With Wednesday’s Game Five loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on the road, the St. Louis Cardinals now lead the 2013 National League Championship Series three games to two.
They’re going home for Games Six and Seven, but that won’t stop the question on everyone’s mind: are the Cards going to blow this… again?
Last year, St. Louis was in a similar position: up 3-1 over the San Francisco Giants, the Cards lost Game Five. And Game Six. And Game Seven. Yes, they were at home for Game Five last year, and this time around, they’ll have home-field advantage for potential clinching games on Friday and then Saturday (if necessary).
But no team ever wants to miss the chance to close out a series when they can, no matter where the game is played. And this is a veteran Cardinals team playing in its third straight NLCS: in 2011, St. Louis went on to win the World Series, of course, and everyone knows what happened last year.
Will it happen again?
It’s baseball, so anything is possible. But right now, the Cardinals and their fans have to be nervous, to put it in the most polite terminology possible.
The Dodgers will send Clayton Kershaw to the mound in Game Six: the dominant lefty posted a 1.83 ERA this season, and in Game Two of the NLCS last Saturday, Kershaw threw only 72 pitches over six innings, giving up one unearned run in a 1-0 victory for St. Louis.
The Cardinals led the NL this year with 783 runs scored, but they don’t like lefties: St. Louis hit only .238 against southpaws in 2013, with a .672 OPS. Against righties, the Cards crushed the ball, relatively so, to the tune of a .280 batting average and a .755 OPS on the year.
That’s a solid difference, and if Kershaw manages to win Game Six against wunderkind rookie Michael Wacha, then St. Louis will have to face another lefty starter in Game Seven (Hyun-Jin Ryu, who just won Game Three over Cardinals postseason veteran Adam Wainwright in Los Angeles on Monday night).
So St. Louis now has its work cut out for them, after losing today to righty Zack Greinke in Game Five.
And thus, the questions will come at them like barbs: can they avoid the same fate as last season?
In truth, this is a rather amazing Cardinals team, and last year’s NLCS collapse — in which they were outscored 20-1 in the three straight losses to the Giants — was an anomaly. After all, there are two key veterans from the 2006 World Series champions still left on this team (Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina), and the 2011 iteration of this team did some improbable things on their way to the championship.
Remember, those 2011 Cardinals were the ones that only made the postseason on the final day of the regular season, coming back from 10.5 games out over the last 32 games of the season — clinching when the Atlanta Braves lost in extra innings in Game 162.
That same 2011 St. Louis team also posted improbable comebacks in Game Six of the World Series, winning 10-9 in 11 innings after twice being one strike away from losing the game and the Series. With the Game Seven win that year, the Cardinals won the first seven-game Series since 2002.
Which made their collapse in last year’s NLCS all the more surprising: they were the defending champions. And even in last year’s NLDS against the Washington Nationals, St. Louis had overcome a 6-0 deficit in Game Five on the road against the NL’s best regular-season team. When the Cards scored four times in the ninth inning to win the game, 7-5, they had everyone thinking, “Here they come again.”
So how could a team that knew comebacks so well allow another team to come back against them?
It was shocking, to say the least, and it still makes no sense when one considers the Cards lost Game Five at home last year to… Barry Zito. But then again, these St. Louis batters don’t like lefties, do they?
Southpaws aside, it would be even more shocking if this 2013 Cardinals squad replicated their 2012 collapse this Friday and Saturday at home.