October Baseball In September

It’s often said, and indeed has been again this year, that when a team is fighting to get to October that they really start the playoffs early.  Every game could be the difference between having that chance (however small) at the World Series or playing golf as the postseason begins.  While every game has that sort of import in a close race, not every game has the same feel, intensity, or flavor of a playoff game.

Last night in New York felt like a playoff game.

It helped that both teams were fighting for their postseason lives.  New York is hanging by a thread, going into the night a game under .500 but 5 1/2 out in the division and 3 1/2 out in the wild card.  Given that Philly is between them for both, the division is probably out of reach but the wild card, if they could get a win, would be much more feasible.  The Cardinals, of course, were in the better position, trailing the second wild card spot by just 1/2 a game (while waiting to be eliminated from the division).

According to the box score, game time temperature was 74 degrees so while it didn’t have the crispness of an October evening, no shots of pitchers blowing on their hands or a lot of jackets in sight, it wasn’t mid-summer swelter either.  I imagine, if you were on that field, you knew this wasn’t going to be just another game.

I missed the early part (and by early, I mean from the bottom of the second through the top of the eighth) of this game due to a church meeting, but the parts I saw were enough to understand what sort of game this was.  I was a little afraid it was going to get ugly quickly.  My podcast partner Allen Medlock and I talked before the game and said, after all this push to get the Cardinals in position, it felt like a night where they lost while Cincinnati and San Diego won.  When Jake Woodford gave up two runs in the first, I was afraid that our thought was going to be correct.  They didn’t hit Woodford hard, but it was enough to make you think it wasn’t going to be the Cardinals’ night, especially because you never know what the offense will do.

Thankfully, the bats didn’t get entirely used up in the ninth inning last night.  Paul Goldschmidt doubled and Tyler O’Neill brought him in, then Dylan Carlson tied it up with a sacrifice fly.  This game wasn’t going to go quietly into the Gotham night.

Mike Shildt’s urgency has been debated at times over the last few weeks but you could not argue that he went all out last night.  Woodford went four innings, throwing 61 pitches, but with his spot coming up in the top of the fifth Shildt went to the bench.  I’m not enamored with the apparent idea that Matt Carpenter is going to be your first guy off the bench, but it makes some sense in this spot.  You don’t expect Carpenter to get a hit–after he lined out to Jonathan Villar here he was zero for his last 30–but the one thing Carpenter still can do at times is take a walk.  If he leads off with a walk, that rolls it over to the top of the lineup with a runner on and you have a chance to do some damage.  Sadly, it didn’t pan out.

Going to Daniel Ponce de Leon also makes sense as you are going to try to get two or three innings out of him here.  The Cardinals are stocking up on multiple inning guys (Ponce, Kwang Hyun Kim, the thought of using Alex Reyes this way, the imminent return of Dakota Hudson) and they don’t always have a use for them.  It was smart of Shildt to recognize the length he had out there and make that move.

Unfortunately, Ponce de Leon has a fatal flaw in the best of situations and the fact that he hadn’t appeared in a week (and only had 3.1 innings this month) may have exacerbated it.  On a full count, he got Tomas Nido to ground out, but then walked his opposing number in Marcus Stroman, then walked Villar, threw a wild pitch, then walked Francisco Lindor.  Unfortunately for the bases loaded record the Cardinals were chasing but fortunately for their chances of winning this game, Shildt didn’t let him try to figure it out but went to Kodi Whitley, which was a bold choice that paid off with a sacrifice fly and a strikeout.  The Mets were up but it could have been much worse.

A quiet sixth and seventh brought us to the eighth.  Again, it was the dynamic duo of Goldschmidt and O’Neill working their magic.  This time, Goldy walked and TON smashed a deep ball to center field, giving the Cardinals their first lead of the night.  Nolan Arenado singled behind that homer and Yadier Molina reached on catcher’s interference, which had Mr. Medlock hoping for insurance because “I worry about Javy Baez”.  However, unlike a good neighbor Carlson struck out and Edmundo Sosa grounded out.

Genesis Cabrera had completed the seventh and got two outs in the eighth before Shildt went to Luis Garcia, who got the final out of the inning on two pitches.  I’ve made a point in saying many times this season that I’m not fond of a reliever coming back out for a second inning many times, but even at the time I thought I’d have risked Garcia starting the ninth after the Cardinals failed to score, especially given the usage of Giovanny Gallegos lately.  Gallegos has only had two games where he didn’t pitch out of the last seven and that sort of workload is going to get to folks after a bit.  He’s been effective in those games, don’t get me wrong, but Gallegos is now just a couple of innings from a career high in innings pitched.  That probably wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t for the whole 2020 season issue.

