Game Three was rough. That might have been the most emotionally draining loss of the season for Cardinals fan, and understandably so. Blowing a one-run lead in the ninth inning after a 38-year-old Adam Wainwright tossed an absolute gem in what could be the last start of his career is about as brutal as it gets. Wainwright earned and deserved the win, but Carlos Martinez prevented him from getting it. The bigger issue than Martinez’s performance is Mike Shildt’s decision to put him in the game. Ironically, Shildt makes a regrettable decision the day after I wrote an article praising him for his management of Game 1, but alas, baseball can be a fickle sport.
This is just one specific scenario that centers around the broader debate of the necessity of the closer role, but using Carlos Martinez to pitch the ninth inning of Game 3 was not a smart move by Shildt. In Game 1, Martinez entered with a four run lead and “closed out” the game by allowing three runs to cross the plate. Additionally, he got into some personal beef with Ronald Acuna Jr. over his celebration of a home run. Neither of these things are particularly beneficial for either himself or the team. His perfomance did not inspire confidence and his beef with Acuna leaves questions as to his mental and emotional readiness to pitch on such a large stage. With this in mind, it was a questionable decision for Shildt to use Martinez to close out Game 3 as opposed to using Giovanny Gallegos.
Clearly a manager does not want to have a quick trigger finger. He cannot stop using a reliever after one bad outing. It makes sense that Shildt would want to show Martinez that he still has confidence in his ability to get outs and keep runs off the scoreboard. However, there is a lot more criteria than a pitcher’s feelings that needs to be considered when making such a crucial decision, especially in the playoffs.
Giovanny Gallegos has been the Cardinals best reliever all season and had already warmed up in the seventh or eighth inning in case he was needed to relieve Wainwright. He was clearly ready to go if he was needed and Shildt was prepared to bring him into a game with multiple runners on base and a one run lead. That takes a high degree of confidence from a manager. So, if Shildt was willing to bring him into the game in such a crucial situation, why was he not willing to let him close out the game? The only answer that makes sense is that Carlos Martinez is the closer and the closer must pitch the ninth inning if his team has the lead. This is frustrating because if the role of Gallegos has been to enter game in key situations and prevent the damage that could turn the tide of the game, is there any better situation for him to enter than a 1-0 game in the ninth inning in Game 3 of the NLDS. This seems like a key situation that would have been prime for Gallegos is Shildt was willing to give him the ball.
It does not make sense for Shildt to throw a worse pitcher, like Martinez, in this situation, even if he is the closer. Gallegos has been a better pitcher all season, posting a 2.31 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 3.59 xFIP. Martinez has a better FIP (2.86), but has not been as successful in terms of ERA (3.17) or xFIP (3.76). Even if these numbers are not significantly worse, Gallegos pitched well in Game 1, striking out two and allowing two inherited runners to score on a play that probably should have been made by Tommy Edman. The defense did not help him, but he should have left the game with the same score as when he entered based on how well he pitched. Martinez can not say the same of his nearly disastrous ninth inning. With both recent and season-long results on his side, it would have made a lot more sense to use Gallegos to close the game even if he is not the “closer”.
There are some practical reasons for the existence of the closer role. It establishes consistency in the bullpen and helps pitchers mentally prepare for outings because they know exactly when they will be called on to pitch. This kind of stability can make it easier for a pitcher to do his job. It is understandable that Shildt would want to maintain this consistency in the playoffs and keep Martinez in the same role that he is accustomed to having. However, in the playoffs, players and managers must be willing to adapt and roles must become less concrete. It is common for starters to enter the game in relief during the playoffs, so Shildt should no be so insistent on using Martinez as the closer, especially when Gallegos is still available.
On the other hand, if Martinez entered Game 3 in the ninth and pitched a 1-2-3 inning then maybe it appears that Shildt made the right decision. However, that does not change the fact that Gallegos is the better pitcher and would have been the safer option in that situation.
However, it did not help that Shildt decided to intentionally walk Brian McCann, who is batting .250 in the NLDS for Dansby Swanson who had already tallied two hits on the night and finished with a .455 batting average in the series. This decision would not have set up any pitcher for success, and especially not one who had already been struggling.
Even so, Shildt needs to be willing to be flexible with his bullpen assignments. Martinez does not always need to pitch the ninth and Gallegos does not need to exclusively pitch any inning but the ninth. This should allow the Cardinals to have their best pitchers available to pitch in the most important spots, not just the ones that their roles assign to them.