Bernie on the Cardinals: It’s Another Game 5 Showdown. Are You Ready For More Drama?

It’s been a great series, overloaded with intensity and passion and turbulent emotional swings. It’s everything you hope for in a competition. It’s an example of why we love sports.

The NLDS comes to a close today in Atlanta.

Game 5.

Game on.

The Cardinals and Braves. Who will go on? Who will go home?

The winning team will pop the champagne, celebrate, and noisily head to the NLCS. The loser will pop out of the postseason and quietly matriculate into the offseason.

The series is tied 2-2. Two of the four games have been decided by a run. None of the four have been settled by more than a three-run margin. One went into extra innings.

Three runs separate these teams, with the Braves outscoring the Cardinals 16-13. The drama usually kicks in late in the proceedings, with 18 of the 29 total runs scored from the sixth inning on.

The Cardinals won twice — first in Game 1, the again in Game 4 — with late rallies. The Braves won Game 3 by scoring three in the top of the ninth to shock a sellout Busch Stadium crowd into silence.

“This has been an unbelievable series,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “My God, both teams just banging at each other and the close games and the late-inning heroics. It’s been something.

“It’s been exhausting, I know, when you’re a part of it. But it’s been a heck of a series both sides. I guess it’s only fitting that we’re going to be going out there in a winner-take-all type atmosphere tomorrow.

“So this place will be rocking. And it’s going to be a great experience, I think. And it’s going to be fun to feel and experience what we’re in for.”

The Braves and Cardinals have brought a cliche to life: it really is a game of inches.

Think of Yadier Molina’s soft-liner single — all but laced with red ribbon — that barely cleared the desperate, leaping, leather reach of first baseman’s Freddie Freeman’s glove at first base in the eighth inning of Game 4. This threaded-needle of a hit tied the game 4-4 and gave the Cardinals a chance to win it in the 10th.

And yeah, you better believe that a little luck plays a part in this. It’s called “Baseball.” Dave Sheinen of the Washington Post offered this note in his reflection of Game 4:

“In the ninth and 10th innings alone, the Braves made four outs on balls that left the bat at 100 mph or greater; this season, major league hitters batted .636 on balls with such an exit velocity. But the eighth-inning base hit that sent the game to extra innings, the single by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina off the tip of Freeman’s glove at first base, clocked in at 63.4 mph — the third-lowest of the 49 batted balls Monday.”

I have a few dollops of advice:

* Make sure to exhale.

* Stock up on the beverages.

* Do not frighten the pets by hollering at the TV set.

* Unless one of these teams bullies its way to a 6-0 lead, don’t freak out and flip to a premature conclusion. Then again … didn’t the Washington Nationals have an early 6-0 lead on the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS? Well, come to remember it — yeah. And I don’t have to tell you who won that game.

* If the Cardinals have the lead in the bottom of the ninth, and Carlos Martinez walks in from the bullpen to protect it: think good thoughts. Transmit those positive vibes across state lines, from your home or favorite gathering spot — and all the way to the pitching mound at SunTrust Park … either that, or seek refuge in the nearest closet until it’s over.

Through the Bill DeWitt Jr. Era of Cardinals baseball (1996-present) the team has played in several thrilling, spectacular Game 5 winner-take-all affairs.

I’ll never forget the Cardinals’ ninth-inning comeback — Pete Kozma! — to stun the Nationals in 2012.

The year before that, Chris Carpenter outdueled future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in a 1-0 shutout victory in Game 5 at Philadelphia. As these two warriors went at it, and this duel burned into the later innings, I think I held my breath on every pitch, sitting there in the pressbox at Philly.

There was the close-miss, close call of the 2001 NLDS, with Tony Womack’s walk-off single lifting Arizona to a 2-1 win over Matt Morris and the visiting Cardinals — not long after J.D. Drew had tied it with a homer off Curt Schilling.

