ST. LOUIS — First off, let’s get this out of the way. Mike Shildt didn’t bat when the St. Louis Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of their division-clinching victory over the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t have any at-bats in the first two games of the National League Championship Series as the Cardinals totaled only four hits and one run in losing both games at home — with that lone run coming off a defensive miscue.
So despite a well-pitched game from Miles Mikolas in Game 1 and an almost-brilliant effort from Adam Wainwright in Game 2, the Cardinals are in a hole big enough it might take the Gateway Arch to span across its breadth: Teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home are 3-22 in those series in postseason history.
There was a sense of quiet frustration in the Cardinals clubhouse after Saturday’s 3-1 loss when Max Scherzer struck out 11 in seven innings, a game that was 1-0 in favor of the Nationals until they scratched across two late runs off Wainwright in the eighth inning. There was also the sense that, hey, that is what a pitcher like Scherzer can do when he’s on.
“They’re really attacking you,” second baseman Kolten Wong said of Scherzer and Washington Game 1 starter Anibal Sanchez, “not really giving you anything to hit and [they] stay off the middle of the plate. You’re going to tend to chase because you understand you’re going to be put in a hole right away. You end up swinging at pitches you might not in the regular season.”
Wong’s analysis holds true to an extent. The Cardinals had a chase rate — swinging on pitches outside the strike zone — of 28.4% in the regular season and 31.7% in these two games. On pitches early in the count — 0-0, 0-1 or 1-0 — their chasing is up from 19.5% to 21.6%. Still, that’s only a few pitches over the course of the game, although given the nature of baseball, a few pitches can turn a game around.
So it’s mostly about great pitching so far from the Nationals and the inconsistency of the St. Louis offense. “We’re working on it, we’re just getting beat,” Matt Carpenter said. “They’re going out there and executing what they throw, but something like that can change in an inning. You saw what we able to do in Game 5 in Atlanta.”
The beauty of the postseason lies in the intensity of the each game, that urgency that doesn’t exist over 162 games in the regular season. That’s also what makes watching the games so enjoyable from our perch in Second-Guessing Land. Every manager’s every decision gets analyzed and broken down. Which takes us back to Shildt, the second-year Cardinals skipper.
There are three big-picture questions to bring up.
1. Did Shildt leave Wainwright in too long?
In his start against the Braves in the NLDS, Wainwright took a three-hit shutout into the eighth inning. But he tired and the Braves loaded the bases with a base hit and two walks before Shildt finally removed him after a season-high 120 pitches. Andrew Miller managed to escape a bases-loaded jam (although the Cardinals would lose their 1-0 lead in the ninth).
On Saturday, Wainwright was once again terrific heading into the eighth, giving up only a Michael Taylor home run and sitting at just 83 pitches. With one out, pinch hitter Matt Adams lined a base hit off the base of the wall in right-center. The top of the order was now up for the fourth time. Also, the shadows that had played tricks on batters all day had now grown past the pitcher’s mound.
Wainwright had some bad luck. Trea Turner blooped a hit into center field, a ball with an expected batting average of .090. Still, there were now two runners on and only one out. “I wasn’t tired at all, wasn’t losing command or anything,” Wainwright said.
He stayed in the game to face Adam Eaton. “My last at-bat was the first time I actually saw the ball the whole way,” Eaton said. “The shadows were extremely difficult. You saw Kolten Wong have two check swings and barreled both of them up. You just saw some really bad swings and bad counts.”
Maybe a different pitcher would have made a difference. Who knows? Eaton battled for seven pitches and hit a 3-2 curveball past a diving Paul Goldschmidt and down the right-field line for a two-run double. It was a two-hopper, but Eaton struck it well — 102.7 mph with a hit probability of .730. “I got a ground ball, he just got good wood on it and put it in the right place,” Wainwright said. “That’s what I’m down about right now. Wish I could have put a zero up there in the eighth.”
Shildt could have brought in a lefty to face Eaton. “I understand that,” Shildt said afterward. “What goes into it, [Wainwright’s] got 11 strikeouts, is still hitting his spots. I think he probably made two mistakes, the one to Taylor, cutter, got the ball up the patch, put a swing on it. But then you looked at the Turner at-bat and he bloops one in. Then you look at the Eaton at-bat, I thought he was going to be able to execute.”
There’s no doubt Wainwright was throwing well. These aren’t easy decisions. I’m not even saying Shildt made the wrong move. But facing a lineup a fourth time through the order is a tough ask of any pitcher. Shildt has done it twice now with Wainwright and both times had to end up pulling his starter with runners on base.
2. The lineup
Look, the Cardinals would have needed Stan Musial and Mark McGwire in there and that still might not have been enough. Maybe it was just two rough games against two good starters.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season. The offense at times has been hit or miss for this group,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and stretches where we just pour it on. Hopefully, we have one we pour it on the next couple of days.”
Indeed, after posting a .797 OPS in April, the Cardinals struggled for much of May and June (hitting .232 in May and .223 in June). The offense was more consistent in the second half, but other than that 10-run outburst against the Braves has struggled in their seven playoff games, getting shut out twice and scoring one run two other times.
Yadier Molina was batting fifth and he came up with a runner on first and one out in the seventh against Scherzer and grounded into a double play. He had the two clutch RBIs in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, but he’s hitting .115 without an extra-base hit in the seven playoff games, and that two-RBI game is the only postseason game in which he has registered an RBI in his past 19. He’s not a power threat and he grounds into a lot of double plays. I get that there’s the feeling if anybody will rescue the Cardinals, it’s Yadi, but maybe he should move down in the order.
Of course, it’s not easy sitting in Shildt’s chair. Do you stick with what got you here? Do you overreact to a small sample size? Do you play Jose Martinez in right field in Game 3 because he had a couple of good at-bats the past two games? Shildt said he hasn’t had time to think about lineup changes but didn’t rule out the possibility. “There would be some contemplation about how we move forward and how we look to compete,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if we did something different,” Carpenter said, adding that he doesn’t write out the lineup cards. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
3. The intentional walks
Shildt issued another, to Anthony Rendon after the Eaton double (and bringing in Miller to face Juan Soto). Miller got out of the eighth, so no harm, no foul. Sabermetricians generally frown on the intentional walk — it’s worth noting that manager AJ Hinch of the Houston Astros didn’t issue one all season — but Shildt has now issued seven of them in the postseason. One of those, to Brian McCann in the ninth inning of Game 3 against the Braves, came back to bite the Cardinals big time.
The free passes are something to keep in mind as the series moves to Washington. They can easily blow up and lead to a crooked number on the scoreboard.
Anyway, that’s where we stand. The Cardinals need to hit and keep on pitching well. Jack Flaherty will be ready to go in Game 3. No worries, Wong says. “We’re right at home. Right at home. We’re not going to worry about it. We’ve been in this situation this whole year, people counting us out, getting booed. We’ve been constantly coming back, fighting and ready to go.”