Short Season: October Is For Jerks

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Throughout the postseason, Robert O'Connell will contribute brief sketches of small, significant moments from the last few games of 2014.

On Monday evening, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-1 to take a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five NLDS. It was a taut and dramatic game, and another in this most implosive of series that will be remembered for LA’s lacking bullpen—at the start of the seventh, when rain came, Scott Elbert relieved Hyun-Jin Ryu; by the time the rain stopped five minutes later, a 1-1 tie had become the final score. It will be less remembered for the shapeshifting and Dodger-infuriating strike zone of home plate umpire Dale Scott, although it’s doubtful that Dodgers fans will forget that anytime soon.

These late-inning goats obscured the remarkable starting pitching that gave the game much of its early character. Hyun-jin Ryu, the southpaw changeup artist who had not pitched for Los Angeles in nearly a month, worked with a total cool, his fastballs exact and his offspeed pitches cunning. And John Lackey, who the Cardinals had acquired at the trade deadline and had been something of a disappointment up to this point, delivered a performance that matched his minor myth.

Lackey’s presence is a welcome aid to broadcasters this time of year, who can fill ample air time saying about him what’s been said since he won Game 7 of the World Series as an Angels rookie in 2002. Last night, FOX Sports 1 hit the familiar beats. There was the clip of a young Lackey cursing at Mike Scioscia as he was being removed. There was the invocation of the title competitor, said with admirable sincerity by Joe Buck, and the argument that Lackey’s disinclination to come out of games sets a good example in an era in which starters often make early exits, presumably to their great delight.

And then there was the genre’s staple: the slow zoom on Lackey’s face, its defining feature a tight pre-pitch bunching of the lips, as if he were already, even before delivering the ball, ready to lay into a mistaken ump with a disbelieving What?!

So Lackey is the go-to guile merchant, the patron prick of the baseball fan who counts temperament above all else in October. Monday night, he paired his reliable behavior with the stuff that has, at various points in his career, justified it. He spotted his four-seam fastball, agitated left-handed batters with his cutter, and spun tidy sliders that started two inches onto the plate and ended up two inches off. Yadier Molina called a characteristically clever game for his starter. In the third, when a struggling Yasiel Puig had worked the count full, Molina ordered a low slider. Lackey delivered, Puig swung, and the inning ended.

Between pitches, Lackey sniffed hard and bared his teeth. At the ends of innings, he strutted and clenched his fist. His precision got him eight strikeouts in seven innings, but his bastardly boisterousness will make up the bulk of any real or imagined highlight reel. By now, Lackey is as much an ideology as a ballplayer, and last night every highway-tailgater and waiter-reamer could smile at the success of one of their own.

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