In the Playoffs, You ride Your Bullpen

Kwang Hyun wasn’t terribly pleased with his outing.

A revelation during the season, Korean legend Kwang Hyun Kim struggled all afternoon to find that inside corner against the right handers that San Diego slotted in against him.  When, with two out in the fourth inning, Kwang Hyun walked Trent Grisham, bringing up San Diego’s wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr., Kwang Hyun’s afternoon was over – in spite of the fact that St Louis still had a 3-run lead when Kim left.

Whether it was nerves, the mound, the strike zone, an unfamiliar opponent – or just one of those days that befall all pitchers from time to time, Kim’s inaugural major league playoff appearance yielded a disappointing line of 3.2 innings, 3 runs on 5 hits (including a triple that could have been caught) and 2 walks.  Only 44 of his 76 pitches found the strike zone (57.9%).  Until such a time as he gets another opportunity (whether it’s this year or some other time), Kwang Hyun’s playoff ERA will sit a 7.36.

It certainly could have been worse.  Spacious Petco yielded 2 sacrifice flies, but no big flies – not to the Padres at least.

Had this been an April or May game (of course, no one was playing baseball in April and May), Mike Shildt would almost certainly have given him a longer leash to let him find himself – especially a decorated veteran with a three-run lead.  But now, suddenly, it’s the playoffs.  And in the playoffs, you ride your bullpen.

Of course, we remember (those of us who have been around a while) Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson for Arizona in 2001 – and, for that matter Chris Carpenter in 2011, pitching a complete game shutout against Philadelphia and firing six excellent innings against Texas in Game Seven of that year’s World Series.  But that is, by far, the exception.

Even in St Louis’ 2011 championship year, the bullpen was the unsung hero.  Eight times in 18 playoff games, the Cardinal starter failed to last 5 innings.  Toss out Carpenter’s starts, and 7 of the other 12 starters left the bulk of the game to the pen.  For the playoffs that year, Cardinal starters accounted for 92 innings.  The bullpen threw 68.  Chris Carpenter notwithstanding, the bullpen covered 42.5% of the playoff innings.

Like it or not, in the playoffs you live or die with your relief corps.

That being the case, the St Louis bullpen took their first step forward yesterday afternoon as they covered the last 5.1 innings of St Louis’ 7-4 Game One victory (boxscore).  They allowed 1 run (unearned) on just 3 hits.  The hard-hitting Padres only hit .176 against the Cardinal bullpen – although that number comes with a few caveats.

First – as has been their pattern – the Cardinal bullpen came out throwing the ball very, very hard, but with varying degrees of control.  In their 5.1 innings they walked 2 and hit 2 others.  Putting runners on base in front of the Padre’s big bats is a concerning trend – which brings me to the other caveat.

The Padres can hit the fastball.  Alex Reyes picked up the save in his very first playoff game, retiring all 4 batters he faced.  But all four jumped on his high octane fastballs and returned them with more exit velocity than they came in with.  They were all hit at someone, but they were all well hit.

As to the bullpen, yesterday’s victory brought the reliever’s ERA down to 1.58 in 40 innings over their last 13 games.  The Cards have won 9 of the 13.

A Bit of Déjà vu

And with that, St Louis begins its latest playoff journey with a 1-0 record.  I am not even beginning to predict that this team will “go all the way.”  But I will acknowledge that this whole scenario has a very familiar feel.

The sneaking into the playoffs on the very last day evokes warm memories of both the 2006 and 2011 teams – champions both who were listed (as this team is listed) as underdogs in every series.  In 2006 St Louis lost its primary closer (Jason Isringhausen) to a hip problem in September.  Into the breach stepped Adam Wainwright (then just a rookie prospect) to stabilize the closer’s role – beginning in San Diego that year.  The 2011 team sifted through several closers before deciding on Jason Motte – a hard-throwing setup guy, who had all of 3 career saves through his first 3 seasons and 136 appearances.  This year, the closer spot has been a revolving door, again.  But – as of the last day of the regular season – it looks like the ninth-inning will belong to Reyes.  Both Reyes and Wainwright earned their first playoff saves in San Diego.

The unique adversity faced by this year’s team is reminiscent of the hardships thrust upon the 2011 team – not just the injuries, slumps, bad luck and a seemingly insurmountable 10-game deficit of the early part of the season, either.  People often forget that 2011 was the year that manager Tony LaRussa suffered through a nearly disabling bout with shingles.  It was also the year that Jeannie Duncan – pitching coach Dave Duncan’s wife – was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  Few teams have overcome so much.  Truly a season of triumph and tragedy.

