For years, we’ve been told to expect that savvy veterans will get the better of precocious rookies in October.
The truism no longer applies — if it ever did at all.
Witness Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium: With one out in the seventh inning, a Nick Punto double off Cardinals reliever Carlos Martinez brought the tying run to the plate in the person of leadoff man Carl Crawford. The Dodgers trailed the Cardinals in the game and series, but suddenly the prospect of a season-making rally hung in the California air.
And then? Martinez caught Punto leaning and picked him off second base. Threat, over. The Dodgers never moved a runner past first base for the rest of the night.
It is impossible to overstate both the shock value and importance of that moment. Punto’s mastery of baseball fundamentals is the reason he’s played nearly 1,100 games in the major leagues. He became an everyday player with the Minnesota Twins because manager Ron Gardenhire adored his defense and baserunning. Then Punto earned Tony La Russa’s trust and became a World Series champion with the Cardinals in 2011.
Punto never has hit for much power or an especially high average. But he always does the small things correctly, which is why to see him picked off second base — when he wasn’t the tying run, when there was no reason for him to steal — was way more shocking than David Ortiz’s game-tying grand slam against the Tigers at Fenway Park on Sunday.
If anyone had reason to short-circuit in that situation, it was Martinez. He’s 22. He hadn’t pitched above Double-A prior to this season. He had a 5.08 ERA during the regular season. But this month, he’s been part of a history-making St. Louis bullpen. Cardinals relievers have started the National League Championship Series with 14 consecutive scoreless innings — an LCS record.
Long before Tuesday’s 4-2 victory in Game 4, the Cardinals set a new LCS record by using five rookie pitchers. And of all the outs they recorded, one of the biggest was at second base.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said closer-for-now (and rookie) Trevor Rosenthal, when I asked about Martinez’s pick-off move. “He’s a really athletic kid. He brings a lot of excitement to the mound. He’s capable of anything. He’s made some pretty crazy plays. It was awesome that he was able to do that.”
And to think: I was one of the sportswriters who believed Yasiel Puig’s inexperience on the bases could cost the Dodgers a postseason game. Punto debuted in the majors 12 years ago, but more than a decade of major league knowhow couldn’t help him in one ill-fated moment Tuesday night.
A few more notes on the NLCS:
•I chatted with Hanley Ramirez briefly as he left Dodger Stadium after Tuesday’s game. He smiled and assured me that he will be in the Dodgers’ Game 5 lineup, but it’s hard to know how effective he can be after lasting only six innings in Game 4. Clearly, he was limited by the hairline rib fracture beginning with his first at-bat, to an even greater extent than he had been in Game 3. Ramirez finished 0-for-3 with three strikeouts — and winced a lot.
•When I asked Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez about the Cardinals bullpen, he spoke admiringly about the relievers’ ability and also praised St. Louis manager Mike Matheny for using them during the most optimal situations to suit their abilities. That’s a high compliment to pay an opposing manager — particularly one who’s only in his second season running a bullpen at any level.
•Remember the names of those five St. Louis rookie pitchers to appear in this series: Martinez, Rosenthal, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and starter Michael Wacha. “These guys are incredible – very talented kids,” Rosenthal said. “You can see these big arms coming out of the bullpen, on this stage, in big situations – it’s pretty incredible to watch.”
•Shane Robinson’s pinch-hit home run in Game 4 (to provide the Cardinals with a valuable insurance run) will elevate him to quasi-legend status in baseball-obsessed St. Louis. He’s hit only five home runs in 386 career plate appearances during the regular season. This was his first postseason hit in 13 games.
Robinson said this was the best night of his big league career but didn’t necessarily seem surprised about what he’d done. “(I’m) not known for power, just because I’ve got to utilize my speed more, but I have a little bit of juice underneath the exterior,” said Robinson, who’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. “I try not to use it because it gets me in trouble, but it worked out for me tonight.”