In what has been an entertaining series filled with exciting individual match ups, the most interesting matchup so far has been the one between the managers. Mike Shildt and Brian Sniitker made a bevy of substitutions and pitching changes in response to one another in the first game of the series and this gives us a chance to see inside their minds and analyze their strategies. It also represented a face off between two of the probable contenders for NL manager of the year. In what looks to be a tightly contested series, the decisons of these managers could make all the difference for their teams’ playoff success.
The first key, controversial decision in the game came in the fifth inning when Snitker decided to go to the bullpen after Dallas Keuchel had already allowed one run in the fifth and then yielded a double to put a runner on second with two outs. This was an interesting decision becasue Keuchel had been pitching pretty well and had thrown just 74 pitches. The run that he gave up was not even due to ineffectiveness on the mound. Harrison Bader reached first on an infield single that did not make it past the pitcher’s mound, then advanced to third on a bunt and a stolen base. He then came around to score on an RBI groundout. Even the double that he allowed after Bader scored was only a double because Nick Markakis failed to make a diving catch. This delay caused Edman to take second as well. Keuchel did not even pitch poorly or allow any hard contact, yet he was pulled from the game. It makes sense for managers to be aggressive with their bullpen utilization in the playoffs, but this seemed to be a bit early to pull Keuchel. Nevertheless, Darren O’ Day entered the game and recorded the final out of the inning.
When it was the Braves turn to hit in the bottom half of the inning, O’ Day was on deck, but Snitker decided to pinch hit for him with one out and nobody on base. The pinch hitter - Rafael Ortega - ended up flying out and no Braves crossed the plate in the inning. There are two sides to this decision once again. On one hand, it makes sense to use a pinch hitter in hopes of putting someone on base with the top of the lineup coming up to bat. however, after pulling Keuchel early, the Braves needed to cover some innings. Even though O’ Day was coming back from a major injury and had only thrown 5 1⁄3 MLB innings all season, he has been a very effective pitcher over the course of his career and it could have made a big difference for the Braves if he could have thrown another inning.
After taking O’ Day out of the the game, Snitker called on Shane Greene to pitch the sixth. Greene is one of the Braves better relievers, even though he struggled a little bit after being traded from Detroit. After being such a high profile acquisition it was interesting to see him pitching in a bases empty situation in the sixth inning. He seemed like a pitcher that would be used in later innings or key situations. He pitched a scoreless inning to keep the game knotted at one.
Things got interesting in the bottom of the sixth, however, as Shildt and Snitker dueled each other with their substitutions. Shildt began the sixth inning by bringing Tyler Webb into the game, relieving Miles Mikolas who had tossed 78 pitches in the game. Mikolas had been throwing the ball well, but it appears that this change was made in order to give the Cardinals the platoon advantage against left-handers Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. Webb forced a groundout from Freeman, but then hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch. Nick Markakis followed that up with a double to put runners on second and third. Snitker then pinch hit righty Adan Duvall for left-hander Matt Joyce. This gave the Braves the platoon advantage, but it would not matter as Duvall was intentionally walked. This was a prime situation for an intentional walk and it would have been interesting to see if Shidlt would have chosen to walk Joyce if he was allowed to hit. Then, Snitker used right-hander Francisco Cervelli as a pinch hitter for lefty Brian McCann. Once again, this substitution was made in order to gain a platoon advantage against the left-handed throwing Webb. Shildt countered by going to his bullpen and bringing in right-hander Giovanny Gallegos.
Gallegos recorded a strikeout and then allowed a hard hit groundball to Dansby Swanson. Third baseman Tommy Edman probably should have made the play to escape the inning unscathed, but instead two runs came around when Paul Dejong made a bad throw to Wong after the deflection fell to the shortstop. Snitker then used Adeiny Hechavarria to pinch hit for Shane Greene with runners on first and second, but he struck out to end the inning.
After this inning, the Braves were left with just two bench players (which would hurt them later) and six relievers. The Braves would go on to use Max Fried to pitch the seventh, and then called on Chris Martin to pitch the eighth. However, Martin hurt himself in warmups and left the game without throwing a pitch. After this, Snitker called for Luke jackosn to pitch the eighth who then allowed a home run and two singles without escaping the inning. Mark Melancon then entered the game looking for the four-out save, but he proved incapable of locking the game down and yielded four runs while collecting just three outs before Sean Newcomb recorded the final out. The Braves were certainly not helped by the Chris Martin injury, but the aggressive bullpen usage came back to bit them because of it. Shane Greene would have been a good pitcher to have available for the eighth inning, instead of the sixth inning as Luke Jackson has shown problems all season in a late inning role. Even though his peripheral numbers suggest that his ERA shoud be lower, he has struggled to record outs in big situations all season. Similarly, Max Fried had a solid season in the bullpen as showed that he was a bullpen weapon in his first appearance. This should have been expected as pitchers tend to get better when they move to the bullpen.
Also, the aggressive use of the bench by Snitker as he relentlessly chased a platoon advantage left him depleted of bench bats in the ninth inning. He was forced to choose between Tyler Flowers or Billy hamilton to lead off the ninth inning and he chose Hamilton. However, he would likely have wanted someone such as Duvall, Ortega, or Cervelli in that spot. Even though his decision worked out as Hamilton walked and then scored on the ensuing Ronald Acuna home run, it is generally not a good idea to rely on Hamilton reaching base. he is an anemic hitter that was forced to hit in a losing situation in the ninth inning. That is generally a situation that any manager would want to avoid.
There was likely a great amount of bullpen mismanagement and bench mismanagement on the part of Brian Snitker, but it gave Shildt the opportunity to capitalize on it.
He was able to save Jose Martinez for a lead off situation in the seventh inning with the Cardinals down 2 runs. Even though he struck out, this was a good situation for the Cardinals. This was also the first pinch hitter that was used and it meant that there were still viable options on the bench for the next two innings. This was important when Matt Carpenter pinch hit for Harrison Bader in the eighth inning and tied up the game with an RBI bloop single.
Shildt also showed his tactical ability with his bullpen usage. Bringing in Webb to face a lefty heavy portion of the Braves lineup was a good decision, even though it did not work out. He then calmly neutralized any potential platoon advantage for the Braves in the sixth inning with minimal substitutions (one call to the bullpen) while also putting his best reliever (Gallegos) in a key situation in the sixth. Once again, even though the Braves scored, it was still a smart move. Then, using Brebbia to open the seventh inning against two right-handers before giving the ball to Andrew Miller to face the always dangerous Freddie Freeman in what would likely be his last at-bat if things went smoothly, as well as Nick Markakis, was a smart move. Saving Ryan Helsley, who had been solid all season, for the eighth was also very helpful, even though he only got one out in two batters. The, bringing in Carlos Martinez for the four-out save was the final piece of a masterful performance by Shildt. Martinez struggled, but that does not change the fact that he is a solid pitcher.
Another bit of genius from Shildt was double switching Randy Arozarena into the game in the eighth inning was huge for the Cardinals defense. This allowed Arozarena to man center field instead of Dexter Fowler, who got pushed to right field. This then pushed Tommy Edman to third base and brought Matt Carpenter out of the game. That is a defensive alignment that inspires more confidence than one with Carpenter at third and Fowler in center. In a tied game, this allowed the Cardinals to prevent mistakes in the field while preventing Carlos Martinez from leading off the next inning.
Shidlt completely outmanaged his counterpart in the first game of the series and set the scene for what could be a very intriguing series in terms of managerial decisions. If Shidlt can keep the decision making process from game one and apply it to the rest of the Cardinals games, then the Redbirds will be at an advantage against whatever team they play.