If the tragedies are fewer for this team, the struggles and hardships have a familiar ring to them.  This franchise has been in this exact position before, eking its way into the playoffs where they will be facing an array of teams that they aren’t supposed to beat.  Not to make any bold predictions, but team history suggests that anything can happen.

Helsley

Taking over for Kim in the fourth, Ryan Helsley got out of trouble in that inning, and then tossed a 1-2-3 fifth.  Sent out again to start the sixth, Ryan surrendered the double to Tommy Pham that led to the unearned run.  It was the first hit off of Helsley in his last 6 innings.

Two of the 5 batters that Ryan faced found themselves in two-strike counts.  Manny Machado popped out on a 2-2 pitch and Wil Myers struck out on a 2-2.  Over his last 6 games, Ryan has backed 15 batters into two-strike counts.  They are 0-for-13 with 2 walks and 7 strikeouts.

During the season, batters are just 2 for 23 (.087) when Helsley puts them in two-strike counts.

Gallegos

It’s quite a small sample size (20 batters faced) but since Giovanny Gallegos has returned to the team after recovering from his groin strain, he has been plenty sharp.  He walked 1 of the 5 batters he faced yesterday, but otherwise had no issues, striking out 2.  Three of the batters found themselves in two-strike counts.  Tatis and Eric Hosmer both fanned, and Pham grounded out.

Batters are always in two-strike counts against Gio.  The two yesterday make 13 of the 20 he’s faced since he’s been back (65%).  Those batters are 0-12 with 1 walk and 9 strikeouts.  For the season, 68.4% of the batters that face Gallegos (39 of 57) find themselves in two-strike counts.

Reyes

Alex gave up some line drives, but finished another fine outing.  He appeared 8 times in September (11.1 innings), picking up a win and a save while posting a 2.38 ERA and a .209 batting average against.  Alex allowed just 1 extra-base hit (a double) to the 49 batters he faced in September.

Kim

Kwang Hyun continues a recent pattern of struggles from the rotation.  Even while St Louis has won 9 of 13, the starters have only a 4.16 ERA in those games.  Kim has made 3 of the starts, lasting just 14 innings with a 5.14 ERA and a .291 batting average against.

Over those games, Kim has suddenly developed difficulty in putting hitters away.  San Diego was 4-for-7 against Kwang Hyun when they had two strikes on them.  Over those last three games, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .343 (12 for 35) against Kim.

Molina

If its playoff time, that must mean that Yadier Molina is heating up.  Yadi had 3 hits yesterday, and is hitting .381 (8 for 21) over his last 6 games.

Yadi helped put the finishing touches on Padre starter Chris Paddack when he slapped a 2-2 pitch down the left-field line for a double.  When Yadi is hot he is just as dangerous with two-strikes on him as he is with none.  Over his last 11 games, Molina is 6 for 20 (.300) with a home run to go along with that double (.500 slugging percentage) in two-strike counts.

For the season, Yadi is a .221 hitter with two strikes on him – well above the major league average of .167.

Carlson

Rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson has been a vital part of the turn-around.  After his 2-for-3 with a double and 2 walk performance yesterday, Carlson is hitting .308 over the last 13 games.  He is slugging .641 in those games with 8 extra-base hit (5 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs), and has driven in 11 runs.

Dylan saw 24 pitches during his 5 plate appearances yesterday – more than anyone else on the team – and ended the day in two-strike counts in every at bat.  With his two hits, Carlson is 6 for 23 (.261) with two strikes on him over the last 13 games.

DeJong

After a seemingly endless slump, Paul DeJong is turning the corner.  With his 2 hits last night, DeJong has now hit safely in 5 of his last 6, hitting .333 (6 for 18) over that span.  He also walked twice and was hit by a pitch yesterday, bringing his on base percentage to .455 over those games.

Fowler

With his fifth-inning single, Dexter Fowler snapped an 0-for-15 skid.  He went on to add another single that drove in a run in the ninth.

Dexter’s two hits came on a 0-0 pitch from Pierce Johnson and a 2-1 pitch from Trevor Rosenthal.  Fowler hit .406 (13 for 32) during the regular season when hitting before strike two.

NoteBook

Paul Goldschmidt’s two-run first inning home run marked the sixth time in the last 9 games that the Cardinals had scored the first run of the game.

Partially as a result, they have not trailed in 5 of their last 8 games.

At 3:53, the first playoff game was the longest game played by the Cardinals since their 12-inning loss to Cleveland on August 29.  It was the longest 9-inning game since August 18 when they lost a 4:09 game in Chicago.

At 91 degrees, this was also the warmest game played by the Cardinals since August 24, when they beat Kansas City 9-3 in 95 degree heat.  The hottest road game played by the Cards this season was against the White Sox on August 15.  The first game of that doubleheader was played in 86 degree heat.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

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