ST. LOUIS — First off, let’s get this out of the way. Mike Shildt didn’t bat when the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning of their division-clinching victory over the Braves. He didn’t have any at-bats in the first two games of the NLCS as the Cardinals totaled just 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 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 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 to an extent. The Cardinals had a chase rate — swinging on pitches outside of the strike zone — of 28.4 percent in the regular season and 31.7 percent in these two games. On pitches early in the count — 0-0, 0-1 or 1-0 — their chasing is up from 19.5 percent to 21.6 percent. 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 gets 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 the bases-loaded jam (although the Cardinals would lose the 1-0 lead in the ninth).
On Saturday, Wainwright was once again terrific heading into the eighth, allowing 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 ticks 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 just 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 afterwards. “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 may 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 is 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 NLDS, 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 he’s 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 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 A.J. Hinch of the 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 move back east. 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.”
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CC Sabathia said the reception he got from fans was the main reason he got so emotional as he walked off the field for the final time in his career after suffering a shoulder injury in Game 4 of the ALCS. And despite the pain and the eventual Yankees loss, he says he feels blessed and at peace with how he went out. “I threw until I couldn’t anymore.”
Reports — MLB proposes overhaul of minor leagues, elimination of 40 teams
Major League Baseball is in negotiations with its 160 minor league teams about efforts to “reorganize elements of the system” that could reduce the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120, according to reports.
The current agreement between MLB and the minor league teams — called the Professional Baseball Agreement — expires at the end of the 2020 season. MLB is looking to make some major changes, according to reports, that would overhaul all levels of the minors, particularly at low Class A and below.
Baseball America was the first to report the proposal and detail the restructuring.
Major League Baseball issued a statement to The New York Times saying that discussions are ongoing.
“We are in discussions with the owners of the Minor League teams to reorganize elements of the system with the goal of improving the working conditions of minor league players,” the MLB statement said, “including upgrading the facilities to Major League standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the MLB clubs and affiliates.”
Other major changes would involve overhauling full-season minor leagues and shuffling teams throughout the Triple-A, Double-A, high Class A and low Class A levels into leagues that are more geographically friendly, according to Baseball America.
According to the reports, the 40 teams at the lower levels that are not included in this venture would be reclassified into a “Dream League,” which would be run jointly by MLB and Minor League Baseball and would include players who were not selected in the draft, which under this proposal would be moved from June to August and reduced to 20-25 rounds from the total of up to 40 in its current format.
According to The New York Times, Pat O’Conner, the president of Minor League Baseball, sent a letter warning teams of “significant impending changes” and advised not making any major decisions, including financial commitments, beyond the 2020 season.
Some minor league teams would lose existing affiliations with major league franchises under the proposal, according to the reports.
Giancarlo Stanton returns from quad injury as Yankees’ DH for Game 5
Stanton is the team’s starting designated hitter and will hit cleanup in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros, with Houston holding a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The left fielder suffered a right quadriceps strain in Game 1, a 7-0 win for the Yankees, while legging out a single in his first at-bat. Stanton also had a solo home run in the sixth inning of that game.
Manager Aaron Boone said ahead of Game 4, an 8-3 loss for the Yankees, that Stanton was available as a pinch hitter and that he was considering Stanton as the designated hitter for Friday’s game.
Boone hopes Stanton’s bat will spark a morose Yankees offense that scored a total of six runs in their three consecutive losses against Houston.
Having Stanton at DH meant benching Edwin Encarnacion, who is struggling in the ALCS, hitting .067 (1-for-15) with eight strikeouts.
Boone said before Game 5 that it would be a tough choice to start Stanton over Encarnacion. “[Encarnacion] is a great hitter that can wreck a game in a hurry,” Boone said. “You’re trying to kind of walk that line, strike that balance. I would want to feel pretty good about it because if [Stanton] goes in there, it’s taking out a good player.”
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