dumbo and Dumber.” He also brought a poster of “Our Squirrel” (the ’11 Cards’ “Rally Squirrel”) and “Their Squirrel” (Puig). Gonzalez and Puig, laughing, walked to the Cardinals’ side of the field, autographed the posters and posed for pictures. See, you’re not getting under our skin. Watch us laugh. Not for long.
Of course, no matter how badly they dismantled the Dodgers before a crowd of 46,899 that was standing in one prolonged ovation as early as the third inning, the Cards don’t really own baseball, though they sometimes act like they invented it. They grate on opponents, which bothers them not at all. And they have moments, like last year’s NLCS, when they blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Giants and were outscored 20-1 in those defeats.
The Dodgers were created — bought, actually — to highlight what the Cards do correctly; and what teams that are assembled, not built, often need years to learn. In the decisive third inning, with one out and none on, the crowd cheered on every pitch as Carpenter, perhaps the Cards’ most valuable player this season, battled Kershaw through six fastballs, three sliders and one curve before finally slashing a double into the right field corner. That might not have ruffled Kershaw, who has gone 51-23 with a 2.21 ERA the last three seasons. But, perhaps, Puig did. On a Carlos Beltran RBI single, Puig threw home, allowing Beltran to move into scoring position. And he did score on a Yadier Molina single.
How much did that nettle the precise Kershaw? Perhaps we’ll find out in time. But soon the bases were loaded with two outs and Shane Robinson, a seldom-used reserve, slapped a single to right — to Puig. With no chance to prevent two runs, he nonetheless unleashed a throw far over the catcher’s head, allowing to Cards to advance an extra base. Those runs, and that play, seemed to leave the Dodgers beaten.
The Dodgers love their wild horse, but have to figure out how to get a bridle on him, at least, without breaking him.
“It’s what we’ve seen all year long. You try to teach and coach as you go. Yasiel gets excited,” Manager Don Mattingly said. “Next year, we have to do a better job of helping him mature and let him know what we want him to do and how we want him to do it.”
On this night it is, to a degree, unfair to focus on any 22-year-old player. But it is not inappropriate because he has been so central to, and symbolic of, the Dodgers’ whole season. He’s been its symbol, at times its inspiration and, also, until he becomes more polished, its nagging flaw.
For the first 104 games of his career, Puig inspired the Dodgers far more often than he has exasperated them, though he has done plenty of both. His 19 homers, .319 average, almighty throwing arm, exceptional speed, 245-pound opposite-field power and his raw unabashed celebrations of himself — stretching on-deck, preening as the moment or the mood strike — helped ignite one of the gaudiest midseason turnarounds in baseball history as a moribund injured Dodgers team went on a two-month streak to take charge of the NL West.
But, with time, the league seemed to learn him. In his last 182 plate appearances, he hit .234. But in this postseason, Puig found the stage to his liking, mostly, hitting .361 entering this game. When he took a called third strike from Cards starter and winner Michael Wacha, Puig turned and jogged away from the plate. Why? The Cards had muttered that no rookie should have glared down a veteran ump earlier in this series as Puig did. See, for the last week, this has all been personal. The first Wacha pitch to Puig in this game was a fastball inside that straightened him out.
For the Cards, their own rookie Wacha, was a perfect Cardinal symbol, as much an emblem of what makes them proud as Puig will probably, over his career, prove a match for Los Angeles. One fan here wore a St. Louis jersey with the name “Pujols” on the back crossed out and “Wacha 52” written in red above it. In this town, no one would need an explanation. The Cards did not aggressively try to match the $250 million offer that lured their great first baseman to, yes, Los Angles, though to the Angels’ side of town.
What did the Cards get in return? A compensation draft pick. They used it to pick Wacha with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft. Less than a year after his last college game, he was in the major leagues. And in his 12th big league start, he became the first Cardinals pitcher in history to hurl a title-clinching win in his debut year.
This night was also a kind of full-circle exoneration of the ’12 Cards, the team that broke Washington’s hearts in Game 5 of the division series, then came apart against the Giants to squander a pennant, at least in the often held St. Louis view.
On the seldom visited first base exterior of Busch Stadium, beside a highway overpass and out of sight of fans, where only concessionaires driving hot dog and beer trucks to loading docks would see them, the Cardinals have painted banners on the brick walls to honor their NL pennant winning teams.
That, for the Cards, is the wrong kind of Hall of Fame, as proud as other cities might be of those teams. The comparable celebration of actual St. Louis World Series winners, 11 of them — and counting now that St. Louis is back on the biggest stage once more — are spread out along the third base side of Busch, in full proud view.
St. Louis is proud of its baseball. On this night, its fans got the last laugh on the Mickey Mouse Ears sign that Gonzalez flashed after hitting two homers off the Cardinals in Game 5. They had the pleasure of seeing Puig’s rawness, not his skills, on display. And, most of all, they avoided what they feared most — a repeat of last year’s blown lead.