Mastery at work: Grace Under Pressure

Wainwright and Molina following NLCS winning strikeout of BeltranWhen kids are out playing baseball with their friends, a dream scenario that many role-play is to be the batter in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in the World Series, with bases loaded and two outs, when your team is down by several runs. It is all up to you. Of course, this dream can easily turn into a nightmare, because the kid pitching to you is obviously in a dream/nightmare scenario of his own: throw a strike-out and he’s the hero, give up a home run and he’s lost it for the team. Dream for one, nightmare for the other.

This was almost the situation at the end of last night’s NLCS Game 7 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. Rookie pitcher Adam Wainwright got himself into a bit of a jam. He had loaded the bases and, with two outs, the Mets’ Carlos Beltran – with an OBP of .422 against the Cards in the NLCS, including 3 homeruns – was at the plate. I had butterflies in my stomach, and I was watching from the comfort of my own home, I can only imagine what was going through his mind.

But, in the end, he made it look simple, with a beautiful strike-3 pitch that caught Beltran looking, an example of the grace under pressure that mastery can bring you. Block out everything except what it is you are trying to do, and focus on achieving your goal. Not worrying about what others are saying or doing (outside of how it directly impacts what you are doing). Not all that different from just a week or so earlier, when this young pitcher was called on to finish off the San Diego Padres so the Cardinals could get to the NLCS:

His career as a closer just four saves old, Cardinals rookie Adam Wainwright was about to jog to the mound to clinch his first playoff series and get his first celebratory catcher’s hug when Jason Isringhausen offered some advice: Don’t think about the celebration.

As Wainwright recalls, Isringhausen launched into an explanation of how things were going to get fun, get plum crazy. Once Wainwright had finished off the ninth inning Sunday against the San Diego Padres, assuring the Cardinals’ passage to the NL Championship Series, he would be “mobbed like you’ve never been mobbed before.”

Just try not to think about all that.

To break any of the rookie’s tension, bullpen coach Marty Mason sidled over, looked at Wainwright and asked: “Has deer season started yet?” The rookie grinned. Relaxed. Cool. And dealing.

The only thing that would have made it sweeter is if they had won here at home. Needless to say, the NY crowd was a bit stunned, upset, and very quiet as they watched the Cardinals celebrate on the field at Shea Stadium. Here’s hoping for a 4 or 5 game series so we can enjoy the victory here at home. What a fitting end that would be to the first season in the new Busch Stadium.