Tomorrow, the Cardinals will go head-to-head with the Atlanta Braves for the right to play in the National League Championship Series. Since the winner of the NLCS gets to play in the World Series, tomorrow is kind of important. It’s the most important game of the year... until the next one, if applicable. The Cardinals have the right man pitching in Jack Flaherty and the Braves... would probably prefer Mike Soroka, however Mike Foltynewicz dominated in Game 2, so he’s a worthy choice too. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
See, the National League Division Series has been around for a relatively recent period of baseball history, spanning only 25 years. The Cardinals and Braves are no stranger to the NLDS. The Cardinals will be playing in their 14th NLDS while the Braves are playing in an NL record 15th NLDS. However, the Braves have gone 6-8 and their most recent win was in 2001, while the Cardinals are 10-3, with their most recent win being in 2014.
The vast majority of division series playoff matchups do not last five games. Of the Cardinals 13 matchups, this will only be their fifth series that lasted five games, while the Braves have lasted five games just three times prior to 2019. The Braves are 0-3 in Game 5s while the Cardinals are 3-1. Just based off the fact that the playoffs are mostly a crapshoot and the Cardinals and Braves are an essentially even matchup, you’d kind of expect baseball to reward the Braves here. But that’s not how baseball works thankfully.
I’m not suggesting these stats mean anything, but I did want to look at the brief history of Game 5s in the NLDS for the Cardinals. Like I said, there’s only been four since 1994 despite playing in 14 of them, but they all had plenty of drama.
The 2001 Diamondbacks are a fascinating team. Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez combined for 26.5 fWAR. They were supported by Reggie Sanders, Mark Grace, and Craig Counsell, who themselves combined for 7.6 fWAR. Nobody else on this team had better than 2 fWAR. That’s not a joke. This was a great team entirely reliant on six players.
In Game 1, Schilling pitched a complete game shutout in a 1-0 win. In Game 2, Randy Johnson was outdueled by Woody Williams (who pitched 7 IP, ER, 9 Ks, BB) in a 4-1 win. Cardinals lost a big one in Game 3, with Mike Matthews falling apart and blowing the game in a 5-3 loss in a Miguel Batista start. With a 2-1 series lead, the Diamondbacks went to somebody named Albie Lopez, who lasted three innings and gave up 4 runs, which was enough for a 4-1 win.
That set the stage for Game 5 with Schilling pitching again. In the 4th inning, one of the six good players the Diamondbacks had, future Cardinal Sanders, hit a solo home run. That was Matt Morris’ only blemish, lasting 8 innings and only allowing one run. Problem was that Schilling was better. Going into the 8th inning, the score stayed 1-0 DBacks. With two outs, JD Drew hit a solo home run to tie it up. The Cardinals tried to add on in the 9th with Jim Edmonds hitting a leadoff single, but uh, I don’t know how to express this, but La Russa pinch hit for Mark McGwire - MARK MCGWIRE! - with... Kerry Robinson. And then had him bunt. Cool. 2001 was so long ago, cause no manager in the world is doing anything remotely like that now. McGwire was 0-3 with three strikeouts, but still.... dude had a .300 ISO that year.
Anyway, Dave Veres came in for Morris, he allowed a double, they bunted him to third, and he was taken out for Steve Kline. Kline issued an IBB to face Tony Womack, the Cardinals got some false hope by throwing out the guy at third base, and Womack hit a single to send them to the NLCS and eventually the World Series. They beat the Yankees so all is forgiven.
I’ll write much less about this year, because this was freaking referenced a lot in Adam Wainwright’s start for Game 3. But the Cardinals were also down 2-1 in 2011 when Roy Oswalt faced Edwin Jackson. Oswalt was in the middle of a sharp decline, though we didn’t know it at the time, and he was still an above average pitcher in 2011. He threw less than 100 innings in his last two seasons following 2011. Jackson meanwhile was in the middle of his prime. So it doesn’t sound as weird when I say Edwin Jackson bested Oswalt in Game 4 to force a Game 5.
For Game 5, Roy Halladay allowed a leadoff triple to Rafael Furcal and a double to Skip Schumaker. First two batters, 1-0. That was the scoring for the entire game. Carpenter needed only 110 pitches for a 3 hit shutout. Halladay needed two batters to get in a groove but it was enough to lose the game.
How did the Cardinals decide to top 2011? Whether they topped it is a matter for discussion, but it is definitely a debate. Because they very quickly went down 6-0 with Adam Wainwright not having it at all. He allowed 3 home runs and six earned runs before being taken out in the middle of the 3rd. The Cardinals tacked on a run in the 4th - walk and a double by Matt Holliday. They tacked on two runs in the 4th as Gio Gonzalez fell apart himself. With men on first and third, he walked the bases loaded before recording an out. The Cardinals scored the first run from a wild pitch, and after another walk, the second one from a third walk. They didn’t even drive in any runs, but shortened the lead to 6-4.
In the 7th, they faced... Edwin Jackson, who immediately walked the first man he faced, and then allowed a double. The Cardinals drove in one run from a groundout and the other runner was stranded. There were a lot of missed opportunities in this comeback actually. In the 8th, Daniel Descalso shortened the lead to 6-5. Jason Motte gave up a run in the bottom of the inning, and it was now a comfortable 2-run lead.
Enter Drew Storen. He looked fine at first. He allowed a leadoff double to Carlos Beltran, but that’s par for the course for any pitcher facing Beltran in October. Holliday grounded out and Allen Craig struck out. Then walk. Another walk. Descalso lined a ball that Desmond tried to make a diving play on and it hit off his glove and went into the outfield. Pinch-runner Adron Chambers scored to tie the game. After a stolen base that went uncontested, the he who shall not be named for Nats fans hit a line drive opposite field single to score 2.. The Nats, dejected they got beat by Pete Kozma, went down 1-2-3 in the 9th.
The Cardinals blew out the Pirates in Game 1 and the Pirates blew out the Cardinals in Game 2. Game 3 was the first competitive game, with the Cardinals tying it in the 8th, but the Cardinals giving two runs back in the bottom and eventually losing 5-3. In Game 4, Michael Wacha went 7.1 IP, allowing a solo shot to Pedro Alvarez before being taken out. The Cards meanwhile hit a 2-run home run in the 6th, and that was enough for a 2-1 win.
Wainwright got a second shot at a Game 5 NLDS and this time, he lasted more than 2.1 IP. He pitched a complete game. This game was closer than the final score suggests as the Cards went in the 8th, leading just 3-1. But they scored three runs off... hey Mark Melancon to move the score to 6-1 and give Wainwright more breathing room for the 9th.
If my words don’t suffice, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS is on Youtube. Literally the entire game, you just have to manually skip the parts where the commercial breaks happen. And Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS is also completely on Youtube. If you want to pump yourself up for tomorrow, these would not be bad options.