Cardinals Fly Back to St. Louis, Leading NLCS 3-2

This helmet is actually two large batting helmets glued together, sort of like how they make limousines. - Jeff Gross

The Cardinals return to the friendly confines of Busch Stadium for Game 6 and Game 7, if necessary. The Dodgers have to win both remaining games in St. Louis; the Cardinals only need to win one. The odds remain stacked in their favor, but the championship remains up in the air.

It must have been anything but a happy flight back to St. Louis, following a disappointing 6-4 loss to the Dodgers. Still, the Cardinals followed up on their victories in two home games by taking one game from the Dodgers in Los Angeles. They return to their home stadium with the chance to clinch the championship on familiar turf.

And I expected nothing else, honestly. At the outset of the series, I said this was likely a 6 or 7 game series. We'll see if my ultimate prediction of a Cardinals victory in seven games comes true. These two teams, like the Pirates and the Cardinals, were very evenly matched. They remain evenly matched.

That one game lead is incredibly important. With a slightly better than 50% chance of taking any one game from the Dodgers, the Cardinals' chances should end up around a 75% chance of taking the championship. As of press time, the updated odds had not posted; prior to Wednesday's loss, the Cardinals' playoff odds were 88.3%, just ahead of the results you'd see from a 50% chance of winning each game.

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Cardinals to watch:

Matt Adams has gotten badly exposed against the Dodgers' pitching, and their left-handers in particular. Adams had a strong platoon split in an admittedly not huge sample size in MLB: he has a 61 wRC+ for his MLB career against lefties, but hits right-handers for a 138 wRC+. Even taking the sample size into consideration, it seems likely that Matt Adams poses a serious liability against lefties. With Allen Craig out with a serious injury, the Cardinals don't have a lot of choice about what they do at first base. The current plan seems to involve burying Adams at 6th or 7th in the order and crossing our collective fingers.

One idea, facing two tough lefties in game 6 and game 7, would be to shift David Freese across the diamond to first base, put Matt Carpenter at [third base -ed.], and start Daniel Descalso or Kolten Wong at second. This solution would probably merely shift the haplessness around, since both Descalso and Wong are left-handers as well. Neither are impressive hitters. The minor upside here might be to make Matt Adams available in high-leverage spots as a pinch hitter against right handed relievers.  Since the Dodgers are carrying only one left-handed reliever, they would be hard-pressed to counter Adams effectively in late innings. The move might also improve the infield defense somewhat, given Freese's recent struggles to manage the third-base side of the infield. Carpenter is a defensive upgrade on Freese at third, and Wong (and maybe even Descalso) is a defensive upgrade on Carpenter.

I'm not sure that such a proposal ultimately helps the club, but it's something worth some discussion, at minimum. Neither option is ideal, but the Cardinals find themselves in a position where every run matters.

******

Michael Wacha has gotten a lot of love, almost all of it deserved. Across 54 innings as a regular season starter, he struck out 21% of the batters he faced, and walked 8% of them. He had a 3.25 FIP and a 3.78 xFIP in his 10 starts. In the postseason, he's been even better, with an 0.64 ERA, a 2.19 FIP, and a 2.82 xFIP over 2 starts and 14 innings. He finished the season strong, only allowing seven runs in 52 innings since August 19 (arbitrary endpoint warning), striking out 56 and walking 15 in that stretch. Whether that's the progress of a rookie figuring out the majors, or ordinary baseball weirdness in a small sample size is up for debate. My heart says the former; my brain, the latter.

After Wednesday's disappointing Joe Kelly start, Wacha is the only postseason starter that remains unsullied by a postseason loss. Can he keep up his streak of stellar performance and become the pitching hero he seems, at the moment, destined to be? Or will his impossibly good performance crumble, even a little?

******

Shelby Miller has taken over the official role of getting the bullpen catcher ready to warm up other relievers. He was so MIA I believe the California Highway Patrol put out an Amber Alert for him. If you have seen a young man with a toothy smile and a difficult-to-hit fastball, please call your local law enforcement.

The non-usage of Miller has gone from troubling to bizarre. They could be trying to manage his innings, but they keep warming him up to come into games early on, which would seem to indicate that they think he could soak up innings, if needed. It's hard to imagine that they lost so much faith in their #2 or #3 starter that they don't think that he could even soak up some innings.

He did have a bizarre split of performance, with a first-half 3.07 FIP and 3.34 xFIP, but a 4.59 FIP and 4.33 xFIP in the second half. It's not clear whether that's some kind of sample size artifact, or whether it reflects declining ability. The club could definitely believe that Miller has become injured or ineffective from overuse. Whatever their rationale, it seems clear that we will see little more of Shelby this year than low-leverage relief innings, if at all.

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Edward Mujica was another reliever with a strong season overall, but a late season decline. Mujica's late season ineffectiveness was capped by his own admission of exhaustion. He has been mostly unused during this series. His appearance yesterday and contribution of a solo home run to the Dodgers' run total probably did not help the club's perception of his current pitching ability.

If the club did not intend to use Mujica or Miller, I wish they had chosen to put Tyler Lyons (or Sam Freeman) on the postseason roster. Lyons was a surprisingly effective starter, with a 3.73 FIP over 8 starts and 4 relief appearances. Lyons should be even more effective as a reliever, especially against Dodger team featuring several key lefties. Should the Cardinals make the World Series, I would hope Lyons would be added to the roster, since the Cardinals clearly have little appetite for using Miller or Mujica in the postseason.

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