On Thursday evening, as the divisional series between the Atlanta Braves and St Louis Cardinals began, the visiting Cardinals routed a questionable Atlanta bullpen, escaping with a 7-6 win that momentarily gave the Cards the home field advantage in the series.
On Friday afternoon, the Braves did what good teams do after suffering a loss. They answered with a 3-0 victory.
One of the enduring traits of championship caliber teams is that they are difficult to conquer on consecutive nights. You rarely see them tagged with a string of defeats.
As the series shifted back to St Louis, it was now incumbent on the Cards to do the same thing. They had to respond after a defeat. Finally, after a brilliant stand by a courageous bullpen and the clutch bat of Yadier Molina, they did – fighting their way to a 5-4, 10-inning victory on Monday (box score). However, that didn’t happen until after St Louis had suffered that second consecutive loss, 3-1 on Sunday afternoon, pushing them to the edge of extinction (box score).
For most of the season, staying out of losing streaks was a significant problem. The back to back losses to the Braves were the thirty-sixth time the Cardinals were involved in losing streaks of at least two games this year. Twenty-seven of those streaks graduated to at least three games; four of them went as far as four games, and they finished with two five-game losing streaks.
For the season (including the playoffs) the Cards are an uninspiring 40-33 (.548) after losing the previous game. Of the 20 versions of this team that have played this century, the 2019 team would rank twelfth in this category. For the decade (playoffs included) the St Louis Cardinals are 849-629 (.574) after a loss.
The story of the 2019 number, though, parallels the story of the 2019 Cardinal season. Through the first half, they were a very dreary 22-21 (.512) after losing a game, but they opened the second half doing much better. From mid-July through September 18, they were an impressive 16-7 (.696) answering a previous loss.
But, beginning with their last road series in Arizona up until Monday afternoon, they had lost 4 of 5 after losing the previous game. For the most part, it was a pitching staff that allowed 5.6 runs per game through that span that short-circuited St Louis’ attempts to break the losing cycles.
Through seven innings on Monday, it looked for all the world like the Cardinal season would end with the team failing in five of their final six games after a loss.
But the bullpen that I have been expecting to collapse at any moment threw 5.1 stellar innings of relief, stranding 5 inherited runners along the way. John Brebbia came in with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth and struck out Adam Duvall. Then, after Brebbia was victimized by a ball lost in the sun (a gift triple for Ronald Acuna Jr.), Andrew Miller came on to strand him.
Pitching in the ninth, Carlos Martinez served up a lead-off double (Acuna, again), but Acuna was stranded as well. For the game, Atlanta was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position – most of that the work of the bullpen.
The rest was two clutch at bats by Molina, who drove in the last two runs of the game, and the Cardinals will live to play another day.
Now, the Braves will have to answer again, or their season will be over.
Adam Wainwright scuffled a little bit over his last two regular season starts, but on Sunday afternoon he was vintage Waino, tossing 7.2 innings of 4-hit, 2-walk shutout ball, striking out 8.
In so doing, he was more reminiscent of the Adam Wainwright of most of September, who threw 4 quality starts, and went 5-1 with a 2.97 ERA.
Adam has always been elite in a stoppers’ role – pitching in games after a loss. In the season’s second half, Waino was 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 7 after-loss starts.
Over his storied career, Sunday was the fifth time he has started in the playoffs after a Cardinal loss. Of the five, the only Cardinal win was the only one he didn’t pitch well in. In Game Five of the 2012 Division Series against Washington, Waino didn’t make it out of the third inning, being battered for 6 runs on 7 hits and 3 home runs. That was the evening of the historic 9-7 comeback that sent the Cards on to the Championship Series. Over the other 4 games, Waino has a 1.82 ERA over 29.2 innings, but St Louis ended up losing all three.
Adam himself only took the loss in Game Five of the 2013 World Series, in spite of the fact that he gave just 3 runs over 7 innings to the Red Sox. In the other three games, Waino left with a lead that was then squandered by the bullpen – a 3-2 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game Two of the 2009 Division Series (Adam had given just 1 run over 8 innings); 6-3 to Madison Bumgarner in Game Five of the 2014 Championship Series (In spite of 7 innings of 2-run ball from Waino); and Monday against the Braves.
Dakota Hudson wobbled a bit in the fifth inning of the Monday game, but overall pitched very well, under the duress of the situation. Hudson was very steady down the stretch. Including his playoff start, Hudson threw quality starts in 6 of his last 10 outings, putting together a 6-1 record and a 1.86 ERA. The last 230 batters to face him are hitting .159, and 57% of every ball put in play against him has been a ground ball.
The next step for Dakota will be tighter command. Hudson has walked 31 batters in his last 58 innings, and only 59% of his pitches in those innings have been strikes. Only 44 of his 74 Monday pitches were in the zone.
Dakota was 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 5 September starts. Four of those five starts followed a Cardinal loss. Hudson responded with 3 quality starts and a 1.50 ERA that featured a .146 batting average against.
Carlos’ Big Inning
With the Monday game tied at four in the ninth inning and the Cards facing elimination, they turned again to Carlos Martinez. The afternoon before, Martinez’ brutal ninth inning had given control of the series back to the Braves. It was a crucial inning on many levels. With the weight of the season resting on his shoulders, Carlos was tasked with mentally and emotionally turning the page on the Sunday disaster. I will admit some concern when Acuna opened up with a ringing double, putting what might have been the winning run in scoring position with nobody out.
