If Thursday was exactly what you wanted to see out of an October afternoon in St. Louis, Friday took that and put a terrible twist on it. The weather, the scenery, everything was the same (though still a touch warm for the playoffs) but the result was almost a mirror image of the day before.
While I’m not one that faults Mike Matheny for starting Lance Lynn in this game over Shelby Miller and I acknowledge that there were some gaffes behind him yesterday, but still this continues what is becoming a troubling pattern for the righthanded pitcher. In both 2012 and 2013, his two seasons as a starter, he had a dominating first half, slid in the second to the point that he was either in danger of being or actually was removed from the rotation, rebounded with a strong September, then cratered in the playoffs. If the Cardinals advance to the NLCS–which now is a significant if–they are going to have to rethink Lynn’s position in the rotation, I believe.
Yes, Jon Jay misplayed a Pedro Alvarez double that led to the first run. Yes, Yadier Molina missed a pop out (though the batter eventually struck out, so it had no major effect). Yes, David Freese dropped a pop up that reminded people of the bad part of Game 6.
Strip all of that away. The biggest blow of the game was Alvarez hitting his second home run of the series with a runner on. Those two runs might have been enough for Gerrit Cole and their bullpen anyway. I said that one of the keys of this series was going to be containing Alvarez, given his history against the Cardinals. They were able to do fairly well against him in the regular season, so whatever they were doing, they need to go back to it.
Even before that, though, you just had a feeling this was not the Cardinals’ day. The Pirates first run comes when Matheny decides to walk the eighth-place hitter with a runner on second to pitch to Cole. Now, that seemed a little extreme at the time, but Jordy Mercer did hit .285 with eight homers on the season, so he’s not your typical eighth-place hitter. Lynn couldn’t make it work though, giving up an RBI single to his opposite number. When that’s the way the Pirates get on the board, you have to wonder what actually was going to go right. Turns out, nothing.
Lynn was his infuriatingly frustrating self after the game, being quoted as saying “Four bad pitches. Four extra-base hits. That’s what got me.” That’s a large part of it, perhaps, but that makes it sound like he pitched a great game except for those pitches. I think that’d be overstating the case. He did get the strikeouts–in the preview yesterday, I noted he’d piled up the Ks against the Pirates this season–but he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. He walked three guys and gave up three other hits that were not of the extra-base variety. That wasn’t a good outing, no matter if all seven hits were singles. It was more than four bad pitches.
The Cards were only a Molina home run from being shut out and now have to figure a way to turn around a narrative that has gotten very, very dark. We all know about Francisco Liriano waiting in Pittsburgh for Game 3. However, now Cole will be on regular rest for Game 5 (if there is one) in St. Louis. And who do you think the Pirates are going to throw out there, him or A.J. Burnett?
Let’s look at Liriano’s time against the Cardinals this season. Viewer discretion is advised.
Maybe you can find something optimistic in those numbers. If so, you are a better person than I am. However, there are three laws that give the Cards a chance in this one.
The law of averages: St. Louis has been so bad against Liriano that they are due to have a better game against him at some point. The Redbird hitters may have struggled against lefties (though the note that they were 19-23 against them factors in the three losses to Liriano, otherwise they’d been more like .500) but they shouldn’t be completely destroyed by one. I don’t think they can blast him out of a game, but having a game where they score three runs wouldn’t be out of the question if things were going to swing back and even out.
The law of the storyline: This one is something I’ve noticed time and time again. About the time something–a hitting streak, a hitter’s dominance over a certain pitcher, a team on a run against another team–reaches past the fanbase and into the national conversation, that’s the time baseball flips it on its head. How often does ESPN cut into a no-hitter just to see it go up in smoke? It’s like just looking at something–rather than seeing it out of the corner of your eye–changes the equation. Liriano’s almost perfection against the Cardinals is going to be THE storyline going into Game 3. Which means it would be about time for that storyline to be rated null and void.
The law of experience: I’m not deriding the Pirates’ lack of playoff experience and it has obviously not affected them this far, knocking out Cincinnati and playing with no fear in St. Louis. That’s not what I’m talking about here. This Cardinal team knows better than anyone that the postseason isn’t easy, but with focus and application you can make great things happen. A team that was down to their final strike in the last two postseasons only to rally and win isn’t necessarily going into Sunday’s game with the mindset of “woe is us.” It’s a team that’s going to work hard this weekend to figure out a game plan against Liriano. It might not work. I’m not one that would bet against them, however.
There’s another point in the Cardinals’ favor for Game 3: Joe Kelly will be going for the Redbirds. As much as the Cards have struggled with Liriano, Pittsburgh’s not going to be excited about seeing Kelly out there.
April 15: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 K, 0 BB (in relief in a win in Pittsburgh)
April 26: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 K, 0 BB (in relief in a win in St. Louis)
April 27: 0.1 IP, 3 H, 4 ER, 1 K, 1 BB (relief loss in St. Louis)
August 1: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 4 K, 4 BB (win in Pittsburgh)
September 1: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 5 K, 2 BB (win in Pittsburgh)
September 6: 6 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 4 K, 3 BB (win in St. Louis)
Kelly’s not been nearly as dominant as Liriano, but he’s gotten results. My major concern about Kelly has always been that he seems to dance (word chosen for a reason, yes) out of trouble. The biggest thing is that he doesn’t give up extra-base hits. Look at the above–20 hits, 18 of them singles. If he can keep the ball down like that, chances are this is going to be a very close game.
The Cardinals really need to figure out a way to take Game 3. I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to happen, but I’d rather finish it in four and let Adam Wainwright start the NLCS than have to play another wrenching Game 5. Then again, I’d take the Game 5 over watching the Pirates celebrate while the Redbirds trudge to the plane, too!