What if Ronald Acuna Jr. hadn’t tried to steal second in the first inning? What if first-base umpire Alan Porter didn’t ring up Francisco Cervelli on his check-swing with the bases loaded in the sixth? What if Josh Donaldson’s bullet line drive with two on in the seventh wasn’t right at Paul DeJong with Acuna far enough off of second to make for an easy double play? What if either two-run double from Marcell Ozuna or Kolten Wong had gone just barely foul instead of just barely fair?
And, of course, what if Chris Martin didn’t have to be replaced in the eighth?
This is the mystery and magic of one run games (this one ended up 7-6 Cards) amplified by the bright lights of the playoffs. Just one play – one swing, one pitch, perhaps one call from an umpire. This time of year, it can be the difference between going on or going home.
For their part, the Cards had their share of what-ifs as well. What if Nick Markakis’ ground ball doesn’t bounce over Paul Goldschmidt’s head? What if Acuna doesn’t make the catch on Wong’s sinking liner. Ditto Dansby Swanson on Goldschmidt’s sinker.
One-run games have been an area of steady improvement in St Louis this summer. At one point during their disastrous May, they lost 7 one-run games in a row as they got off to a 5-10 start in this category.
As their game started to come together, though, the Cards began to consistently pull out these squeakers. Beginning with a ten-inning, 2-1 conquest of the Cubs on the last day of May, the birds have won 21 of their last 33 one-run games (including yesterday).
They have now pulled out 5 of their last 6. They finished the second half of the season 14-8 in these games, finishing 25-22 for the season.
They are also, now 17-15 this century in the playoffs in one-run games (including wins in 8 of the last 10).
However, in the 11 one-run games played in September, the Cards were only 6-5. The starting pitching in those 11 games was splendid, pitching to a 1.93 ERA. But the team was barely able to survive a bullpen that checked in with a 4.40 ERA, serving up 9 home runs in their 47 innings in those games.
Yesterday followed the same troubling pattern. After five great innings from starter Miles Mikolas, the Braves pushed the Cardinal bullpen around for 5 runs (4 earned) on 6 hits (including 2 home runs) and 2 walks over the last 4 innings.
With almost all of the main bullpen arms having thrown many more innings than they ever have previously, most of them look like they’ve been hitting a wall – a concern for the rest of the playoffs.
But once again, it was the bats that came to the rescue – scoring 7 runs on 14 hits and 6 walks. Earlier this month, they lost consecutive 2-1 games (talk about one-run games!) in Colorado – of all places.
The bats responded with 10 runs in each of the next two games, and have been very difficult to muffle ever since. Over the last 18 games, they have averaged 5.56 runs per game, and even though they carry a team batting average over that streak of just .242, they are OPSing (it’s sort of become a verb) .804 over those games, drawing 85 walks and hitting 34 home runs.
But asking the offense to continually atone for the bullpen is a very big ask. After slumping to a 4.81 ERA in September, a bullpen rebound will be necessary for any hope of a deep October run.
After Tommy Edman’s ten-game hitting streak snapped on the last day of the season, the relentless rookie began another one yesterday – he had two more hits. Edman has now hit safely in 11 of his last 12 (getting multiple hits in 10 of them). Over this span, Tommy is hitting .431 (22 for 51). His double was his eighth extra-base hit in those games (3 doubles, 3 triples and 2 home runs) – a .725 slugging percentage.
“Every day” Edman has also now hit in 17 of his last 19, and 21 of his last 24. He finished September with a .350 batting average and a .660 slugging percentage for the month, and hit .308 (84 for 273) with 8 home runs over the second half.
Tommy almost always came through in one-run games. He played in 28 (starting 24) since his recall. He hit .388 (40 for 103) with 6 doubles, 3 triples and 3 home runs (.592 slugging percentage) in those contests.
