It’s Wild Card day!
The Cardinals have reached the postseason for the third year in a row and I could not be more excited about it. There was something special about a team that spent the whole summer on the outside looking in before going on a magical winning streak to reach the Selig game.
I’ve talked before about how difficult it was for me to view reaching the second Wild Card as a successful season. Well, forget I said that. That was in the before times. You know, before this team went on a magical 17-game win streak and made everything right again with baseball.
File this season down as a successful failure. The goal has been (and should remain) to win the division. The club finished the regular season 5 games short of that goal. That’s a failure. No reason to disguise it as anything else.
Still, it was an amazing month. The team made some history and we got to enjoy it. This September run was as fun as any I have watched in a decade. That’s a success! No reason to take away from that.
With a win tonight, they’ll take one more step toward erasing a forgettable May-August and etching the streak into Cardinals’ lore.
That’s just what it means to be a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals have won their division so many times that anything less than that is a kind of failure. They’ve reached deep into the playoffs so many times that a one-out in the Wild Card round will be forgotten by the end of the week.
It’s weird… but if the Cards advance and make a run in the postseason this year, their win streak will really mean something. If they don’t, it will make for a nice trivia answer down the road but not much else.
The club has ridiculously high standards.
So, the Cardinals need to win tonight. Obviously. How can they do that?
I guess I mean that question in two ways. First, how can they win? We’ll spend much of this article trying to answer that question, at least from the perspective of the pitching staff.
Then again, how can they win? How can this 90-win team that had to have an improbable winning streak to find themselves in this position beat one of the best teams in baseball history?
That’s what this Dodgers team is. Sure, they finished a game back of the Giants and are stuck in the Wild Card game with the Cards. But let’s not confuse the 106-win Dodgers as some second-tier contender. They’ve been playing baseball for a long time and you can still count the number of 106-win teams on your hands and toes, with some little piggies to spare.
They also won the World Series last year after having a .712 winning percentage in the shortened regular season. And 2019? Yeah, they lost in the Division Series but won 106 wins that season too. 2018 was a bit down, but they reached the World Series that year. Then there was the 104-win 2017 that also ended in a World Series loss.
The Dodgers franchise is just really freaking good. They have been freaking good for a long time. And they have some pretty freaking ridiculous playoff successes to show for it.
How can this Cardinals team beat this Dodgers team?
On paper, this looks like a mismatch of monumental proportions. But it’s just one game. Anything can happen. Pete Kozma can miss an infield fly. Matt Adams can hit an HR off a lefty. David Freese can hit a triple. Nelson Cruz can happen.
The Cardinals can win this game a dozen different ways. Let’s try to figure out how.
We’ll focus on the pitching matchup, which is truly one for the ages: Adam Wainwright vs. Max Scherzer.
Scherzer is coming off an incredible season. He produced 5.4 fWAR and an ERA of 2.46. He struck out nearly 12 batters per 9 and walked just 1.8. At 37 years old, he’s pitching just as well now as he did during his prime.
Wainwright is one of the best stories in baseball this season. Few 40-year-olds have matched his 3.8 fWAR, 3.05 ERA, and excellent K/BB ratio. He also threw over 200 innings this season for the first time since 2014. (With a nod to 2016, when he came just 2 innings short).
Scherzer is the definition of an ace.
Wainwright is the definition of a workhorse.
What does that mean for one game?
It means the Cardinals are probably in trouble. Waino did a brilliant job of keeping runners on base from scoring. He rarely gives up HRs. He rarely walks himself into trouble. He relies on the club’s excellent defense, and if we’re honest, a ballpark that accentuates everything he does so well.
His stuff, though, simply isn’t as good as Scherzer’s. He can’t blow his 89.3 mph fastball by people anymore. He has to work hard for the relatively few strikeouts he generates. Otherwise, he’s at the mercy of the BABIP gods. He can generate groundballs, but will they be at people? He can coax flyballs from power hitters, but will they stay inside not-as-friendly-as-Busch Chavez Ravine? He can work weak contact from hitters through exceptional command but how much will that matter against a lineup of MVP candidates?
