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Sometimes Baseball Happens

Baseball happened in the Game 1 loss to the Phillies. Let’s break it down.

National League Wild Card Series: Philadelphia Phillies v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Still processing this one, folks.

It’s Friday afternoon. 4:21. I’ve just watched the Phillies score 6 runs in the ninth inning without hitting a single ball over 90 miles per hour.

(Arguably) the best reliever in baseball completely lost it in the ninth when his jammed finger re-jammed and he couldn’t throw strikes.

Oli Marmol brought in Andre Pallante to get the ground ball for either the double play or the play at the plate. Pallante delivered the grounders.

The first was just out of Edman’s reach, who was playing just in from normal double-play depth.

The next Goldy made a play on. And they couldn’t get the out at the plate on the swipe tag from Yadier Molina.

Then a ball sneaked under many-time Platinum Glove winner Nolan Arenado’s glove.

The Cards tried to rally in the bottom of the ninth, to no avail.

6-3 Phillies.

Pain. In a game the Cardinals definitely should have won.

I was preparing to write about how great Marmol was in this game. I thought he was pretty much perfect through the first 8 innings or so.

Let’s forget the end for a minute (maybe forever) and rewind the tape to the middle innings. From the VEB podcast to Twitter, I’ve been saying all week how the Cardinals needed to be aggressive with their reliever usage, including their lefties against Harper and Schwarber (even early in the game), and also with Gio and Helsley.

It’s a short series. Maybe just 2 games. At most 3. Burn through your best players in the best situation because every moment could be a critical season-defining one. There is no saving players for tomorrow in this kind of series.

Marmol played most of this one brilliantly. There was an argument to be made to pull Quintana after Harper in the 4th. I noted on Twitter that he was starting to lose command a bit and you could theoretically go to a righty – Flaherty or Hicks – to get through the bottom of the lineup and take advantage of those platoon splits. Then he could have brought in Thompson or Matz for Schwarber or through Harper, depending on how things went.

That would have been ultra-aggressive. I’ll admit it.

So, I only praised Marmol for sticking with what he was seeing with his starter. Quintana got through the bottom of the lineup with some gutsy pitching. That gave him the favorable matchup with Schwarber at the top of the 6th. Just as Marmol planned.

Q got that out and then in came Hicks.

It was a well-executed use of the bullpen. Pretty simple, really, and kind of obvious. But considering what we saw from Matheny and a little from Shildt, I’m going to give Marmol all the credit in the world for doing what was obvious and simple.

(Even so, a TON of people are second-guessing Marmol for bringing Quintana out early, claiming that would have pushed everything in the bullpen back and Helsley would have been fine with just 1 inning of work. Because nothing bad ever happens from leaving a pitcher in for poor matchups? So many assumptions in that line of thought. And it’s so easy to assume they all go perfectly as you imagine they will. Today’s game should be proof that things don’t always go as you imagine they will go.)

OK. Great stuff so far, in my judgment. Just the right combo of not burning the bullpen up, trusting a good starter, and playing to the critical matchups.

There was another question Mamrol faced in the next inning. Hicks got through the 6th. Do you leave him in for the 7th? Do you go to Thompson to get Harper and then trust the rookie lefty to get the righties lower in the lineup?

As I have implored of Oli this series: be aggressive using your lefties and double-headed closer in the most critical matchups!

Marmol was aggressive. With no one on, he made the right decision again, opting to go straight to Gio in the 7th against Harper, who was leading off the inning. It worked great. Gio was Gio. And the Phillies now faced the likelihood of having to win a game without Wheeler while facing Gio and Helsley.

That’s a favorable situation for the Cardinals.

It became even more favorable when Phillies manager Rob Thompson made what I thought was the first critical mistake of the game: he brought in lefty reliever Jose Alvarado to face the lefty Donovan and the switch-hitting Carlson.

Ok! Uh… thanks!

Donovan has neutral splits this season against righties and lefties – a 129 wRC+ against both. Now, if this inning was just about Donovan, I would also go to a lefty, knowing that in the end the lefty vs. lefty matchup is better regardless of one season of splits

But it wasn’t just about Donovan. Everyone – except Thompson apparently – knows that Dylan Carlson is significantly better against lefties than righties. Turning him around is a terrible decision.

Everyone should also know that there was absolutely no way on God’s gorgeous green earth that Oli Marmol was going to leave Corey Dickerson in there to face a lefty with Juan Yepez on the bench. Yes, the stats this season say that Yepez doesn’t hit lefties well, but come on… reverse splits are an illusion. (Unless you are Paul DeJong.)

You saw what happened. Donovan made the out. Carlson worked the walk. Marmol pinch hit. Yepez hit the homer. Oli Marmol 2. Rob Thompson 0.

Oh, and VEB alumni John LaRue made this Photoshop:

And we should have been able to celebrate that moment for the next few years.


Baseball happens.

Now on to the pain.

With the lead now, Marmol played things exactly as he should. Gio stayed in for the eighth and was pulled when he walked Bryson Stott on 4 pitches. He went to Helsley.