Anyway, Medlock (as he usually is) was right and Baez hammered the first pitch Gallegos threw over the wall.  For a minute, I thought O’Neill was going to cement this as his game by making a great catch, but the ball was deeper than I thought.  Gallegos got the next three but the damage was done, the zombie runners were awakened, and we’re going to extras.

Goldy was the zombie runner in the 10th so the heart of the order is coming up.  If you are going to win the game, it’s here, right?  But TON struck out and after the Mets intentionally walked Arenado, Molina grounded into a double play.  All the momentum was with the Mets and they looked to take advantage.  Alex Reyes, who has also been used a lot lately, was one of the only real options for the 10th.  He got a groundout of James McCann, but that put the winning run on third with one out.

Shildt then pushed another button.  He took Carlson out, even though he was due to lead off the 11th, and brought in Jose Rondon to be an extra infielder.  Which, hey, we’ve always thought O”Neill and Harrison Bader can cover the whole outfield anyway, right?  Unfortunately, Reyes ran the count to 3-2 then just missed with a slider, putting runners on the corners.  Rondon goes out to the outfield for Francisco Lindor.

You remember that Cubs game back in July, the one that went to extra innings and the Cubs had Anthony Rizzo on third, only to see him get doubled up when Sosa tagged second then threw home because he didn’t break quick enough?  That might have just slid down to second in the “wild extra innings double plays” list.  On a 1-0 count, Lindor hits a ball up the line to Goldschmidt and it was hard enough that Goldy was able to gun it to Molina, who caught Kevin Pillar in a rundown, eventually tossing it to Arenado to get the tag.  (As someone pointed out, there were 15 Gold Gloves involved in that play.)  Momentum is a fickle thing and it was now headed back to the Cardinals.

St. Louis took advantage.  Molina was the zombie runner (which, given his speed, was appropriate) and it was surprising they left him out there until I heard that Ali Sanchez had been sent down this weekend and Justin Miller activated, a move I had completely missed.  Rondon made the Carlson move more relevant by singling, putting runners on the corners with no outs.  Sosa followed with a base hit that brought in the go-ahead run, but thankfully the team wasn’t done.  After a groundout, Andrew Knizner pinch-hit for Reyes and drove in two with a base hit.  The Cards went to the bottom of the 11th needing to get three outs before they gave up three runs.

The bottom of the 11th was proof that baseball giveth, but baseball taketh away.  The Cardinals had capitalized on their zombie runner, but the Mets got one of their own which meant a three run lead wasn’t as comfortable as you’d like.  Kwang Hyun Kim came in and got the first batter to fly out, moving the runner to third, but that’s a trade you’ll take all the time.  The next batter, Pete Alonso, hit a fly ball to right.  Which probably wouldn’t have been a problem had Carlson been still out there but, as you know, he wasn’t.  Rondon had no idea how to catch that ball, the run scores, and Alonso is on second and the tying run comes to the plate.  After running the count to 3-0 on Baez, the Cards just put him on, meaning the winning run comes to the plate.

Kim then gets a ground ball to Sosa that looks like it’ll be a double play, but Tommy Edman has trouble getting it out of his glove and again Cardinals fans turn their lonely eyes to Kolten Wong.  Still, two outs, runners on the corners and when Pillar nubs one back to the mound, it looks like it’ll be over….except that it wasn’t quite as easy as all that and Kim wound up throwing the ball up the line.  Runner is safe, run scores, and the tying run is now on second.  All across St. Louis, people are reaching for trash cans in case they lose the contents of their stomach.  Finally, Albert Amora grounds to Edman who throws him out at first.  A wild, stressful, and definitely eventful game finally comes to a close.

In the middle of this game, Pittsburgh wound up beating Cincinnati.  After this game, the Giants finished beating the Padres.  So right now, after a season of mediocrity and disappointment, with 18 games left in the season, your St. Louis Cardinals are the second wild card team.

This may not last–Jon Lester has pitched well of late but it’s hard to sweep a team on their own field, especially one trying to stay in contention.  Pittsburgh seems unlikely to take the next two from the Reds–but the Cardinals aren’t going down without a fight and that means the next two and a half weeks are going to be something to keep watch on, which is more than we thought even at the All-Star Break.  Plus, as a bonus, now that they are 75-69 they only have to go 7-11 to finish over .500, which feels doable!

Oh, Hero and Goat.  I think I still have to go with Tyler O’Neill for the Hero and Giovanny Gallegos for the Goat, though I appreciate what Knizner did there getting that needed insurance.

Lester vs. Tylor Megill tonight.  I hope the Cards score five in the first and pull away slowly so we don’t have to stress as much!

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