“I don’t give a f*** who we play. We’re gonna f*** them up. We’re gonna take it right to them the whole f***ing way. We’re gonna kick their f*** a**.”
Those were the words of Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt to his team after they won Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series against the Atlanta Braves and advance to the Championship Series. We know this because rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena was streaming live on Instagram. The words stuck out because it showed a side of the Cardinals’ manager that we hadn’t seen before and I don’t think many expected. It wasn’t orange slices and juice boxes language, for sure.
But nearly a week later, where’s that fire gone?
Through two games, the Cardinals have scored one run on four hits against the Washington Nationals. Pitchers Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer took no-hitters in postseason games past the fifth inning on consecutive games for the second time in their careers and the second time in history. They did the same to the 2013 Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series while they were teammates with the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers lost that series and the Red Sox would go on to beat the Cardinals in the World Series.
Two of those four hits came from José Martínez, who is 2-for-2 as a pinch hitter. Martínez who started 126 games for the Cardinals last year, started just 20 games in the second half, and only two since September 1st. But it’s hard to see a situation where Martinez shouldn’t start today’s Game 3.
Offensively, this is a team that has been flat offensively. It’s easy to point to 13 runs scored in Game 5 of the NLDS, including 10 runs in the first inning, to argue that they weren’t, but go back and look at that first inning. The Braves walked five batters, committed an error, allowed an infield hit, and Marcell Ozuna reached on a wild pitch strikeout. Hardly an offensive explosion.
And that’s where the concerns start.
Outside of Martínez, only Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong have recorded a hit in this series. Yes, “a” hit.
Goldschmidt led the Cardinals with 9 hits, six of them for extra bases in the NLDS against the Braves. DeJong had four hits in the NLDS, two of them coming in garbage time in Game 5, but he’s also hitting .204 since May 1st with numbers similar to those that got Harrison Bader demoted.
What the manager should do about it is a very different scenario than has faced the Cardinals all season long.
Over 162 games, a large sample size, you can be patient and expect the analytics to play themselves out over the length of a season. But the smaller the sample size, like a five or seven game postseason series, the less analytics matter and the less patient you can afford to be. The question of whether that urgency is too antithetical to the Cardinals’ larger approach is real.
These are what a manager earns their paycheck for. When the time for patience is running out and the pressure is on, can you make the right decisions in the moment?
I’ve seen glimpses of it. Sure Shildt has made some bad decisions, but I also think he’s made some excellent ones. But at least I feel like he’s making decisions.
For the Cardinals, the only decision that’s likely on the table is whether to start Martínez in right field and what, if anything, that means for center field. Do you start Dexter Fowler out there or do you try to compensate for Martínez’s lack of defensive ability with Harrison Bader? Fowler is 2-for-29 this postseason while Bader is 2-for-11.
I think you have to start Martínez, but I’d personally take it a little further.
He’s already pushed DeJong all the way back to eighth in the lineup, but it’s time to go further and take him out entirely. I already pointed out that DeJong is hitting .204 since May 1st, including the postseason. Perhaps it’s time to see Tommy Edman take some reps at shortstop for the first time as a Major Leaguer. I’d rather him not debut there in the postseason, but this is where we are. Not getting a career minor league shortstop even one inning there this season seems like a huge failing.
I’d also like to see them reward Arozarena (or should I say, Elbowzarena?) in center field. Arozarena had a bonkers minor league season and then followed it up hitting .333/.467/.667 in September off the bench. And he stuck an elbow out there for a hit by pitch in Game 1 in an effort to try to make something happen. Let’s reward that and see if he can continue to do that.
I understand Shildt’s desire to manage with a steady hand and not be overly reactionary, but managers are defined by the decisions they are or aren’t willing to make in October. And, perhaps unfairly, the praise will only come if successful. Criticism will come with failure either way, so the question is which criticism is he willing to live with.