The Daily Redbird Review:
The Cardinals will take on the Atlanta Braves in NLDS Game 4 today, with the first pitch scheduled for 2:07 p.m. But this is more than just a game. It is more than just a postseason game.
For the first time in a season that began on March 28, the Cardinals are staring at elimination. They’ll be playing in their first must-win showdown of the season. Win today, and survive to duke it out in Game 5. Lose today, and go home.
The Cardinals were in a favorable position after winning Game 1 with a late rally in Atlanta, having a 73 percent chance of winning the best-of-five series based on historical precedent.
But the odds have turned on the Cards. In the current division series format — 2-2-1 — teams lead 2-1 after three games have proceeded to win the series 75 percent percent of the time. (That’s 39-13.)
Here are the top five reasons why the Cardinals flubbed a 1-0 series advantage by wasting excellent starting pitching in dropping two in a row to the Atlanta Braves:
1. The Cardinals scored one run in 18 innings in the two defeats, and the run was delivered on a sac fly. In the two losses — by scores of 3-0 and 3-1 — the Cardinals went 10 for 62 for a .161 average. That included an 0 for 8 no-show with runners in scoring position. Cardinals hitters struck out in 29 percent of their plate appearances, drew only two walks, had an onbase percentage of .185, and left 10 men on base. Ten of their 12 hits were singles.
2. The Braves aren’t stupid. They came into the series knowing that the Cardinals are the poorest-hitting team in the majors against non-fastballs. So the Braves limited their offerings of four-seam fastballs, throwing only 28 total over the last two games. Atlanta pitchers have flooded the strike zone — and also gotten the Cardinals to chase — with a heavy serving of sliders, sinkers, cutters, and changeups.
2a. During the 2019 season the Cardinals ranked second in the bigs with a .278 average against fastballs thrown 94+ miles per hour. But STL had the fifth-lowest average (.203) and OPS on on breaking pitches — and the weakest batting average (.206) and slugging percentage (.297) on changeups.
2b. Sorry, but I don’t want to hear the predictable pablum about how the Braves — at least in the the last two games — are proving that the Cardinals are feeble against elite pitching. Those who paid attention to the regular season saw Cardinals hitters controlled on a fairly regular basis by ordinary or mediocre starting pitchers who throw softer rather than harder.
That list of non-luminaries includes Jordan Yamamoto, Alec Mills, Derek Rodriguez, Glenn Sparkman, Dario Agrazal, Matt Strahm, Nick Margevicius, Elieser Hernandez, and Chi-Chi Rodriguez. There are many more, but I’ll stop now.
You don’t have to be Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka or the sinking-cutting Dallas Keuchel to make the Cardinals look overwhelmed with bats in their hands. In the first three games of this NLDS, Keuchel, “Folty,” and Soroka allowed two earned runs in 18 combined innings.
Cardinals starters Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty And Adam Wainwright had a combined 1.93 ERA over the first three games. But the run support was lacking. Mikolas was long gone when the Cardinals erupted for six runs over the final two innings of the first game to pull out a 7-6 win. The Cardinals have played 27 innings of baseball this series. Other than the breakout late in Game 1, they have scored three runs in the other 25 innings of play.
3. With the Cardinals needed one out to lock in a 1-0 victory and reward the gallant Adam Wainwright for his incredible and inspiring start, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt made a highly questionable and debatable decision to issue an intentional walk to left-handed hitting catcher Brian McCann to go after the RH hitting shortstop Dansby Swanson.
FIRST MISTAKE: having a meeting on the mound to ponder choices. This wasn’t necessary. And it didn’t make sense to disrupt the pitcher’s flow. After allowing a leadoff double, Martinez settled in and concentrated on a day when his slider was temperamental. Martinez struck out two consecutive Braves, had the mojo back. So why have a meeting to break his rhythm? When Carlos is on a roll, starting to feel it, then let him go.
This was the equivalent of a football coach icing his OWN kicker before a last-second field goal that can win (or lose) the game. I think Jeff Fisher did that once, actually. And by the way … if Martinez needs some talking to, Yadier Molina is easily the most qualified mentor. I don’t know why the Cardinals felt it was necessary to have a committee meeting at that point.
SECOND MISTAKE: Choosing to go after Swanson by walking McCann. I’m a stats guy, but let me say this: the old-school baseball people aren’t wrong when they say that we shouldn’t dismiss the so-called eye test. If you’ve watched this series, you’ve seen Swanson’s confident demeanor at the plate. With Sunday’s game-tying double off Martinez, Swanson is 5 for 11 through three games. The veteran McCann, a helluva pro, has a .133 average with a .443 OPS in his last 103 postseason plate appearances. McCann’s offense went over the cliff after the All-Star break this season (.229 average, .664 OPS.)
Forget the lefthanded hitter vs. RH pitcher considerations, and Swanson’s 0 for 6 career mark vs. Martinez means nothing because of the miniscule sample size. If you don’t think Carlos Martinez can put away Brian McCann in that situation, then you need to install another closer or bring in a fresh reliever.
