The Dodgers Squeak By

Do you subscribe to the notion that styles make fights? I’m not 100% sure what that means — I’ve never been a boxing fan. But styles make for entertaining baseball games, and the Cardinals and Dodgers set out to prove that during Wednesday night’s National League Wild Card game.

The Dodgers brought the heavy artillery: a coterie of MVP winners, Silver Sluggers, and All-Stars who led the NL in scoring. Their splendor was slightly diminished by Max Muncy’s absence, but the offense still felt like a battering ram. Their starter? None other than Max Scherzer, the modern avatar of power pitching, all glowering stares and challenge fastballs.

The Cardinals? They’ve got star hitters, too, but nothing like the Dodgers’ onslaught. They thrived this year both by smacking home runs — Tyler O’Neill and Paul Goldschmidt are large and powerful — and by playing the best defense in the majors. Their pitcher of choice Wednesday? Crafty old Adam Wainwright, who rarely tops 90 mph on the radar gun but makes up for it with a time-bending curveball and pinpoint command.

True to form, the Cardinals came out bobbing and weaving. They strung together a hard-earned run in the first: duck snort single, stolen base, fly ball to advance the runner, and wild pitch to bring him home. Wainwright came out with his best paintbrush; he lived on the gloveside edge, alternating cutters with sinkers before looping in curves around them both. Look at this chart of his first inning pitch locations; there were maybe two good pitches to swing at in the whole bunch:

The Dodgers were looking to land a knockout punch. Mookie Betts blistered the third pitch of the game through Edmundo Sosa for a single. Justin Turner tagged a perfectly placed cutter — neatly bisecting the outside of the strike zone — but hit a 100 mph laser beam into Wainwright’s glove. Los Angeles’ first run came on another Turner blast, a solo shot into the Dodger bullpen. Scherzer was powerful, sometimes wildly so; he bounced sliders and left fastballs high, but overpowered the Cardinals when he found the zone. In his first four innings, he threw a whopping 78 pitches, with two walks and a hit batter — but he also racked up 11 whiffs.

Okay, did I do enough clichés? Well that’s not how baseball works! A powerful team might hit home runs in 3.8% of their plate appearances (that’s the Dodgers), while a mid-power team turns in a comparatively modest 3.3% rate (that’s the Cardinals). That’s an extra home run every 200 plate appearances, which works out to one every five games or so. Sure, the Cardinals and Dodgers have different styles; but in a given game, they both put up fairly similar statistics.

Indeed, through four innings, you’d have a hard time telling the difference between the teams. Scherzer? He had three strikeouts and two walks. Wainwright matched him on both counts. Wainwright allowed five baserunners; Scherzer did, too. Corey Seager made an error on a routine grounder; Sosa dropped a soft liner that was scored as a single but that almost every shortstop in the majors probably turns into an out. Tommy Edman made a remarkable play in the hole at second base; Betts countered with a spectacular catch in foul territory.

In the final accounting, Scherzer simply didn’t have it. He walked three, though he also hit a batter in a three-ball count, and only struck out four. He was gone after recording a single out in the fifth inning. He needed 94 pitches to get that far; every batter felt like a struggle. He fumed as he left the game — if looks could kill, and so on and so forth — but Dave Roberts wouldn’t have any of it, and brought in Joe Kelly for two crucial outs.

While Scherzer sputtered out of the game, Wainwright turned back the clock. After that Turner home run, he struck out four of the next five batters. His latter-year fastball doesn’t leave much margin for error, but when you dot your corners and cross your t’s, you can look dominant at any velocity.

Mike Shildt briefly looked like he would go full caveman and let Wainwright pitch until his arm fell off. With the meat of the Dodgers order due up, Wainwright batted — batted! — in the top of the sixth inning, albeit with two outs. But Shildt’s conviction proved fleeting. A Trea Turner infield hit later, Wainwright was out of the game as well — with just as much scorn as Scherzer showed. It would be a bullpen game for all the marbles.

Joe Kelly! Luis García! It’s the highest-stakes baseball imaginable, pitched by some guys you’ve heard of, but might have a hard time placing in a few years. That’s unfair to both Kelly and García, who between them faced nine batters and retired seven. They simply had the misfortune of being the first pitchers in when the two headliners departed. They weren’t the only relievers to get in on the action. Blake Treinen was unhittable. Corey Knebel curved his way past a locked-in Harrison Bader. Giovanny Gallegos threw 12 pitches and got five swinging strikes for his trouble. Brusdar Graterol threw a clean inning. It’s the way of modern baseball — every middle reliever is famous for exactly 15 minutes.

So let’s skip all that nonsense and get right to the ninth inning, where the drama found another gear. Tie game, none other than Kenley Jansen on the mound: if you’ve watched a playoff baseball game in the last 10 years, you’ve probably seen this exact situation.

