On September 22, the Cards fought their way past the Chicago Cubs in Chicago by a 3-2 score. The victory completed a pivotal sweep in Chicago that all but ended the Cubs’ post-season hopes, and gave the Cards what appeared to be a stranglehold on the division. They were 3 games up on Milwaukee with 6 to play – a situation that would require an uncommon combination of Milwaukee hot streak and Cardinal losing streak.
A combination that almost came to pass.
After St Louis won their next game in Arizona (eliminating the D-Backs), the wheels came off. Four consecutive loses dropped them to 90-71, one slender game ahead of the Brewers.
Now there is one game to play with all the marbles on the table. Standing on the mound in the streaming sunlight of the last Sunday of the season (facing a Chicago team that was one game away from returning the favor to their ancient rivals), the man wearing the weight of the season on his shoulders was a 23-year old right-hander who had never before (in the majors, anyway) pitched in a game of this magnitude.
Seven innings and 69 pitches later that young monster – Jack Flaherty – walked off the mound in St Louis to a standing ovation. On the scoreboard, the seven-inning totals for the hated Cubs read 0 runs and only 2 hits. With 9 runs sitting securely in the Cardinal ledger, the result was no longer in doubt. Two innings later, St Louis had secured a 9-0 victory and their first division title (and playoff berth) since 2015.
That division title earned the 2019 Cardinals a match-up with the Atlanta Braves. Pushed to the brink of elimination on their home field, the Cardinals rose up on the bat of their storied leader Yadier Molina to send the series back to Atlanta tied at two wins a piece. Once again, the Cardinal season would hang on one game. But unlike the previous moment when a playoff berth had already been assured and the game was in from of a friendly crowd, this game would be pure elimination and played before a raucous crowd at Sun Trust Park in Atlanta.
Six innings and 104 pitches later that same young rising star walked off the mound having allowed just 1 run on 4 hits. Again the game (a 13-1 Cardinal lead) was no longer in doubt. St Louis would advance. Atlanta’s season would end (box score).
In the aftermath, there was much discussion of St Louis’ remarkable ten-run first inning that set playoff records and mostly put the game out of reach before Jack even took the mound. But the deeper and more important story going forward is a resurgent pitching staff – led by Flaherty – that will be at the forefront of any upcoming series.
Beginning with the last game against Chicago, St Louis has won 4 of its last 6 games, mostly on the strength of a 2.17 team ERA. The last six Cardinal starters (three of whom have been Flaherty) have contributed a 1.45 ERA and a .195 batting average against.
With lots of elite offenses left in the playoff picture, this will be the great equalizer – if they can continue this pace.
The series clinching performance continues a stunning run of dominant pitching from young Mr. Flaherty. Dating to the last game before the All-Star Break, Jack has made 18 starts (including the playoffs). Sixteen of the 18 have been “quality starts,” but that only begins to describe the consistency of his excellence. In 9 of the 18 starts, Jack has been unscored on. In 13 of the 18, the opposing team failed to manage 5 hits of Flaherty.
Over the 119.1 innings that cover Jack’s last 18 starts, opposing offense have been left with just 16 runs scored (15 earned) on only 62 hits (8 home runs and 11 doubles are the only extra-base hits he has allowed since early July). Against his 146 strikeouts in those innings, Flaherty has walked just 26, as he has thrown 66% of his pitches for strikes. The ERA for this span works out to 1.13, and the last 443 batters to face him are hitting just .151 with a miniscule slugging percentage of .237.
Mr. Flaherty has been a tower when St Louis has needed him most. This ability to rise to the most stressful occasions gives him a level that statistics cannot quantify. Jack Flaherty has arrived.
With Flaherty’s work done, Giovanny Gallegos took the mound for the seventh, delivering a perfect inning. Whether it’s the innings load or some adjustments by the batters, Gallegos hasn’t been the dominant force that he was through most of the first half of the season. Nonetheless, his recent outings have been encouraging. Giovanny has given 1 run on 4 hits through his last 6 innings (over 7 games). The last 24 batters he has faced are hitting .190.
Gallegos threw first-pitch strikes to two of the three batters he faced, eventually retiring both. Brian McCann popped out on the first pitch thrown him, and, after swinging through the first pitch thrown to him, Matt Joyce ended up grounding out on a 2-2 pitch.
In the season’s second half, Gallegos tied Tyler Webb for the lowest batting average against after throwing a first pitch strike. Batters were 9 for 69 against Giovanny when he threw strike one, and 7 for 54 in that same circumstance against Webb (a .130 average).
Certainly one of the offensive heroes of the series was first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt. If the regular season wasn’t really up to Paul’s usual standards, his post-season, so far, has been all that anyone could have hoped for. Hitting in all five games, Paul was 9 for 21 (.429) – and it wasn’t a particularly quiet .429. He slugged .905 during the series, with 6 of his 9 hits going for extra-bases (including 2 home runs).
Going back to the end of the regular season, Paul has a seven-game hitting streak intact as the Cards await the arrival of the Nationals on Friday. Four of the seven have been multi-hit games, and two have been three hit affairs. Paul is hitting .433 (13 for 30) and slugging .867 (4 doubles and 3 home runs) during the streak.
Paul is pretty hot at the moment.
With a double and a triple in Game Five, Tommy Edman ended his first playoff series with a .316 batting average (6 for 19) and a .579 slugging percentage (3 doubles and a triple).
Tommy was thrown a first-pitch strike every time up on Wednesday and in 14 of his 21 plate appearances during the series. Tommy doesn’t really mind if pitchers go aggressively after him. Edman finished 5 for 13 (.385) with 2 doubles, a triple and a walk in those plate appearances.
With his 0-for-5 on Wednesday, Molina officially finished the series with a .143/.174/.143 batting line – he had 3 singles in 21 at bats. Of course, one of those singles saved the season.
It is, admittedly, difficult to throw a first-pitch ball to Yadi – who is one of baseball’s more aggressive hitters. But when pitchers can get Molina to take that first pitch for a ball, the at bat seems to go better for them. That only happened once on Wednesday. As the last batter in that historic first-inning, Molina took Max Fried’s first pitch for a ball and eventually grounded out on a 2-2 pitch. Only 5 times during the series did a Molina at bat begin with ball one. Yadi was 0-for-5 in those at bats.
In the season’s second half, Yadi hit .325 (37 for 114) when his first pitch was a strike, but only .182 (8 for 44) when the first pitch to him was ball one.
The 12-run victory was the Cardinals largest since they slashed Pittsburgh 17-4 back on May 9. The only other double-digit playoff win by this team in this century was a 12-2 victory over Arizona (in a game started by Randy Johnson) in Game One of the 2002 Division Series.
In playoff games, the 13 runs were the most scored by the Cards since Game Three of the 2011 World Series, when they dumped Texas by a 16-7 score.
The Cards had trailed at some point in seven straight playoff games, dating back to Game One of the 2015 Division Series – their only win against the Cubs in that series, 4-0.