The Cardinals and Braves are giving us quite a show in their NL Division Series. It’s filled with drama, suspense, some moments of pure horror, and bits of comedy.
More than anything, it’s just wildly entertaining. This NLDS will get you off your feet to stand in anticipation of the next pivotal confrontation. This NLDS will knock you off your feet and leave you flattened with disappointment. This NLDS isn’t for the faint of heart, or the faint of hope.
After relinquishing a lead and giving away Game 3 on Sunday, the Cardinals took one back from the Braves in Game 4, scrabbling their way to a 5-4 comeback victory in front of announced crowd of 42,203 at Busch Stadium.
The celebrated and venerated hero was the iconic Yadier Molina, who tied it in the eighth and won it in the 10th.
The overlooked heroes were seven Cardinals relievers who pitched out of danger multiple times to shut out the frustrated Braves over the final 5 and ⅓ innings of this pulsating competition.
The power at the plate was provided by Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt, who combined for three homers, two by the resurgent Ozuna.
The power of belief was provided by 25 Cardinals who weren’t ready to go quietly into the offseason. So the home team made an honest stand, won a doozy of a game, and pushed the Braves and this series back to Atlanta for Wednesday’s Game 5. The winner advances to the NL Championship Series. The loser advances to a golf resort, or maybe a beach.
According to MLB, in division series history, home teams have a 13-19 record in winner-take-all Game 5s. The last time that an LDS went the full five, in 2017, the visiting teams won — with the Cubs beating the Nationals and the Yankees taking out the Indians.
Let’s talk about it, shall we?
A SERIES OF COMEBACKS: In Game 1 the Braves led 3-1 through seven innings and, according to Baseball Reference, had an 85 percent chance to win. The Atlanta bullpen imploded, the Cardinals attacked, and St. Louis won 7-6. In Game 3, the Cardinals’ probability of winning stood at 83 percent before Dansby Swanson smoked a two-out double to tie the game 1-1. Atlanta added two more runs and stunned the Busch Stadium crowd with a 3-1 victory. And in Monday’s Game 4, the Braves were up 4-3 with two outs in the eighth and had a winning expectancy of 73 percent before Yadier Molina tied the game with a single to right. That kept St. Louis in the hunt until Molina won it in the bottom of the 10th with a sac fly.
THE BRAVES SAY THEY HANDED THIS GAME TO THE CARDINALS: After hitting the sacrifice fly that won the game walk-off style in the 10th, Molina threw his bat, hammer style, into to the outfield and gave the throat-slashing sign as he departed the field of play. But as David O’Brien of The Athletic wrote, and I quote, “the Braves cut their own throats, figuratively speaking, by going 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position — often in extremely good scoring position. They let this one get away.”
Said first baseman Freedie Freeman: “Yeah, especially when you have a lead in the eighth inning, especially when you have all those opportunities, and we didn’t cash in.”
The Cardinals know the feeling.
It’s been that kind of series.
BASEBALL HERO: Molina punched a two-out, RBI single to just over the head of a leaping Freeman in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game 4-4. The rescue was timely and monumentally important after they Cardinals, staring at elimination, had lost their 3-1 lead in the top of the fifth. And Molina finished off the Braves with the sac fly that easily scored Kolten Wong, who opened the 10th with a double off Braves reliever Julio Teheran.
This was Molina’s 93rd postseason game, second among catches in MLB postseason history to the Yankees’ Jorge Posada. Molina also ranks tied for second among catchers all-time with 33 postseason RBIs, is second with 93 hits, and is second with 17 doubles.
Fourteen postseasons as the heart and soul and the ribs and lungs and the spine and the central nervous system of the Cardinals. Four NL pennants, two World Series titles, nine All-Star games, nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, seventh all-time in games caught, nearly 2,000 career hits, and the most feared catcher defensively of his generation. And yet you have morons out there who insist that he’s overrated and not a Hall of Famer.
Kiss my buttocks.
MOLINA PART TWO: OK, so we’ve talked about his drama-time, money-time delivery of two critical RBIs in Game 4. But think about this: he caught eight different pitchers in this game, including a rookie starter, Dakota Hudson, making his first postseason appearance. Then came a procession of seven standard relievers: lefty Tyler Webb, RH Giovanny Gallegos, RH John Brebbia, lefty Andrew Miller, RH Ryan Helsley, and RH Carlos Martinez. And then, in the 10th, Molina received pitches from starter Miles Mikolas — who hadn’t worked relief in an MLB game since 2013.
Facing 43 batters.
Throwing 160 pitches.
Atlanta scored one earned run.
The Cardinals have a fine 3.00 ERA through four games.
