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Sunday, October 16, 2005
Updated: October 17, 4:32 PM ET
What was Pujols thinking?

Page 2

Sunday, Oct. 16

Editor's note: The Astros need one win to reach their first World Series. The Cards keep finding ways to self-destruct. David Schoenfield and Eric Neel are ready to second-guess ...

David Schoenfield: Runs have been scarce to come by this October, but that's no excuse for Albert Pujols' mistake in the ninth inning. Maybe he was thinking back to the similar play Saturday, when Hector Luna threw the ball away, allowing a Houston run to score, or maybe he was told to go on contact or maybe he figured Morgan Ensberg would take the sure out at first. But it doesn't matter why he made the wrong decision; he made the wrong decision and it cost St. Louis the game. If he stays put, then Ensberg can only throw the ball to first base. With runners on second and third, John Mabry's grounder is either a run-scoring fielder's choice if the infield is back or a two-run single if the infield is in. Big, big, big mistake. Aggressiveness is nice, but it has to be controlled aggressiveness.

Eric Neel: Yeah, and his mistake was emblematic of something I saw from the Cards throughout the night: a tendency to unravel. Tony La Russa was way off-base, getting so worked up about a called ball four on Lance Berkman, and then Jim Edmonds followed his lead and blew a gasket over another call. The Cards are playing anxious. La Russa's been more prone to the pitching change than usual; there have been misplays in the field galore through four games; and now Pujols, who is normally so composed, runs them out of the chance to tie this game.

More playoff coverage
Click here for complete coverage of the MLB playoffs, including Insider columnist Rob Neyer, who will be contributing to Second Guessing during the postseason.

Rob Neyer: A short history of the White Sox Insider

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Astros-Cardinals series page

Playoff theories: What really wins in the postseason

The Cardinals, just like Tony's A's in the early '90s are utterly uninspired and uninspiring. There's no reason to care about this team (beyond David Eckstein, who needs all of us saying prayers on his behalf just to get thrown balls across the infield) if you don't live in Musial Country. No reason. Meanwhile, the Astros have crazy skinny kids you've never heard of running up the hill to catch balls in center field, a manager who, like Ozzie in Chicago, can't seem to guess wrong, fans who've waited and suffered through the entire history of the franchise just for a whiff of World Series glory.

All I'm saying is nobody outside of St. Louis is going to miss this Cardinals team if they don't make the Series.

And before we reduce this game to what the Cards did wrong, let's not forget what Houston did right here. That double play by Eric Bruntlett and Adam Everett to end the game, with the tying run barreling down the third-base line, was terrific stuff. (How good is it that there's a kid named Bruntlett in this series by the way? Bruntlett? This is a name out of Dickens.)

David: Pujols isn't inspiring? Jim Edmonds isn't fun to watch? Don't you have one of the Flying Molina brothers behind the plate. Chris Carpenter's transformation from sore-armed reclamation project to Cy Young winner isn't a good story? Eric, your Dodgers beat the A's in '88. There is no reason to hold a grudge against La Russa.

What, have you grown an Astros playoff beard or something? Are you secretly rooting for the 'Stros just because Jose Cruz starred for your ESPN Classic baseball fantasy team? I don't quite get your anti-Cardinals rant here, because -- hey, let's face it -- at least they're not the Braves or Yankees.

Anyway, I actually would like to see the Astros win as well. More importantly, however, I'd like to see some good postseason drama, a little back-and-forth action, a few, umm & you know, runs. Other than the 18-inning game and "The Call," there hasn't been much for us to second guess, other than base-running gaffes, fielding gaffes, umpiring gaffes and John Mabry's foot speed.

You with me? Don't we need to second guess why nobody is hitting?

Eric: You're right, the shot at the Cardinals' spirit, or lack thereof, is somewhat gratuitous, but my comments about the Cardinals' bent toward self-destruction in this game stands. They were flummoxed; they were feeling the passing away of The Cardinal Opportunity, and they were making it worse. Pujols' decision to run on Sanders' ball was absurd. And La Russa and Edmonds, two guys who need to be tone-setters for this club, were like the annoying "we're all gonna die!" guy in every two-bit slasher movie.

Now, as for the Astros' playoff beards, I'm glad you brought these up: Is it me, or are these guys actually grooming their playoff beards? Take a look at Lance Berkman's chin line; it's suspiciously clean, isn't it? If I'm right, then this is very, very bad form. This is George Michael territory. The baseball gods will punish this behavior. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of their lives.

David: The Astros seem too nice not to groom their beards, you know? Or too sane, if we're comparing them to last year's Red Sox. Anyway, I don't think the baseball gods frown upon the beards; in fact, as a Dodger fan, you should know this. After all, as legend has it, Dodgers manager Walter Alston told Drysdale and Koufax both "not to shave" before Game 7 in '65, since he didn't know who he'd give the ball too (apparently it was a Dodger tradition that the game's starting pitcher didn't shave). So Koufax didn't shave, got the ball on two days' rest and pitched a 2-0 shutout, beard and all.

OK, I meander, but your point about the Cards is correct. In fact, in the eighth inning, after Grudz leads off with a hit, Marquis tries to bunt and pops out. Which means you're playing for a tie on the road. Which means you're going against "the book," which may or may not be a good thing. Now, I don't know if Marquis is a good bunter or not, but I do know that he's a good hitter. The guy hit .310 this season with eight doubles and a homer in just 87 at-bats. Heck, he'd be hitting fifth for the Angels if he were their DH. My point: Why not let him hit away? But they were so desperate to score one run -- as Pujols proved the next inning -- that I think they made the wrong choice.