Swanson was clearly the most dangerous threat in this game-on-the-line scenario. And the decision to walk McCann carried additional risk; it put the go-ahead run on base. Ugh.
And since Shildt was basing a crucial strategy call on a sliver of a sample, let’s put this on the conference table: the current Braves, as a group, have thrived in matchups vs. Martinez. According to Baseball Reference, members of the 2019 Braves have combined for 110 career plate appearances against Martinez. They’ve pounded him for a batting average of .330 with a .409 OBP and .577 slugging percentage. That’s a .986 OPS, folks. I don’t know why the Braves tee off on Martinez — probably more random than anything — but it’s a common occurrence.
THIRD MISTAKE: Leaving Martinez in for a final collapse after he gave up the tying double to Swanson. This inaction from Shildt was simply incomprehensible. Martinez was even more vulnerable, and shaken, after losing the lead.
When asked if he thought about pulling Martinez after Swanson’s dramatic blow, Shildt said this:
“No, no,” he said. “I mean, we can always look to bring in another guy. But, again, you’ve got your closer out there. And I feel like if you start pulling guys that have been doing jobs prematurely, then I think that’s a sign of panic and lack of trust.
“Like I said, it would be hard to go out there and grab the ball from a guy in a tie game that’s virtually been lights out all year.
“I mean, I don’t know exactly the save percentage but it’s about as good as anybody in baseball. So that’s his spot. He’ll be in that spot tomorrow, and I’ll have full confidence in him.”
Mike … the save was gone.
So when Shildty talks about “prematurely” taking a guy out … with all due respect … what the heck is he talking about?
Martinez had blown the save. At that point the manager’s only obligation was to do everything possible to keep that game tied at 1-1. You’re going to risk throwing a game away because you don’t want to hurt the closer’s feelings? And why is it considered a panic move to remove a closer who failed to close … who failed to save Game 3?
Is it panicking to remove a struggling starting pitcher? No. Is it panicking to pinch-hit for a slumping lineup regular? No. Is it panicking to quickly remove a setup reliever that doesn’t have much working for him in a specific game? No.
These things happen all the time. But it’s an act of panic to remove a closer who has just squandered a lead, and is smoldering on the mound, and the other team is poised to pounce and break open the tie and steal Game 3 at Busch Stadium?
And Shildt is talking about trust? He could have gone to Giovanny Gallegos or any number of relievers to keep the Braves in check there in a 1-1 game. You can’t ride with Carlos Martinez until he loses the game. You owe it to your team to stop the bleeding by bringing in a fresher reliever with a clearer head. But Shildt didn’t show any trust and faith in those other capable arms, did he?
The grim bottom line: a manager’s robotic dependence on abiding by titles — CLOSER! CLOSER! CLOSER!
Then another bad pitch by Martinez.
And a two-run single by Adam Duvall. Braves up 3-1.
(Sidebar: let’s go back to Shildty’s small-sample fixation. In regular-season encounters against Martinez, Adam Duvall is 6 for 16 with a .1000 OPS. The red warning lights were flashing … flashing … flashing … and Shildt chose to ignore them.)
So now it’s a 3-1 lead for the Braves. And with the Cardinals wheezing on offense, a two-run deficit was like having a six-run deficit.
If the Cardinals are to survive this series and move on, they’ll need Carlos Martinez to come through at some point. And soon. So I understand, in some way, that Shildt was trying to save CM’s psyche.
I’m crazy, of course …. but I think it was a bigger priority to save Game 3.
And Martinez has gone off form late in the season. In his last six regular-season games, combined with the two NLDS appearances, Martinez has been clobbered for nine earned runs in 7.1 innings.
He’s not in a good place right now.
And Shildt had to factor that into his decision-making progress.
As we’ve learned in St. Louis in recent seasons, postseason baseball isn’t automatic. It isn’t a baseball birthright. You have to make the most of the opportunity. You have to max out. The urgency should be at its highest level.
Closers have meltdowns; that’s inevitable. But his really becomes a a huge problem when the closer and the manager are BOTH having meltdowns in a critical playoff game. And I say this as someone who believes Shildt is a terrific manager. But he suffers from a common affliction, shared by most MLB managers: this odd security-blanket obsession with closers. Shildt is smarter than this. That’s the regrettable aspect of what we witnessed in the late stages of Game 3.
Score some runs, maybe?
Dakota Hudson vs. Dallas Keuchel in Game 4: The patient Braves will make Hudson throw strikes; to state the obvious Shildt has to be on his toes and extra aggressive to take measures to prevent the Cardinals from slipping into an early multiple-run deficit.) And Miles Mikolas will be standing by, rady to intervene if necessary,
Keuchel was the easy choice by Braves manager Brian Snitker for a simple reason: Julio Teheran, the other candidate to start this game, threw a four-seam fastball 41 percent of the time this season. He used the four-seamer more than any other pitch (by far.) And the Cardinals are good at denting four-seam fastballs. So why start a four-seamer guy when the funky stuff works much better against St. Louis hitters?
Thanks for reading…