But Carlos pitched around it. More than that, in fact. You could see him visibly clear his mind of all that noise and focusing completely on the pitch to be made. That was a very big proving step for Carlos Martinez.
In case there was any question about it, Paul Goldschmidt has turned it on. It’s kind of the eruption the team has been waiting for all year. With his three hits on Monday (all for extra-bases) Goldy has hit in every game of the series – and, in fact, has a six game hitting streak going. He has multiple hits in three of the six, including a pair of three-hit games. For the streak, Goldschmidt is hitting .440 (11 for 25) and slugging .960 (4 doubles and 3 home runs).
Right there with Goldy is the man behind him in the order – Marcell Ozuna. Marcell hit his first two playoff home runs on Monday, and has two hits in all four of the games. Ozuna now actually has a five game hitting streak, in which he has two hits exactly in all five games. Marcell is hitting .455 during his streak (10 for 22) and slugging .864 (he has 3 doubles to go along with yesterday’s homers) and has driven in 5 runs over his last 5 games.
Tommy Edman doesn’t stay quiet for very long. After a couple of hitless games, Edman singled, doubled and walked in Monday’s game. Tommy was the team’s leading hitter (.350 on 36 of 103 hitting) and slugger (.660 on 6 doubles, 4 triples and 6 home runs) for the month of September. Starting in 65 of the 74 second half games, Edman hit .308 with 8 home runs.
Tommy hit .328 this season (43 for 131) in 36 games after a loss.
Molina hasn’t honestly looked very comfortable at the plate during this post-season. As he came to the plate with the tying run on second in Monday’s eighth inning, Yadi was just 2 for 15 in the series.
But never count him out. Molina, of course, tied the contest with an RBI single and then tied the series with a sacrifice fly in the tenth.
Over his storied career, Molina has played in 40 playoff games after a Cardinal loss. He is now hitting .322 in those games (46 for 143) with 3 game-winning hits. Yadi may not always come through in those situations (nobody “always’ comes through in those situations). But with Molina you can always be assured that the moment will never be too big for him.
A recent hot streak brought Matt Carpenter briefly back into the lineup (at Harrison Bader’s expense). Matt has since cooled off a bit, throwing his presence in the lineup back in doubt. Matt was 0-for-3 on Monday, and is just 2 for 13 (.154) over his last 5 games.
Hitless in four at bats over the last two games, Matt has played in 20 career playoff games after a Cardinal loss. He is 14 for 68 (.206) in those games.
Paul DeJong’s bat has been trending downward lately. He was 0-for-4 yesterday. He had singles in two of his first three at bats in the series, but is 0 for 11 since then with 6 strikeouts.
Paul ended September hitting just .175 (17 for 97).
In the last two games, DeJong sits 0-for-7. Since the All-Star break, Paul is just 19 for 98 (.194) in games after a loss.
Dexter Fowler started off his playoffs pretty well, with a walk and a single in Game One. He is hitless in 13 at bats since then.
Fowler hit .183 (17 for 93) in the month of September.
Game Five and Beyond
In pushing the Braves – who were significant favorites – to a deciding game, St Louis has progressed as far as most experts would believe. Everything that they achieve from this point on will be above and beyond expectations. Should they survive the Braves, other excellent teams – both National and American – will be waiting. From this point on, they will be even steeper under-dogs than they already are. Going forward, expect to see the odds and expectations stacked strongly against them.
Given their playoff history, I can’t think of any team more comfortable in that setting than your St Louis Cardinals.
After winning the first game of the series, the Cardinals got consecutive quality starts from Jack Flaherty and Wainwright. They lost both games. This has been one of the strong memes of the Cardinal season – wasting excellent quality pitching.
They are now 52-25 this season when their starter gives them a quality start, losing 32.5% of those efforts. If that number holds, this will be the second-worst Cardinal record this century when they get a quality start. The 2008 team lost 34.2% of the time they got a quality start (50-26).
One day after they played in 94 degree heat (tying the season high to that point) the Cards played their hottest game of the year on October 4 in Atlanta – the game time temperature read 95 degrees. It was the hottest game St Louis had played in since they lost to Cincinnati 8-2 in 97 degree last July 14 (Flaherty started that game, too).
It was the hottest road game played since a 2-1, 10-inning loss in San Francisco on September 2 of 2017. That game was also 95 degrees at first pitch.
When the series came back to St Louis on Sunday, the temperature was 32 degrees cooler. At 63 degrees, the Sunday game was the coolest the Cards have played since the last game before the All-Star break in San Francisco (July 7). Although early July, the temperature in San Francisco that afternoon was a chilly 61 degrees. They haven’t played in weather this cold at home since May 12. They lost to Pittsburgh that day 10-6 in 51 degree weather.
Before the Friday shutout, St Louis had led at some point in 7 consecutive playoff games, going back to a 5-4, 10-inning loss to San Francisco in Game Three of the 2014 Championship Series.
The Sunday crowd of just 42,203 was the smallest for a Cardinal home playoff game in this century. The previous low for a home playoff game was the 43,584 that came to see St Louis win Game Three of the 2011 Championship Series against Milwaukee. The final in that was 4-3 Cards.
Wednesday’s game will have umpire Tom Hallion behind the plate. Tom has never called a Cardinal playoff game, but we were 2-2 with him behind the plate during this regular season. Lifetime we are 15-14 with Tom behind the plate.