At times this season, this seemed almost impossible. When the Cardinals were going 9-18 in May, we wondered if they’d win another regular-season game, much less get to the postseason. When they reached the All-Star Break at .500 and in third place, we hoped they had a run in them but we weren’t sure. When the trade deadline brought no reinforcements, it seemed more likely we’d spend the winter sniping at the front office than watching more baseball.
Yet, through all of that, here they are. This afternoon, Dexter Fowler will step into the box against Dallas Keuchel and the next chapter of St. Louis postseason history will be written. It seems unlikely they can pull off the double and have the Commissioner’s Trophy reside in the same town as the Stanley Cup for a few months, but unlikely postseason runs are written into the recent DNA of the organization, so you can’t completely rule it out. After all, the 2006 team stumbled to the finish line but found their mojo (and health) enough to make a push to a title. (You know that Justin Verlander doesn’t want to see the Cardinals in the World Series, if only because he’d have to relive all those Detroit errors again.)
The Cardinals are NL Central Division Champions and that’s a good thing. After three years in the wilderness, I don’t think that fans would have been very accepting of a loss in the wild-card game, like the Brewers and A’s have done over the past two days. The front office would talk about having “gotten back to the postseason” but for most folks, I think they’d have added another year to the drought and not been very amenable to the technicalities. Thankfully, it’s a moot point and the Cards get at least three games on the national stage. A loss in the NLDS would leave a bit of an unsatisfied feeling, but no one would argue that it didn’t count as a playoff run, short as it may be.
Many people have analyzed this series, given their picks, done head-to-head matchups. All of them would be more informed and more thorough than anything I would have written. I don’t spend much time on any other team these days, not like I did in my youth. What’s going on outside the Cardinal bubble I know little about. I understand Freddie Freeman is a bit limited, but he’s always been a guy that seemed to burn the Cardinals and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t drop a little flare at the worst time in one of these games. If the Cardinals had gotten Josh Donaldson in the offseason we might not know about Tommy Edman (or have Paul Goldschmidt), but at least for 2019 he had a better season than either of them and it’s possible it would have been an easier ride with Donaldson on board. Not that they could have gotten him this offseason–Donaldson seemed to have a focus on getting to the Braves once he reached free agency–but if they’d picked him up off waivers in 2018, they might have been able to make a better play for him. Water under the bridge, however.
The Braves have plenty of young, exciting talent and adding Keuchel in mid-season was a great topper to a rotation that was talented but inexperienced. That said, the Braves aren’t invincible by any means. Keuchel scuffled in his last three starts, Freeman’s hurting, and even Donaldson has a hip contusion. At a glance, their bench doesn’t look too remarkable, if that comes into play. Young talent can be dominating or it can start to feel the pressure.
In my Cardinal Six entry (and you can still get in on that until first pitch today if you want; the link is right here) I picked the Cardinals in five but if they do it, it’s going to be because they outpitched the Braves. When you have a chance to send Jack Flaherty out there twice, you like your chances. Though, let’s be honest, the Cardinals have a real solid tendency of wasting Flaherty starts. His last one, against an undermanned Cubs team, was great but the one before, in Arizona, they scored one run for him and lost it in 11. The one before was Chicago, where he left with a three run lead only to see Carlos Martinez undo it before the club won it in 10. Even the game that started his remarkable run was that way, as he held the Giants to one hit and lost 1-0. So just because Flaherty is on the bump doesn’t mean that you can automatically chalk up a win.
Still, you like your chances in those games. If Miles Mikolas can pitch well enough to win Game 1, Flaherty in 2 could easily mean you see the Redbirds head home with a chance to wrap up the series. That’s an if, of course. Mikolas has struggled on the road for much of the year and has been very homer-prone. Looking at the 2019 park factors, it doesn’t appear Suntrust Park is as much of a launching pad as some of the past Atlanta parks, but it’s still slightly hitter-friendly. Hopefully we’ll see the Mikolas who gave up three runs in seven innings while striking out nine Braves back in May (though it was in Busch Stadium). The down side of that? The Cards lost that game.
And three runs could be enough to doom them in this one as well. The offense struggled greatly in the last week and, honestly, much of the last month of the season. Gone was those fiery bats that sparked a postseason run. Here are the OPS numbers for the regulars in September:
Dexter Fowler .636
Tommy Edman 1.078
Paul Goldschmidt .954
Marcell Ozuna .622
Yadier Molina .682
Paul DeJong .655
Harrison Bader .646
Kolten Wong .735
There’s some struggling there. I never expect Mike Shildt to do it, but if Wong is fully ready to go (and he’ll be in the starting lineup Game 1), a top two of Wong/Edman makes a lot of sense. Fowler has struggled mightily in September, striking out in close to a third of his plate appearances (34 K, 114 PA). The old saying was “he go, we go” and that goes it both directions. You could also make a case for moving Marcell Ozuna out of the cleanup spot, but he’s had all of one at bat that wasn’t in the four spot all year, and that was a pinch-hit appearance. Whether he’s the Big Bear or a small cub (no slight intended), he’ll be hitting behind Goldschmidt. Besides, there’s no real argument for anyone ELSE to be hitting cleanup, is there?