This was an obvious decision to me at the time. I saw no one complaining about this move at the time. There was nary a peep from all these fans who now claim to have hated it.

That brings me to the middle finger of dread. What did Marmol know about Helsley and his injury?

All reports were that he jammed his finger against the Pirates and that he should be just fine for the series. He checked out fine. He was on the roster. There was no question about his ability to pitch today entering the game.

This is important before we get all hindsight-y.

In the 8th, Helsley looked just fine. He gets his outs on stuff, not necessarily on impeccable command. That showed a bit. He threw some balls and some pitches in the zone. But had good zip on his fastball and break on his pitches. He was himself. Not “immaculate inning” Helsley but normal “I’m going to make you look silly” Helsley.

More importantly, he felt fine. At least, that’s the report that we got after the game.

The Cards went “hands team” for overall defense with a 2-0 lead. Helsley comes back out for the ninth.

Here’s where those armchair managers have their moment. How fast do you get a pitcher loose and warm when you have your dominant, “just finished the best season from a Cardinals reliever ever” closer on the mound? After he just ripped through 2 batters in the 8th?

Helsley got Hoskins easy enough. Ok. No sign of trouble. No change. No reason to get someone up yet.

Realmuto got a hit. No signs of trouble in this one either.

Harper walked. You could start to see the command issues here.

But it wasn’t until the first pitch to Castellanos that things changed in the Statcast. That’s when his slider took a dip in spin rate. And after that, he lost spin and velocity on both his slider and his fastball.

Then Bohm was hit by the pitch.

By then everyone was screaming for Oli to do something. In baseball terms, all of that happened in about a nanosecond. Here’s what I said at the time:

I think maybe if Oli had been a bit more on point, they could have had a reliever ready to go before the Bohm at bat. Maybe. I’m not sure that’s true of either Pallante or Flaherty, who are not “get ready fast” guys. I still think it’s a stretch to believe that had Marmol started either arm warming after Realmuto’s hit, which would have been unusually early, they would have been ready to go 14 pitches later.

We also need to recognize Helsley’s role in all this. Helsley was fine in the 8th. He got the first out in the ninth. Everything looked ok up through Realmuto.

After the game, Marmol said that Helsley lost feeling in his right middle finger. Statcast tells me that happened by control in Harper’s PA and by spin in the Castellanos’ PA.

If the problem developed while facing Harper and resulted in a wild walk, it really was up to Helsley to get the attention of the trainers and get that thing looked at before he faced a good career hitter in Castellanos.

You can’t “gut it out” or “play through it” in that situation at that moment.

He didn’t though. He had an injury. He pitched anyway. He walked Castellanos and then hit Bohm… and then Maddux came out with the trainer to rescue him from himself.

In retrospect, I think the best that Oli and Maddux could have done is recognize the data change after the Castellanos at bat and checked on Helsley before he faced Bohm. That would have given time for the relievers to finish getting loose. And maybe the game goes differently.

But what did I say early about assumptions?

Pallante came in after Bohm. He proceeded to pitch perfectly fine, generating the ground balls that the Cardinals wanted out of him.

And all heck broke loose.

Tommy Edman was playing a few steps in from double-play depth, according to Marmol, because of Segura’s speed. Two steps back and that grounder is two instead of a run-scoring single.

Goldy snagged a tough grounder and threw a strike to the plate but the swipe tag from “best defensive catcher in the history of game” Yadier Molina was just a hair late.

The BABIP gods were just mocking us now.

Nolan Arenado whiffed on a grounder that he’s made about a million times in his life.

In play, run(s).


We could play the “what if” game until we were blue in the face.

What if Nolan Arenado had hit that line drive to left-center at 105 mph in 104? Or 29 degrees instead of 27? 4-0 Cards, maybe?

What if Oli had left Quintana in, since he was cruising? Could have been 6-3 Phillies under a whole different set of circumstances.

What if Helsley hadn’t lost feeling in his finger?

What if Helsley had self-reported his numbness after the Harper at bat?

What if Tommy Edman had played 2 steps back?

What if… [insert any one of a dozen other decisions or moments here]?

Sometimes baseball happens.

The Cardinals have usually been on the other side of these kinds of games. Matt Adams hit a homer off Clayton Kershaw. Pete Kozma and the infield fly. David Freese. I mean… David Freaking Freese, Cardinals fans! And I could go on.

They have 11 championships and scores of league pennants. Fans of other teams would give their right kidney for just one of the many incredible clutch moments we have enjoyed. They’re dying to “go crazy, folks!” and want nothing more than to “see you tomorrow night!”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel this one. Oh, yes, we should feel it. And be a little angry. And probably a little disillusioned. And I get blaming everyone/anyone/someone for what went wrong. Even if I try to be somewhat reasonable when I write about it, I do get it.

But don’t forget that baseball happened yesterday. And baseball will probably happen today, too.

The Cardinals could come out and smoke Aaron Nola for 12 runs in the 3rd while Miles Mikolas goes on to dress Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper in a pair of golden sombreros.

This series isn’t over yet.

Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos.

There’s at least one more day of Cardinals baseball this season. Try to enjoy it.