The St. Louis Cardinals left San Diego with a lot on their minds on Saturday. None of those included a division series matchup with the Dodgers.
The Padres managed to take two consecutive games against St. Louis after losing the first in the three-game Wild Card set. Halfway through game two, the Cardinals still looked like they were about to shock the world, quieting San Diego’s bats and showing an uncharacteristic offensive explosion.
Suffice it to say, that storyline became simply a fever dream for Cardinal fans, as the pitching staff couldn’t contain San Diego’s deep lineup. However, many elements combined to produce the expected result.
A result that is still painful to speak out loud.
For a solitary moment, both the team and their fanbase believed in the magic of this October. This type of magic is one fans have come to recognize countless times before. This year’s postseason didn’t contain enough of that trademarked magic to push St. Louis through into the divisional round. Instead, the team is left looking in the mirror, reminded of how well things started off.
What Went Wrong?
The pitching. The first two games of the wild card round saw neither St. Louis starter manage to escape the fourth inning. Kwang Hyun Kim minimized the damage in game one, allowing just three runs on five hits. But the more surprising line was courtesy of Adam Wainwright. The native Georgian pitched 3.2 innings, allowed six hits and two walks, cumulating in two runs.
Wainwright’s short start was no worse than fans are used to seeing in the postseason, where short starts are the rule more than the exception. But that short length led to another game of heavy bullpen use. Bullpen use that effectively turned the tide in the Padres’ favor.
Three consecutive relievers allowed at least two runs in game two. The Padres offense scored on the last five Cardinal relievers to enter the game. A third game of heavy bullpen use was what manager Mike Schildt hoped to avoid on Friday, and that part thankfully went according to plan. But the damage was done; Jack Flaherty allowed just one run in his six innings of game three.
Schildt’s decision to throw two relievers specifically on Thursday sat poorly with many Cardinal fans. Kodi Whitley, who threw the final portion of game two, had been used just four times during the regular season. Daniel Ponce de Leon, though better in his last two starts of the regular season, still owned a high 4.96 ERA in less than 35 innings.
Ponce de Leon was charged with the loss. He gave up Fernando Tatis Jr.‘s second home run of the evening, punctuated with a monster bat-flip. Whitley came into the game to record one out, though he gave up a home run to Wil Myers first.
Those two home runs were part of 11 extra-base hits allowed by Cardinal pitching in the series.
Flaherty pitched nearly as long as the first two games’ starters combined, but the offense gave him little room for error.
What Went Right?
It’s a hard sentence to read, but honestly the Cardinals’ breakout offense was the only encouraging part of the series. Cardinal bats jumped on starter Chris Paddack in game one, tallying four in the first and chasing Paddack before the fourth inning. Game two saw St. Louis score nine runs off five different pitchers, including Cardinal alum Trevor Rosenthal.
In the same breath, everything comes back to the final series game. The Cards recorded just four hits during a nine-pitcher, bullpen-nightmare shutout. Padres manager Jayce Tingler was asked after game two who he expected to start the next night, and he replied with an articulate, “I have no idea.”
So yes, the finnicky offense reared its ugly head once more. And it picked the worst possible time for a visit. You scored zero runs off of “I have no idea”? Of course they did.
The Cardinals’ approach to San Diego pitching was truly something to marvel at in the first two games. Early count fastballs and opposite-field hitting showcased the Cardinals as the better-prepared team. Offense that hadn’t shown up all season came in droves, on the biggest stage with the brightest lights.
Final hitting lines for the series, however, show just what kind of inconsistency has plagued the club all season.
Paul DeJong — .200, 2 Runs, 3 BB, 0 RBI
Tommy Edman — .214, 2 Runs, 0 RBI
Harrison Bader — .111, 2 RBI, Run, 7 K
St. Louis averaged more than five runs per game in the series, which would have been enough to win two different games. Still, it is true that some Cardinals had good series at the plate, highlighted by Yadier Molina and his six-for-13 performance and Paul Goldschmidt‘s two home runs and three RBI.
Dylan Carlson hit in the cleanup spot during the series, and as a 21-year-old became the youngest Cardinal to hit cleanup in the postseason since Albert Pujols. After Wednesday’s game where he went two-for-three and walked twice, the Padres seemed to adjust their approach with Carlson. Over the final two games, he hit .167, struck out twice and walked twice.
The performance is still encouraging for Carlson. Baseball fans cannot question that he is capable of hitting on the MLB playoff stage. Assuredly, Carlson’s stellar performance has locked him into a starting spot in the outfield next season.
Where to Go From Here?
The offseason will not be kind to the NL and AL Central. Though the two divisions combined to supply seven teams out of the sixteen in this year’s playoff, not a single one advanced to the divisional round. That’s a zero percent success rate… in case anyone is counting.
But in all seriousness, St. Louis seems to be a crossroads in their organization, as per usual with this time of year. Flashes of talent suggest they’re a force to be reckoned with. But too often, those flashes have been overshadowed by some combination of underperformance, injuries and inconsistency.
If the Cardinals are really in the win-now mode that the fanbase has come to expect, John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch need to spend on the offense. Marcell Ozuna is out hitting bombs and taking selfies in Atlanta, and the Cardinal offense was still troubled before his departure last winter. A productive outfielder to complement Carlson or a bat that can split time at third base would be options to start the offseason.
But of even greater concern is the pending free agency of Wainwright and Molina. Neither hold an active contract with the club after the season’s conclusion. Wainwright is 39 but recorded his best full season since 2014 this year. He proved he was the anchor of the pitching staff this season and is a safe foil to Flaherty’s electric stuff. ‘Uncle Charlie’ is still doing just fine.
Of the pair, Molina would be harder to part with. The 38-year-old just led the club with six postseason hits, played in his 101st postseason game and finished with a .262 season average. Not many catchers can claim those kinds of career statistics. Certainly no one owns the defensive supremacy of Molina, something he showcased throughout the Wild Card round. But the catcher won’t be around forever, and Andrew Knizner is waiting in the wings, hoping for an opportunity to prove his worth in St. Louis.
A contract to one or both of these men is of principal concern, but the offseason is barely 72 hours old. Fans will learn more when these men make their own decisions, after they’ve moved on from the immediate pain this season has brought.
Goodbye to Another Cardinal Great
Gibson, known as one of the greatest pitchers in MLB’s history, was a unparalleled talent, fierce competitor and respected adversary by some of the greatest in the game. The Creighton alum leads Cardinal pitchers all time in wins, games started, strikeouts and innings pitched.
Jack Flaherty, whom Gibson had mentored before his departure from club activities, had this farewell for the pitcher:
RIP ❤️ ✊🏽
Thank you for all your wisdom
You are a legend
— Jack Flaherty (@Jack9Flaherty) October 3, 2020
Featured Image Courtesy of KMOV.com & St. Louis Cardinals
“From Our Haus to Yours”