The good thing about the playoffs is the Cardinals are used to playing and winning low-scoring games. I believe they can take this series but I also believe it’ll be a back-and-forth struggle that will go from invigorating us to driving us to despair. That’s postseason baseball in a nutshell, right? We may have forgotten, but it’ll come back to us.
Here’s to an exciting and fulfilling series. St. Louis is back in the playoffs and all is right with the world. They’re back to where they once–and always have–belonged.
Thursday, September 19 (5-4 win at Chicago)
Hero: Matt Carpenter. Losing that game would have had major repercussions but also would have been entirely unfortunate given the circumstances. Carpenter made sure that didn’t happen and wound up setting the tone for the best weekend we’ve seen in ages.
Goat: Carlos Martinez. Some of it was bad luck, some of it was not finding the strike zone, but blowing a three run lead after Jack Flaherty had pitched so well is terrible. Doing so against the Cubs is even more so.
Notes: Flaherty went eight innings, allowed three hits, struck out eight, and got a no decision. Things aren’t fair in this world….Harrison Bader had two hits and drove in a run with each of them….Paul Goldschmidt and Tommy Edman also had two hits….tough day for Dexter Fowler, who went 0-5, struck out three times, and the highlight of the day was hitting into a double play with the bases loaded and nobody out, so a run scored.
Friday, September 20 (2-1 win at Chicago)
Hero: Yadier Molina. After having Jordan Hicks flashbacks when a ball invaded a sensitive area, Molina wound up with a two-run single that provided all of the Cardinal scoring, but all they needed as well. The biggest of his three hits.
Goat: Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna did draw a walk and score on Molina’s hit, but otherwise went 0-4 and left five men on base.
Notes: Michael Wacha did fine–one run in four innings–but the bullpen held the line. Ryan Helsley, Tyler Webb, John Brebbia, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Martinez combined for five scoreless innings, allowing four hits and two walks. They kept the team in it while the bats were cold….Dexter Fowler went 0-2, but he did walk three times….the only person not named Molina that had a hit for the Cardinals? Tommy Edman. And this was a game they won!
Saturday, September 21 (9-8 win at Chicago)
Hero: Paul DeJong. It’s really a toss up between him and Yadier Molina. Both of their home runs in the ninth off of Craig Kimbrel were amazing and joy-inducing. I’ll go with DeJong because his was the winner, but it could go either way.
Goat: Giovanny Gallegos. Yes, the balk call was questionable at best, but you have to put that out of mind. Gallegos didn’t make a good pitch to Tony Kemp after striking him out and it almost cost the Cardinals the game.
Notes: A wild, back-and-forth affair, which is really one of Wrigley Field’s signatures….Dakota Hudson lost his command at a bad time, walking four in a row in the first, forcing two in. A third came in on a sacrifice fly before Hudson righted the ship and pitched two scoreless innings after that….Dominic Leone had nothing, which is one of the reasons he’s not on the postseason roster….13 hits by the Cardinals, including two-hit days from Dexter Fowler, Tommy Edman, Molina, DeJong, and Matt Carpenter.
Sunday, September 22 (3-2 win at Chicago)
Hero: Paul Goldschmidt. Two hits, including the double in the ninth inning that plated the go-ahead run.
Goat: Yadier Molina. 0-4 with three strikeouts, which is a rare occurrence for the Cardinal catcher.
Notes: A strong road start for Miles Mikolas (7.2 innings, one earned run) which gives some hope for today’s game as well….Jose Martinez came off the bench and hit a ball that Albert Amora couldn’t reach (which is saying something, given what he did the next weekend), giving the Cards a leadoff triple in the ninth that led to the tying sacrifice fly by Dexter Fowler….Andrew Miller locked this one down, which meant the pendulum swung back to “great signing”.
Monday, September 23 (9-7 win at Arizona)
Hero: Yadier Molina. Two hits, including his 10th homer of the year, and four RBI.
Goat: Dexter Fowler. 0-5 with four strikeouts.
Notes: I almost put Adam Wainwright in the Goat spot, since he gave up five runs in five innings. It’s not surprising to see Waino struggle on the road, but when you put this start with his next one, you get a little concerned….Paul Goldschmidt had two hits, including a homer, in his return to Arizona….with a four-run lead, Mike Shildt tried to get two innings out of John Brebbia, but he gave up two runs without getting an out in the ninth and the manager had to go to Carlos Martinez….two hits and two walks for Marcell Ozuna.
Tuesday, September 24 (3-2 loss in 19 at Arizona)
Hero: Jack Flaherty. He continued his second-half dominance by giving up just one hit in seven innings and striking out 11.