Goldschmidt turned the game around with his eighth-inning homer. Paul may be about to go off. He collected 3 hits in the season’s last game, and had 2 more in the first playoff game – with a home run in each game. A Goldy revival would be good news.
In his first action since straining his hamstring on September 16, Kolten Wong began the game with a big early error that allowed the first run of the game. He atoned, though, finishing the game with two hits, including a game-icing, two-run, ninth-inning double. Kolten, you’ll remember, hit .342 in the season’s second half.
Thursday’s starter, Miles Mikolas looked for a bit like he wouldn’t make it out of the first inning. He walked a couple and gave up a hit, but limited the damage, and ended up giving the Cardinals a solid outing.
Miles has been something of a disappointment this season – coming off his 18-win 2018 – and I had hoped that the end of this season would give some insight into who the real Miles Mikolas was. And, in general, I would say that that has happened. Over his last 7 starts, Miles had given the team more good pitching than bad, establishing a 2.88 ERA over his last 7 starts (40.2 innings).
Giovanny Gallegos is one of several members of the Cardinal bullpen to finish the season in unchartered territory as far as innings go. Giovanny pitched 74 innings this season. His previous major league high was the 20.1 he pitched for the Yankees in 2017, although he did pitch 78 minor league innings in 2016. Gallegos did finish the second half with a 1.89 ERA, but did fade a bit down the stretch.
Yesterday, he allowed no runs of his own, but gave up a hard-hit infield single that led to the scoring of 2 inherited runs. After allowing just 3 of his first 38 inherited runners to score, Giovanny has seen 6 of the last 9 come home to roost.
Overall, Giovanny did quite well in one-run games. He pitched 20 innings in his 18 appearances with a 2.25 ERA.
More than a little shaky, lately, John has usually done very well in one-run games. He pitched in 12 of them during the regular season, lasting 12.2 innings with a 2.13 ERA.
Miller, of course, was also lucky to leave unscathed, as Josh Donaldson swatted an errant slider about as hard as one can be hit – lining into an inning ending double play.
Miller has also taken some lumps recently, but during the second half he has been solid in the one-run games. Andrew pitched 10.2 innings in 13 second-half one-run games with a 2.53 ERA and a .158 batting average against.
Ryan Helsley is another flame-throwing rookie who almost gave up a run yesterday. He faced two batters, giving a single and a groundball that advanced the runner to second.
There have been times recently when Ryan has seemed a bit overmatched (one of the reasons I was surprised to see him on the playoff roster), but still finished the second half with a 2.73 ERA.
Ryan actually had the team’s best ERA in one-run games – it was 1.69 over 16.2 innings, but he wasn’t as dominant as that number suggests. While he did only allow 3 runs of his own (on 3 home runs), Ryan also allowed 3 of 4 inherited runners to score, while carrying a batting line against of .262/.284/.462.
The game turned quickly from a four-run Cardinal lead into a one-run Cardinal lead in the ninth, as Atlanta launched two home runs off of St Louis’ closer Carlos Martinez.
In the second half of the season, Carlos pitched in 12 of the Cards’ 22 one-run games, lasting 10.2 innings. He pitched to an 8.44 ERA and a .347/.429/.469 batting line against.
No October chill in the air in Georgia. At first pitch Thursday evening, the thermometer read 94 degrees. That ties for the hottest game the Cards played this year. In Cincinnati on July 20 they lost to the Reds 3-2 in 94 degree heat.
At 4:07, yesterday’s game was the longest nine-inning playoff game the Cards have played this century. The previous long was Game 3 of the 2011 World Series against Texas. That 16-7 Cardinal win took 4:04.
Umpire Sam Holbrook will have the plate for Game Three in St Louis. Sam has called two Cardinal playoff games this century – both Cardinal wins: 4-3 over Milwaukee in Game Three of the 2011 Championship Series, and 2-1 over Pittsburgh in Game Four of the 2013 Division Series.
None of the other umpires on this crew have ever had the plate during a Cardinal playoff game.