Edman dumped a single into right field, which set up one of the surest plays in baseball: a steal against Kenley Jansen. Jansen might care less about runners on base than any other pitcher in baseball, and Edman dutifully swiped second base — it would be rude not to, given that Jansen practically invited him over with his ponderous delivery.

That set the stage for the biggest play of the game so far: a runner on second, two outs, O’Neill at the plate. Jansen is a three-pitch pitcher these days, but with all the chips on the table, he stuck with what he knew. His seven-pitch sequence was as follows: cutter, cutter, cutter, cutter, cutter, cutter, cutter. The seventh one was a marvelous effort, a high cutter that eluded O’Neill’s desperate flail. It was a near thing, though: O’Neill had clipped the previous pitch into right field, foul but only barely.

In retrospect, it was academic from there. You have to score to beat the Dodgers; you can only hold off the onslaught for so long. The Dodgers matched the Cardinals play-for-play; with two outs, they too put a runner on second via a stolen base (Cody Bellinger, who swiped two bags on the day). Chris Taylor — an All-Star who started the game on the bench, because the Dodgers are ludicrous — stepped into the same spot O’Neill had. Two outs, runner on second, tie game: a hit might end things. There was even a power pitcher on the mound: Alex Reyes replaced T.J. McFarland to secure the platoon advantage for St. Louis.

Taylor didn’t miss. Reyes did. After falling behind 2-1, he hung a slider over the heart of the plate in an attempt to get back into the at-bat. Taylor was looking for something juicy, and he got all of it — a no-doubt home run that ended a back-and-forth affair in a way that somehow seemed inevitable from the start.

It’s strange, in retrospect, to think of this game as a likely Dodgers win. They came into the game as 2-to-1 favorites, better nearly across the board. Watching the game, though, you’d be hard-pressed to come away with that opinion. The Cardinals hung with them pitch for pitch, play for play. The Dodgers managed 11 baserunners; the Cardinals had 10. A lower cutter here, a tighter slider there, and things might have been different.

That’s how baseball works. The Dodgers don’t always win these games. Plenty of times, they’ve fallen short. They lost 56 games this year, more than Russell Wilson has lost in his entire NFL career. Baseball is a close affair; on any given night, any team can knock the other off the field.

Usually, though, they don’t. Usually, inevitability wins out. Every batter that came to the plate, the Dodgers had a small edge. Every pitcher that took the mound, the Dodgers had a small edge. It doesn’t always matter. They might lose their next three games and bounce out of the playoffs entirely. Tonight, though, they took everything the Cardinals had and came out standing.

For St. Louis, it’s no doubt a bittersweet loss. The Cardinals did everything they could. They pitched a tremendous game; Wainwright was sharp, the reliever carousel worked as well as advertised, and their best hitters came to the plate in big spots. This, too, is baseball: you can play your best, fend off a highly-touted opponent, only to have the bounces go the wrong way. It’ll be a long offseason, but the Cardinals can hold their heads high: a Dodgers team that tied a franchise record for regular season wins needed every last out before it could land its final blow.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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11 months ago

What a game! The Dodgers are incredible and will be…forever, I guess.

I think STL has some serious questions going forward, though. Molina changed his swing to start the season, but pitchers adjusted. After April, he was one of the worst regulars in baseball. After May 1, his slash line was .240/.284/.325, 69 wRC+, second-worst in a qualified field of 149 players. With his defense now being more decent than elite, he could be a sneaky black hole in 2022. Knizner doesn’t look like a major league catcher, so it’s something to watch. Arenado’s xStats were much worse than you might expect (xSLG of .411, xwOBA of .309), and he now has 200 games of terrible Statcast numbers.

Pitching-wise, 40 year-old Wainwright had 200+IP, but only one other pitcher had more than 100 IP (Kim at 106.2). There’s upside with Flaherty, Mikolas, and Hudson coming back, but any injury would decimate a system that has no minor league arms ready to fill in. Lot of work to do! The defense will still be wonderful, and they aren’t losing any players of note to free agency, so a 15th-straight winning season should be achievable. Playoffs? Eh…

It’s probably too early to be talking about this stuff, but I need to focus on the future; the present is a bummer. I hope you’ll indulge a sad fan.

11 months ago
Reply to  tdouglas

This is a big offseason for the Dodgers in terms of expiring contracts, but they do seem to have the best handle on the whole perpetual contention thing. The “winning 2/3 of their games” thing is probably not sustainable (which is what they’ve done since .. mid-May of 2018).

Their pending free agents include Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and potentially some others depending on option decisions. They’ll continue to be good until (probably) the rules are changed, Andrew Friedman gets bored and retires, or the budget changes, but this kind of dominance is has a finite lifespan.

And I dont blame you for wanting to focus on something else: it’s only been necessary once in the last few years, but when the Dodgers are eliminated I usually mute my various baseball followings and take a break until the end of the postseason.

11 months ago
Reply to  tdouglas

Matthew Liberatore should be ready by next season, but I agree they need another established starter. There will be plenty out there to chose from. I also believe they should go after Story.