That brings me to the question that I’ve been considering all week. Should Shildt “win with Waino” or should this be an “all hands on deck” game?
In the 2011 postseason, Tony LaRussa turned the entire playoffs into “all hands on deck” scenarios. In Game 1 of the World Series, LaRussa let Chris Carpenter throw just 87 pitches and 6 innings before he was pulled in favor of a parade of 5 relievers to get the final 9 outs. It worked. Carpenter’s 2 runs allowed were all the powerful Texans would get.
In Game 2, Jaime Garcia was brilliant and allowed to get through the 7th on just 87 pitches. Motte gave up 2 runs later and the Cards lost.
Game 3 didn’t matter much as Albert Pujols went off. Still, LaRussa pulled Kyle Lohse after just three innings pitched. He gave up 3 ERs and walked two. Not a great outing and the Cards were fortunate that the offense kicked into overdrive.
In a pivotal Game 6, Garcia was back on the mound after his dominance earlier in the series. He struggled through three innings, giving up 2 earned runs and walking two. LaRussa was aggressive with him. Instead of trusting Garcia to right the ship, he pulled him after 59 pitches. The bullpen didn’t do its job. Salas, Lynn, and Motte all gave up runs, setting up David Freese for his heroics.
The 2011 NLCS was even more extreme. LaRussa rarely allowed his starters to go past the 5th inning, believing that the club would have a chance so long as one single pitcher didn’t have the opportunity to blow the game up.
Tonight, Shildt – LaRussa trained and taught – has a tough choice in front of him.
There’s an argument to be made for the “win with Waino” approach. He’s the Cardinals’ most reliable starter. He’s a wily veteran. He has tons of experience pitching in postseason games. He knows how to get himself out of trouble. With him, the next pitch could certainly generate that needed double play or in-field pop fly. He has shown that for a decade and a half.
The bullpen, on the other hand, has been volatile all season. Maddux and Shildt have finally found some arms they can trust late in the season – including Luis Garcia, TJ MacFarland, and Kodi Whitley. But how much can these arms be trusted?
Depending on how the roster shakes out, the Cardinals might also have Jack Flaherty to go to. Maybe even Dakota Hudson.
The three-batter rule is another factor in this equation. LaRussa could give his relievers one or two batters and move down the line. If Shildt pulls Waino early because he allows some runners, he has to give MacFarland, Kim, Reyes, or Andrew Miller three guys before he can make another move.
On the flip side, with Scherzer throwing lightning from his right arm, runs might be at a premium. If Wainwright is allowing runners, one mistake could put this game out of reach and the Cardinals are going home with only a memorable streak to show for their season.
Win with Waino? Or all hands on deck?
Obviously, it’s going to depend on the situation and circumstances, but I think I would prefer to see Shildt be aggressive, moving from arm to arm, reliever to reliever at the first sign of trouble. Yes, it’s possible the next guy won’t have it. It’s equally possible the last guy was about to lose it. But don’t let one arm – even if it’s Adam Wainwright – put the game out of reach.
Here’s hoping this conversation becomes pointless. Here’s hoping that Wainwright is dominant and the Cards pounce on Scherzer. Here’s hoping the Dodgers, for a game, forget about how good they are.
I think Waino will get the Cards through 5 without Shildt needing to intervene. I think it’s going to be a close game – maybe 2-3 Dodgers going into the later innings. Then we’ll just have to hope that the Cards’ bats regain their form from the winning streak. I’m hoping for and anticipating some late-inning heroics from Goldschmidt, Arenado, O’Neill, or Carlson. Keep your eye on Carlson. He’s been hot lately and, as a lefty, he might have a better chance against Scherzer than the rest of the Cardinals stars.
Cards win tonight 4-3.