Eric: I'm not saying the beards will anger the gods, and I'm not even saying planning a beard, a la Alston and Koufax, will anger them. I'm saying the moment you trim, touch-up, shape, or pamper such a beard, you have angered the gods and earned their contempt.

And you're spot-on on the hitting. Which puts you ahead of everyone wearing an Angels jersey, by the way. Mike Scioscia's finally made some changes tonight -- leaving Steve Finley on the bench, moving Garret Anderson ahead of Vlad Guerrero, and going with Casey Kotchman and Juan Rivera -- but he's also still sticking to some old habits that are killing offense for this club: Adam Kennedy, with the team's best OBP, batting ninth; Darin Erstad, with a .696 OPS this year, hitting fifth; and Kotchman (.836 OPS) and Rivera (.454 slugging) hitting seventh and eighth. The Angels haven't had good luck in this series -- they've faced some tough starting pitching, and their own starting pitchers have struggled some -- but they're not helping themselves offensively, night after night.

And nice point about Marquis. And what about one of those Eckstein-style fake-bunt-and-swing-away dealios? Aggressive, creative, hungry ... these are good. Schizophrenic, pressing & not so much.

David: Right, it seems the Angels and the Cardinals, two teams who do a lot of "action" on offense -- base-stealing, hit-and-runs, sacrifices, even squeezes -- can get caught up in thinking of one-run strategies. But you need to hit the damn ball out of the park once in a while, too. Of course, I think Vlad has been trying that every AB, and he keeps hitting weak groundballs to shortstop or second base.

Eric: And Rob and I talked about this some the other night: If Vlad's not hitting (and he just doesn't look 100 percent physically to me), and Garret's only been so-so, and the games and the series are slipping away, the team ought to be willing to experiment more at this stage, if only out of desperation. Idea number one: Make Jose Contreras throw strikes. Take some pitches. Draw some $#%@ walks.

David: A few walks would be nice. A few hits would be better. A couple of home runs would be best. But it ain't happenin'. Sox to the Series.

Eric: See that AB? Podsednik knows Byrd is tiring, knows a game could turn here on a little thing like a walk ... where is Chone Figgins in that role? When was the last time Vladdy made a Sox pitcher work and worry about him?

David: Through four games, the Angels drew two walks. Yes, some of that is good pitching; but much of it is lousy hitting as well. The Angels' swing-first philosophy may have helped get them here, but it's also going to send them home short of the World Series.

David Schoenfield: Well, Eric, it's a hell of a thing: the White Sox throw four straight complete games, the first team to do that in the postseason since the Yankees in the '56 World Series; and Vlad goes 1-for-20 with two double plays and only gets two balls out of the infield. I don't know whether to give credit to White Sox pitchers or give blame to Angels' hitters.

Eric Neel: The White Sox pitchers were outstanding, it's true, and along with Ozzie's quien-es-mas-macho refusal to even think about his bullpen, they treated us to something special, something throwback. It isn't often that a 4-1 ALCS is memorable, but this one has been. This one drives every single doubt about the Sox, every trace of their September swoon, deep, deep underground. This is a good team. I've had my doubts about them all year, not because I don't believe in smallball (which I don't), but because I felt if their pitching couldn't continue at a high level, then their offense wouldn't be enough to take them all the way.

But their pitching is looking supercalifragilisticexpialidocious right now, baby, and on top of that, their offense seems healthy and a bit scary. Tadahito Iguchi is terrific. Paul Konerko has come up big when the moment demands it. Joe Crede has gone all "Sunshine" Bass for this club. And on and on it goes.

But if this series taught us anything, it also taught us what's good can go bad, what's rolling can come to a screeching halt, what starts off "Men At Work" can end up "Cargo" ... Exhibit A? Vlad and the rest of the anemic Angels' lineup (.175 in the series?!). I've said several times this week that Vlad looked wrong to me. I won't be at all surprised to hear when this is over that his back or his knee or both are hurting ... a lot. But even if he was injured, he hurt himself all series by swinging early in counts, refusing to drive the ball to the opposite field instead (something he's quite good at), generally stinking up the joint. We love Vlad, we all love Vlad, so we won't be using Barry Bonds-like terms to describe him in the postseason just yet, but if he didn't choke this week, he certainly failed. And that's a weird, unfair thing to say about a guy who has been so incredibly valuable for his club, but 1-for-20 is the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter is an ugly, gnarled thing laying in the rain-soaked dirt of Anaheim Stadium right now.

David: Vlad saw 47 pitches in 20 plate appearances, and that approach set the tone for the entire club -- the Angels drew just four walks in five games. Sure, the ChiSox pitchers were terrific, but that lack of discipline is what lost this series for the Angels, not a couple of umpiring calls that went against them. Sadly, Vlad's performance will go alongside Bonds (4-for-27 in the 1991 NLCS), Dave Winfield (1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series), Edgar Martinez (2-for-23 in the 1995 ALCS) and many others as great players who had abysmal postseason series. It's just too bad that we didn't see the Angels at their best, with Vlad hurting, Colon out and Doug Eddings working for the White Sox.

Previous Second Guesses
Oct. 15: Lovin' Sweet Lou?

Oct. 14: Go with Garland or the 'pen?

Oct. 13: Why pitch Lidge two innings?

Oct. 12: So who's REALLY to blame?

Oct. 11: Ozzie ball backfires on White Sox

Oct. 10: $203 million down the drain

Oct. 9: 'Chris Burke Game' is an all-timer

Oct. 8: Braves' bullpen stinks it up

Oct. 7: Unit left in too long

Oct. 6: Jumpin' on the White Sox bandwagon

Oct. 5: Why leave Wang in the game?

Oct. 4: Colon over Lackey ... say what?