The 2013 NLDS Game 5 is underrated. Sure, the final score was 6-1 Cardinals. Perhaps a bit short on heart-stopping theatrics, but a must-win game that was brought home safely by David Freese (an early two-run homer off Gerrit Cole) and Adam Wainwright (9 IP, one run) is just special.

For whatever it’s worth — and that would be approximately nothing — FanGraphs gives the Cardinals a 51.4 percent chance of winning Game 5. And at FiveThirtyEight, the Cards’ are a 51 percent favorite to win.

Thoughts:

1. The Cardinals have to be a helluva lot smarter in their second time around in the matchup against Braves’ RH starter Mike Foltynewicz. He had STL hitters chasing his slider all afternoon in Game 2. He threw 40 sliders during his seven shutout innings. According to Brooks Baseball, 32.5 percent of Folty’s sliders were out of the strike zone. The Cardinals couldn’t lay off of them, swinging at his slider 52.5 percent of the time. His whiff-swing rate on the slider was an astonishing 47.6 percent.

With two strikes, Folty used the slider 85 percent of the time vs. the Cards’ RH batters, and 71 percent of the time on two-strike counts against their LH batters. In at bats that ended with a Folty slider, the Cardinals went 2 for 13 (both singles) with seven strikeouts.

2. Cardinals’ hitters need to step it up for their own sake, and for the sake of the team. But also for Jack Flaherty, assuming that he pitches well again today, in Game 5. I made a minor mistake in calculating stats when I ran a note on this last week, so let’s update and do it again…

Including the 3-0 loss to the Braves in Game 2, Flaherty has been credited with 21 quality starts this season. And as you might imagine, he’s been very effective in the 21 quality starts, pitching to a 2.04 ERA. But the Cardinals were only 11-10 in those 21 games. In their 10 losses during a Flaherty quality start, the hitters scored only 14 total runs.

With NLDS Game 2 included, Flaherty has a 1.11 ERA with a 34 percent strikeout rate in 17 starts since July 7. But the Cardinals are only 10-7 in those Flaherty starts. That’s what happens when you score only seven runs, total, in the seven losses.

3. I’m going to repeat and update a stat from Tuesday’s piece: Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna combined for 15 hits, 11 for extra bases, in the first four games. But they have only six RBIs between them. That’s because the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the Cardinals lineup (hitting in front of Goldy and Ozuna) have reached base only five times in 36 plate appearances. That’s a .139 onbase percentage. And that must change in Game 5.

4. To state the obvious: the Cardinals would benefit from a Paul DeJong power show. Perhaps DeJong can find a hanging slider and blast it over the outfield wall in left field today. But it’s been a tough go for DeJong, who has batted only .206 with a .702 OPS since the end of April. In his final 28 regular-season games, DeJong batted .168 with a .631 OPS, and struck out in 34 percent of his 114 plate appearances. The struggles have continued in the NLDS; DeJong is 2 for 14 with six strikeouts. But he has the power, and the potential, to put some dynamite in the Cards’ offense.

5. There’s plenty of pressure on both teams in Game 5, but the Braves are carrying a heavier burden. Why?

— They had a chance to put the Cardinals away in Game 4 and failed.

— They are at home. That’s supposed to provide an advantage.

— The Braves haven’t prevailed in a postseason a postseason series since 2001.

In their seven NLDS competitions between 2002 and 2018 the Braves lost all seven — plus the 2012 wild-card game. Monday’s 5-4 setback in St. Louis marked the sixth consecutive defeat for the Atlanta franchise in games where the Braves had an opportunity to advance to the next round.

Except for last season’s NLDS loss to the Dodgers, that abysmal history doesn’t belong to current Braves’ players. But they’ve heard plenty about it. Way too much about it. And the persistent line of questioning about previous postseason fades only increases the heat on the 2019 Braves.

Before the series I picked the Cardinals to win in five games. I’ll stick with that.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the game…

–Bernie