As many of us were afraid of when the Cardinals lost Game 2, they go into Game 4 knowing that they have to win the last two to advance in the series. The momentum, the crowd, the story, all those are in the favor of the Pirates.
And yet, Sunday’s game didn’t go quite according to plan. Which makes it all the more frustrating, I think. If the Cards had been shut down by Francisco Liriano, you chalk it up to expectations and move on. Instead, the Cardinals–and by the Cardinals, I really mean Mr. October, Carlos Beltran–put some good at-bats together and were able to force Liriano out of the game while it was still tied. Beltran then tied it up again at 3 with a home run. Never doubt how much that man wants to play in the World Series. If he could have batted two or three times in the lineup, he’d have done it.
Sunday’s game was more about missed opportunities, though. Pete Kozma, put in because of his defense, rushed a throw after the ball was tipped by Joe Kelly and the resulting error put runners on second and third instead of first and second (or, if Kelly doesn’t tip it, probably gets Kelly out of the inning). The Pirates capitalized and the Cards were down 2-0 early to Liriano.
The Matt Holliday Isn’t Clutch group got a little more momentum when he flew out with the bases loaded with two out in the third, missing a chance to score. In the top of the fifth, after Beltran had tied it up, he couldn’t keep things going, flying out again to end the inning. Chances missed that hurt the Cardinals later.
Still, a tie game in the late innings would tend to go St. Louis’s way. After all, we know how good this bullpen is. That is, on most days. Not as much today. With the game tied in the sixth and runners on every base, Seth Maness relieved Kelly. A ground ball–the Maness special–could have gotten a force out at the plate or an inning-ending double play. Instead, one of the rare times someone gets a fly ball off of Maness and Russell Martin puts the Bucs ahead.
The eighth is where it all fell apart, though. Carlos Martinez got touched by Andrew McCutchen and issued a one-out walk, so logically Kevin Siegrist came in to face Pedro Alvarez. As much as Siegrist has been dominant this season, it would stand to reason that the Cardinal Killer could find a way around that and, sure enough, he did. The fact that Martin, who apparently had been taking lessons from Alvarez during the season, added on the insurance run immediately after just poured a little more salt into the wound.
So now the Cardinals are nine innings away from a winter of introspection. I watched the Phillies go from World Series Champions to World Series losers to NLCS losers to NLDS losers to out of the playoffs. I don’t think the Cardinals are headed into that kind of spiral, but it would be a negative stairstep the last few years if they aren’t able to right this ship.
There’s been some discussion about bringing Adam Wainwright back on short rest for Game 4, with the rationale that if you don’t win that, there’s no Game 5 for him to pitch in. That’s a consideration, but if you look at the statistics for pitchers that have been brought back on short rest–even the really good ones, which are, after all, the only ones you’d do this with–they aren’t pretty. There’s no guarantee that a short-rest Wainwright is better than the other options, though that might mean Shelby Miller and his strong home numbers would make a Game 5 start. Still, I think there’s more risk there than the club should indulge.
Especially when you have a guy like Michael Wacha to run out there. Sure, trusting a rookie pitcher to save your season is a risky endeavor. (Though, perhaps, not as risky as trusting a rookie pitcher to lock down saves in the postseason, and that’s turned out OK for the Cards in the past.)
Pittsburgh has seen Wacha twice. As you can see, those turned out OK for the Cardinals:
Wacha did tend to be better at home than on the road, but he threw six scoreless innings in Cincinnati during the pennant race. He went through the playoffs with the Springfield club last year, coming out of the bullpen in big spots. Is that the same as this pressure? Of course not. But it’s something for him to hang his hat on.
You know that there will be a short leash on him, but Wacha’s mix of pitches plus his relative newness for the Bucs would seem to be an advantage for the Cards.
On the other side, Charlie Morton is no Francisco Liriano. He only made three starts against the Redbirds this year, but they weren’t ones that he framed and put up on the wall.
(We’d take a repeat of that September 8 game where these two pitchers matched up, wouldn’t we?)
Lots of fun statistics there in the small sample. We know how series can shift quickly–part of the concern with the Cards being up 3-1 in last year’s NLCS was that if they didn’t beat Barry Zito, the rest of the matchups didn’t look as strong. It goes the other way as well–if they can beat Morton like the numbers would indicate they could, the Redbirds throw out Wainwright in Game 5, which is about all you can ask for (even if Pittsburgh counters, as they should, with Gerrit Cole).
Just for reference, St. Louis got up 2-1 last year in the NLDS, only to need a miraculous ninth inning to survive. They were down 2-1 in 2011 and we all remember the Game 5 from that year. You’d have to go back to 2001 to find another NLDS that the Redbirds went to Game 5 in, when they were down 2-1 to Arizona then lost on a bloop hit in the ninth of Game 5. This team has been down this road before. They can turn it around and survive it. Let’s hope they do so, because while it may be cooling off outside, I’m not ready for winter just yet.