Friday, October 11, 2013

NLCS: St. Louis v. Los Angeles

This year's National League Championship Series features two of the best and most glamorous franchises in all of baseball -- the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This is not the first time these two ancient rivals have battled for the pennant.  In 1942, they featured in one of the greatest pennant races of all time.  The Brooklyn Dodgers, who were the defending NL champs, had one of their best teams ever, and roared out to a huge lead.  On August 5, the Dodgers had an unbelievable record of 74-30, and they led the league by 10 games.  But the 1942 Cardinals may have been the best team in the history of the National League.  From August 5 to the end of the year, the Cardinals went 43-9 -- one of the most incredible stretches of baseball ever.  Day by day St. Louis closed in on the Dodgers -- finally sweeping two games in Brooklyn on September 11-12 to catch them.  From there, the Cardinals finished the season on a 13-2 run to win the pennant by two games -- 106 wins for the Cardinals, 104 wins for the Dodgers.  In no other National League pennant race did the top two teams win so many games.  The Cardinals then stunned the Yankees four games to one in the World Series -- the first time the Yanks had lost a World Series since an earlier St. Louis team turned the trick in 1926.  St. Louis then won NL pennants in 1943 and 1944 -- making them the last NL team to win three consecutive pennants.

In 1946, the Cardinals and Dodgers hooked up in another spectacular pennant race.  This time the two teams finished with identical records of 96-58 -- the first time in the modern era that a pennant race had ended in a dead heat.  The National League held a best two-out-of-three playoff, and the Cardinals won it -- beating Brooklyn 4-2 in St. Louis and 8-4 in Brooklyn.  The Cardinals then beat Boston to win the World Series.

But that was the last hurrah for the Cardinal dynasty Branch Rickey had created.  Ricky worked for the Cardinals from 1919 to 1942, but then he switched to Brooklyn -- and the team he built there dominated the National League from 1947 to 1956.  By 1963, however, the two old rivals hooked up again.  The Dodgers were in Los Angeles now, but Dodger fans old enough to remember 1942 had to have a sense of deja vu.  The Dodgers were seven games up on the second-place Cardinals on August 30, but St. Louis then went on a spectacular 19-1 run to pull within a single game of L.A.  However, this time the Dodgers prevailed, coming to St. Louis and sweeping the Cardinals in mid-September to regain control of the race.  L.A. then swept the Yankees to win the 1963 World Series.  St. Louis bounced back, winning the World Series in 1964 and 1967.

In the 1970's, however, the Dodgers again pulled away.  The NL no longer had true pennant races, and the Cardinals and Dodgers were placed in separate divisions.  St. Louis didn't make the new-fangled NL playoffs at all from 1969 to 1981, while the Dodgers won four pennants and a World Series.  But the Cardinals won it all in 1982, and then the two teams met in the 1985 NLCS -- the only time they've met in this round of the playoffs.  No one who was a baseball fan in 1985 has forgotten it.  The Dodgers won the first two games in Dodger Stadium, 4-1 and 8-2.  But St. Louis struck back in Busch Stadium, beating L.A. 4-2 and 12-2 to even the series.

The next two games are two of the most famous playoff games ever.  In Game Five, in St. Louis, the Cardinals and Dodgers were tied at 2 going into the bottom of the ninth.  Ozzie Smith, a switch-hitting shortstop who had never homered from the left side of the plate, won the game when, batting left-handed, he golfed a pitch from Dodger reliever Tom Niedenfuer over the right field fence.  In 2005 (according to Wikipedia), this was voted as the greatest moment in the history of Busch Stadium.

Two days later, with the Cardinals now leading the series 3-2, the Dodgers tried to save their season at home.  With the game tied at four in the bottom of the eighth, Mike Marshall homered to give Los Angeles a 5-4 lead.  The Dodgers had brought in Niedenfuer in the seventh, and he went back out to pitch the ninth.  Niedenfuer had pitched 106 innings that year, with an ERA of 2.71, but he was done.  In fact, although he was only 25 years old, he would never again finish any season with an ERA under three.  But back then, the Dodgers were very aggressive in how they used their pitchers, and so they asked Niedenfuer to get them the three outs they needed.  He struck out Cesar Cedeno, but gave up a single and a stolen base to Willie McGee.  He walked Ozzie Smith on purpose and got Tommy Herr to ground out.  This left runners on 2d and 3d and brought up Jack Clark -- the only player on St. Louis's team to hit more than 10 home runs in 1985 (he had 22).  In my dorm room at Vandy, I pleaded with Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda to walk Clark and go after Andy Van Slyke (who was 0-4 in the game).  But Lasorda didn't listen to me, and Clark hit a Niedenfuer fast ball 450 feet into the left field seats to win the game, and the pennant, for St. Louis by the score of 7-5.  Three years later, in 1988, the Dodgers won their last pennant -- but Niedenfuer was not on that team.

Since 1988, the Dodgers have generally been pretty poor, while the Cardinals have generally been quite good.  In fact, St. Louis has won three pennants -- and two World Championships -- since the last time L.A. won it all.  But now the Cardinals and Dodgers are meeting again for the pennant -- as they seem to do roughly once in each generation -- and it should be a great series.

Here is each team's history in the NLCS -- victories are in bold:

St. Louis (6-5):  1982, 1985, 1987, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012
Los Angeles (5-4):  1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 2008, 2009

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