Goat: Andrew Miller. He gave up a home run in the ninth to tie the game and have the pendulum swing back to “terrible signing”.
Notes: Paul Goldschmidt hit another home run in the 13th, but John Gant immediately gave up a triple and a walk before being pulled. Junior Fernandez then gave up the run-scoring hit before getting a double play and a ground out….John Brebbia struggled again, giving up hits to the first two players he saw in the 19th inning before striking out two. An intentional walk loaded the bases but Ildemaro Vargas hit the first pitch he saw for a winning base hit….Marcell Ozuna went 0-6 with two walks.
Wednesday, September 25 (9-7 loss at Arizona)
Hero: Randy Arozarena. In August, Mike Shildt said they “didn’t know what they had” in Arozarena. He proved all he could bring in this one, stealing home on a pickoff of first, hitting a home run, and throwing out a runner. It’s still remarkable to me that they haven’t split time with Arozarena and Harrison Bader. Maybe not 50/50, but there seems to be a lot Arozarena can do for this team.
Goat: Junior Fernandez. You could perhaps go with Genesis Cabrera, but at least some of his damage was unearned. Fernandez, in the big seven run sixth, threw a wild pitch, got victimized by a fielder’s choice that got nobody out (Edmundo Sosa really should have gone to first), and then gave up a two-run homer that basically sealed the deal.
Notes: Cabrera had his own issues after the first batter reached on an error by Tommy Edman (one of the few things he’s done wrong over the past few months). A walk, a wild pitch, and a ground rule double brought Fernandez in, who let all those inherited runners score….Cards battled back in the ninth, with Matt Wieters driving in two runners with a single, but Paul Goldschmidt ended the game with a double play….given the fact that all the regulars save Edman rested, they had a better shot at winning than most expected….Michael Wacha started but had to leave with a shoulder issue, forcing a bullpen that covered 12 innings the night before to have to cover most of this one as well.
Friday, September 27 (8-2 loss to Chicago)
Hero: Matt Carpenter. Two hits, including the home run that got the Cardinals on the board and out to a 1-0 lead. It didn’t last.
Goat: Andrew Miller. Miller came into a tie game in the seventh and walked Ben Zobrist. He struck out Kyle Schwarber, but then gave up a single, a double, threw a wild pitch, and hit a batter. Ryan Helsley came in and didn’t fare any better, allowing Miller’s two runners left on to score and giving up some more of his own.
Notes: Helsley was charged with three runs of his own, plus as noted allowed two inherited runners to score. It was a painful bullpen meltdown and the second straight game the Cards had allowed seven runs in an inning….Tommy Edman had three hits and Marcell Ozuna and Yadier Molina had two, but the offense was concentrated on those three and Carpenter. Nobody else had a hit, though Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader did draw a walk.
Saturday, September 28 (8-6 loss to Chicago)
Hero: Tommy Edman. Two hits, including a triple, and three RBI.
Goat: Adam Wainwright. In a must-win (it felt like) game at home, Wainwright would seem to be your guy. Instead, he allowed four homers in 4.1 innings. 12 hits. Six runs. Not at all what this team needed. Given the way they rallied, even an average start might have gotten them a win.
Notes: Harrison Bader hit a home run, guaranteeing he won’t be sitting anytime soon…..John Brebbia again got torched, allowing two runs in a third of an inning. Brebbia gave up runs in his last three outings and had a 22.50 ERA over that span. Of course, for the rest of September he had a 1.69 ERA in 5.1 innings, so maybe the week of rest will help him get back to form….Tyler Webb pitched two scoreless innings and continues to be an underrated part of this bullpen….the Cardinals only had six hits but also were granted six walks…..Paul Goldschmidt went 1-5 but again grounded into a key double play when a base hit could have given the Cards the lead, as well as struck out during another rally….thank goodness for the Rockies, who tied the game up with two outs in the ninth and won it in the 10th, dropping the magic number to one.
Sunday, September 29 (9-0 win over Chicago)
Hero: Jack Flaherty. Even though the Cubs basically had none of their starters available, even though Joe Maddon had been let go earlier in the day, even though the Cubs swung like they had a plane to catch, the fact that Flaherty threw seven scoreless innings in less than 70 pitches is remarkable. It was a total mismatch and it was exactly what the Cardinals needed.
Goat: Harrison Bader. 0-4 with a strikeout and two left on.
Notes: Once the Cards scored two in the first, you felt like it was probably over. Dexter Fowler’s two-run homer in the second meant it really was. The extra five runs were just gravy….three hits for Paul Goldschmidt, including his 34th home run….two hits for Fowler and Marcell Ozuna and three walks for Yadier Molina….all the regulars played all the game, with Randy Arozarena’s pinch-hit for Flaherty the only bench guy used. Giovanny Gallegos and Carlos Martinez finished this out in what could have been taken, by the Cubs, as a rubbing it in move. Maybe that was to pay back for all their celebrating on the Busch Stadium field in 2017.