Win or Go Home

The League Divisional Series became a playoff round in 1995.  (It would have been 1994, but, well, you know what happened there.)  That means this is the 25th year of said series and the Cardinals have made a home there.  Out of those 25 years, St. Louis has played in the LDS 14 years, counting their current struggle against the Braves.

And yet, for all their times in the round, they’ve rarely gone to a Game 5.

In 1996, 2000, 2002, and 2005, they swept their opponent (Padres, Braves, Diamondbacks, and Padres again).  In 2004, 2006, and 2014, they won in four games over the Dodgers, Padres, and Dodgers.  In 2009, the Dodgers swept them, their worst showing ever in the round, and in 2015, as we try to block out, the Cubs beat them in four games.

That means that, before this year, the Cards had been involved in a total of four Game 5s, three in consecutive years.  They’ve been successful in them as well, with a 3-1 record, with the loss coming in 2001.  Some of you, being that that game was now 18 years ago (wow, I’m getting old) may not remember the battle with the Diamondbacks, who were on their way to winning a World Series in the shadow of 9/11.  The teams traded victories in the first four games, with the deciding game pitting Matt Morris against Curt Schilling.  Morris did his part, allowing only a home run to future Cardinal Reggie Sanders in the fourth, but the offense was quiet against Schilling until J.D. Drew reached him for a homer in the eighth.  The teams remained tied until the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Veres gave up a double with one out.  Arizona bunted the runner over and Tony LaRussa went to Steve Kline, who intentionally passed Greg Colbrunn.

Now, I remember the end of the Tony Womack at bat, but I didn’t remember the Cardinals getting that runner from third.  The Baseball-Reference play by play says he was caught stealing home, so my guess is that Kline threw a pitch in the dirt that Colbrunn tried to advance on, but was nabbed.  Whatever the case, there’s a runner now on second and two outs.  It looked like they were going to get out of it, but Womack–another future Cardinal–hit a flare that just dropped, scoring the runner and sending the Cardinals home for the winter.

The other Game 5s were just as dramatic.  We all remember 2011 and the game between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay very well may be the best overall game I’ve ever seen.  2012 saw Adam Wainwright blow up early, then Pete Kozma become legendarily hated in D.C. as the Cards scored four in the ninth to stun the Nationals fan base.  2013 might be the least dramatic–after Michael Wacha‘s gem in Game 4, Wainwright threw a complete game as the club won 6-1.  It was closer than the score indicated, given the Cardinals scored three in the bottom of the eighth to give Waino that extra padding he needed to go the distance.

All of that leads up to this afternoon’s game.  The fact that it is in Atlanta doesn’t matter historically, as three of those four games were on the road.  The idea that you are going to be able to rest easy at any point this afternoon doesn’t seem to hold up, though.  Look at those games.  A game lost on the last batter of the game.  A game that saw only run score before any were out, leading to a tightrope walk of epic proportions.  A ninth-inning rally that hearkened back to the World Series the year before.  A game that stayed tight until the last Cardinal at bat.

History points to a tight game.  So do current events.

The Cardinals scored six runs in the last two innings of Game 1.  Since that time, they’ve scored a total of six.  It’s remarkable that they are even at a deciding game (though, it could also be argued, they could have won this series already as well).  Jack Flaherty is going again and the man doesn’t know what it means to get a comfortable lead.  Save the final game of the season, facing a depleted Cubs team ready to go home, the Cards haven’t scored more than four runs while he’s been in a game since the August 23 game against Colorado.  His run support has been the lowest of any of the Cardinal starters.

So take a pitcher that doesn’t allow runs and back him up with an offense that doesn’t score them, put them in an elimination game, and this might not be viewing for those with heart issues.

Mike Shildt has been adamant about sticking with his players through thick and thin.  Which is an admirable trait and, let’s be honest, one that has paid off for him over the season.  He stuck with Tommy Edman even while the fan base was wondering why a guy that was in such a slump was playing the outfield over guys like Lane Thomas.  He has stuck with Carlos Martinez even after two ugly outings in this series, only to see him throw a scoreless frame in Game 4 when the game was on the line.  The fact that he had Kolten Wong‘s back has most definitely led to his strong season.

The problem becomes, when does continued support not work out and how long do you give it to find out?  Paul DeJong had two hits in Game 1 but has been hitless since with five strikeouts in 10 at bats.  It’s not that this is a slump either, given how DeJong’s season went.  From August 1 until the end of the season, he hit .203 with 60 strikeouts in 187 AB.  I realize the power in his bat and he’s played sharp defense, but would you really be worse off today if Edman played short and Matt Carpenter third?  That could cause some defensive problems, I guess, and this feels like a game you are going to need all the defense you can get.

I have no doubt that Shildt will run out basically the same lineup he’s been putting out there for the last few months.  I’d like to think, given the fact he struck out three times last time Mike Foltynewicz started, that Harrison Bader will start on the bench, meaning that Edman is in the outfield and Carpenter is at third.  That’s basically the only wrinkle and, given the stakes, maybe that makes sense.  Shildt having confidence in his guys, ones that legitimately have done it before, may work out better than showing some panic and putting Edman at short or Randy Arozarena in for Bader (or even Dexter Fowler, who has struggled as well this series) on the hopes that it’ll work better than what you have.

The Cards really haven’t had time for that kind of experimenting.  They could have done it some in September, maybe, but when you don’t clinch until the last game of the year, it’s hard to risk a loss trying to gather data.  These guys have Shildt’s confidence and while some of us would make different moves, there’s no real guarantee that things would be different.  Besides, for one game, anything could happen.  DeJong could hit two home runs today.  Fowler could have three hits.  Who knows?

It feels unlikely that today’s game is going to be decided early.  Someone could make the difference off the bench.  Maybe Arozarena will get that postseason moment.  Maybe Jose Martinez will give Primos Coffee something to celebrate.  Postseason baseball is wild enough but in an elimination game, big things can happen.  To paraphrase the intro to one of the DC shows on the CW, elimination games don’t make heroes, they make legends.

Who will be legendary today?

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