Great quote from Mikolas, as told to the Post-Dispatch: “We’ve played some of our best ball this year with our backs to wall, in crunch time, (and) you’ve got watch. Sometimes you see it in his face. Sometimes you see it in his eyes. When you’ve got a guy like Yadi telling you that you can do it and there are similarities between this team and other teams he’s been on — using examples, making connections — it gives you a lot of confidence. When a guy like that tells you it’s going to be OK, we got this, you stop and that goes right to your heart. You believe every word he says.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER: Through four games, lets compare the offensive performances of each team’s set of 3-4-5 hitters.
⇒ Braves: Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Nick Markakis are 7 for 48 (.146), with three RBIs, three extra-base hits, 12 strikeouts, four walks, three runs.
⇒ Cardinals: Goldschmidt, Ozuna and Molina are 18 for 49 (.367) with eight RBIs, 11 extra-base hits, six strikeouts, four walks and eight runs.
If you want to narrow this to the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, here’s what it looks like:
Freeman and Donaldson: 4 for 31, two extra-base hits, three RBIs.
Goldschmidt and Ozuna: 15 for 33, 11 extra-base hits (including four homers), six RBIs.
Braves right fielder Matt Joyce praised the Cardinals’ pitchers … and their catcher.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to their starting staff,” Joyce told reporters after Game 4. “They’ve come out and done a great job of not really opening the door to a lot of chances. They’ve pitched pretty well and pitched tough, hit their spots and changed speeds. Obviously, Yadi’s one of the best at calling a game back out there and makes it extremely tough for us. It is what it is. Now we’ve got to shake it off and get back home.”
BIG HITS ARE HARD TO FIND: The Braves are a combined 8 for 65 with runners in scoring position during the series, a batting average of .153. The Cardinals (4 for 31) are doing slightly better than the Braves (4 for 34.)
SORRY TO MESS WITH THE EASY AND GLOSSY NARRATIVE, BUT … Carlos Martinez pitched the ninth inning in Game 4 because the other options were Genesis Cabrera and Daniel Ponce de Leon. With the pitcher’s spot due up in the bottom of the ninth, manager Mike Shildt wasn’t going to use Mikolas in the ninth, lift him for a pinch hitter and limit his participation to one inning. Mikolas had to be deployed to provide multiple innings, if necessary. Cabrera and Ponce de Leon are there for emergencies. Martinez was the only realistic (and sensible) option.
That is all.
Now we return you to your regularly scheduled story of a manager’s belief in a closer that needed redemption and found it on a glorious sun-splashed day at Busch Stadium.
Or something like that.
My snarkiness aside, a composed Martinez did a helluva job of getting out of a tight spot after giving up a leadoff double to start the ninth.
CALLING DEXTER FOWLER: A few moments ago, I mentioned that Ozuna and Goldy are batting a combined .455 with 11 extra-base hits in the series. But they’ve also driven in only six runs, combined.
The “only” part (with RBI count) isn’t their fault. The Cardinals’ 1.563 OPS in the No. 3 spot (Goldschmidt) ranks first among the postseason teams.
The OPS (1.500) in the No. 4 spot (Ozuna) ranks second.
But they aren’t getting enough opportunities to drive in runs.
Fowler, who bats leadoff, is 1 for 17 with a walk. Through four games the Cards have a .111 OBP in the leadoff spot and a .167 OBP in the No. 2 hole. The top two positions on the lineup card have produced (combined) four hits and a walk.
IS OZUNA ENHANCING HIS FREE-AGENT VALUE? Could be. Here’s an intelligent assessment from our friend Craig Edwards at FanGraphs:
“A word on Ozuna: The outfielder is having a fantastic series, with three doubles and two home runs among his eight hits in four games. He’s heading into free agency after what could be classified as a solid season. He put up a 110 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR at 28 years old. The free agent market for him remains murky, but it is possible his statistics this year underrate Ozuna’s performance.
“Based on exit velocity and launch angle, his .379 xwOBA is the 19th-best mark in the game. The 38-point gap between his wOBA and his xWOBA was the biggest in baseball among 135 qualified hitters.
“The five players directly above and below him include Alex Bregman, Josh Donaldson, Pete Alonso, and DJ LeMahieu. Ozuna isn’t heavily shifted against and isn’t an incredibly slow runner such that he should be expected to have a much lower wOBA, so his underperformance is mainly due to his home park — Busch Stadium is tough on righties — and bad luck.
“The 10 players closest to Ozuna in xwOBA averaged a 136 wRC+ and with neutral luck, we’d be talking about Ozuna’s five-win season this year.”
Thanks for reading …