The best baseball clubhouses are always like this, a room purposefully controlled by the old heads, but spontaneously enlivened by the kiddie corps. So on this rain-soaked Wednesday evening in the bowels of Busch Stadium, just behind the frosted-glass double doors that lead into the Cardinals clubhouse, the wise old veterans dominated every corner of their bustling baseball man cave in the aftermath of their rain-delayed 3-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
There was 33-year-old starter Kyle Lohse holding court in the far corner of the clubhouse surrounded by layers of national reporters. And there on the other side of the room, 30-year-old closer Jason Motte was offering his veteran’s perspective on the affairs of the night.
But all around the room, no further than an arm’s length away, Lohse and Motte could see so many of the Redbirds’ youngsters who once again played integral roles in the postseason madness.
One rookie had crushed a muscular home run, while another one had strutted onto the mound in the late innings and threw triple-digit heat. Two more youngsters had provided clutch at-bats that helped produce a late-inning run that created much-needed breathing room in a skin-tight ballgame.
Lohse has been in the playoffs long enough to know all about the demands of October baseball, where every mistake is magnified, even the slightest success is intensified and the pressure can slowly build to pipe-busting levels as the game creeps into the late innings. And that’s why he can’t stop but marvel at the contributions of the talented kids in his clubhouse like Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Pete Kozma and Shane Robinson.
"Maybe they just don’t know how hard it’s supposed to be," Lohse said, chuckling. "All these guys are stepping into big situations and as an older veteran guy, it makes it fun to see them step up in the spotlight and thrive on it."
You want to know about how the Cardinals keep finding ways to win these skin-tight games in October?
They do it with a clubhouse like this that has no spare parts.
Wednesday’s victory was a tribute to the way the kids do their jobs no matter how demanding the circumstance.
Carlos Beltran, who had become St. Louis’ newest Mr. October, left the game after the first with a strained left knee, and indispensable rookie Matt Carpenter took Beltran’s place and drove a third-inning, 421-foot, two-run homer over the Cardinals bullpen in his first career at-bat in the NLCS, seemingly oblivious to the magnitude of the moment.
"When Carlos goes down, I’m thinking ‘OK, what are we going to do here?’" said Lohse. "And then (Carpenter) steps up and gets the job done. It was awesome to watch."
When Beltran hurt himself during his first-inning at-bat and came back to the dugout to tell manager Mike Matheny that he had twisted something in his left knee, it all happened so fast that Carpenter wasn’t even paying attention. "I had no idea when he came off the field that anything was wrong," Carpenter said. "Next thing I know Mike’s telling me to get ready to go into right field. It all happened so fast, which was actually a blessing because it didn’t give me a chance to think. You just go out there and start competing."
Two innings later, he’s clubbing the game-winning home run, 45,850 fans are on their feet waving white rally towels and Carpenter is floating on a cloud across the Busch infield. "It was kind of crazy," he said. "You’re not really thinking. You’re just competing. Next thing I know, I’m jogging around the bases. It was a surreal moment."
And there would be more surreal moments to come for the Cardinals’ kiddie corps. In the sixth, with two on and two out and the Cardinals still nursing a one-run lead, Matheny made the call to the bullpen for the 22-year-old rookie Rosenthal to come in and shut down the Giants’ rally. The kid has already shown his nerveless streak in the NL division series against Washington, striking out the side in the ninth inning in Game 2, then coming back for one-inning appearances in Games 3 and 5 and facing three batters in each outing, topping 100 miles an hour four times while recording seven strikeouts against 15 batters.
And right before Rosenthal left the bullpen, Motte pulled him to the side for a quick bit of October knowledge. "I told him it’s the exact same game you play in April," said Motte. "It’s the exact same game you play in the minor leagues. People get out here and they think, ‘Oh man, it’s October. I have to throw the ball a thousand miles an hour. I have to make this the nastiest pitch I’ve ever thrown.’ No you don’t. All you have to do is: ‘Fast ball in? OK, fast ball in.’
"When Rosie was getting loose, I pulled him to the side and told him, ‘Hey, this is no different. Absolutely no different. We’re still facing the same guys we faced all year. The rubber is still 60 feet away.’"
And armed with that bit of veteran schooling, what does the kid do?
One batter. Six pitches. Nothing but the sort of dazzling gas that makes ballparks gasp and roar.
According to mlb.com, Giants center fielder Angel Pagan was hitting .333 on inside fastballs in the playoffs, compared to .286 overall. But it was of little concern to Rosenthal, who kept jamming him inside, steadily raising the speed of his four-seam fastballs in the process. He started at 98 mph on the first pitch, then over the course of his six-pitch duel with Pagan came back with another at 98 mph for a swinging strike, dropped an 82 mph curve in, then cranked it up to 99 on the fourth pitch (foul), 101 on the fifth pitch (another foul), then gassed another 100 mph four-seamer inside to Pagan that induced a harmless ground-out to end the inning.
And just before the skies opened up and forced a 3-hour, 28-minute rain delay in the bottom of the seventh, another collection of young bloods contributed to the pressurized affairs of the night. There was 24-year-old rookie shortstop Pete Kozma with another clutch hit, a one-out single to load the bases, that was followed by another member of the Memphis shuttle doing his job, too. Shane Robinson’s pinch-hit grounder rolled softly to second baseman Marco Scutaro, who bobbled it momentarily, and that was just enough to allow David Freese to score the third run of the night and provide the Cardinals with all the breathing room they’d need to take this game and a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Over the past two trips to the playoffs, this has become the recurring theme with the Cardinals. Youngsters seemingly immune to the pressures of the playoffs, so many bit players coming up with critical plays that win games and nudge the Redbirds along on this seemingly inevitable path deeper and deeper into another Red October.
Rosenthal smiled when asked about how comfortable he and his young teammates look in these pressurized moments. "Yeah, it’s been huge," he said. "I can only take what the older guys have to offer and feed off their experience. With all the younger guys being here, the future looks bright and hopefully we can stay together for a long time and then we can pass on the experiences we’re having right now to the guys who will be in our shoes one day."