MLB playoffs: Cardinals need more hits and more urgency if they want to turn NLCS around
Max Scherzer dominated the Cardinals in Game 2, just as Anibal Sanchez dominated them in Game 1
St. Louis -- One day after Anibal Sanchez no-hit the Cardinals for 7 2/3 innings in the NLCS, Max Scherzer pulled off a similar feat in Saturday's Game 2. Scherzer, flashing peak stuff and using the mix of afternoon shadows and light to full advantage, dominated Cardinal hitters for six innings without allowing hit amid swing and miss after swing and miss.
Leading off the seventh, however, Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt lined a misplaced slider to left for the Cardinals' first hit of the game. It was just the second Cardinals hit through 14 innings of the series and their first by a starter.
Scherzer recouped to strand Goldschmidt by striking out Marcell Ozuna and inducing an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Yadier Molina. In doing so, he preserved the Nationals' one-run lead in a game they would win, 3-1.
With one out in the top of the eighth, Scherzer was lifted for pinch-hitter Matt Adams, who promptly hit a non-hustle single to the wall in and later came around to score as the Nationals plated two to expand their lead to 3-0. Here, then, is Scherzer's final line:
On the day, he induced 19 swinging strikes and 18 called strikes in 101 pitches. Nothing about that from the likes of Scherzer is surprising. What is surprising is the proximity to Sanchez's gem in Game 1.
During the regular season, the Cardinals were roughly middle of the road on offense, as they ranked seventh in the NL in wRC+ (or Weighted Runs Created+, an advanced metric that measures all phases of production at the plate and adjusts them for ballpark and league environments). Maybe nudge your estimations just a bit since Tommy Edman became a lineup regular. In any event, on just four occasions during the regular season did they score a total of one run across two games, and never were they limited to anything close to just four total hits across back-to-back games. Also bear in mind that the Cardinals plated their only run on a two-out "double" by Jose Martinez that Michael Taylor absolutely should've caught. Basically, the Cardinals' offense has reached unforeseen levels of futility, at least insofar as this season is concerned, at precisely the wrong time.
So the Cardinals are down 2-0, having lost both games at home. Teams in similar circumstances -- i.e., losing Games 1 and 2 at home -- have gone on to prevail in a best-of-seven series such as this one just three times in 25 chances. Yes, the Cardinals have Jack Flaherty lined up for Game 3 in D.C. on Monday, but he'll be countered by Stephen Strasburg. Then it's likely Patrick Corbin in Game 4, and if the series goes long enough then presumably it'll be second doses of Sanchez, Scherzer, and Strasburg. Maybe the odds are even longer than you might think.
At this point, one wonders whether St. Louis manager Mike Shildt will show a bit more tactical urgency. He's right not to panic about his lineup mere days removed from a 10-run inning and 13-run game, but more aggressive in-game management is likely in order. It's not reliance on comfy hindsight to say Shildt should've pinch-hit for Adam Wainwright earlier in Game 2. With one out in the sixth, Shildt let 38-year-old Wainwright bat for himself even though in the top half he got into the opposing lineup for the third time. It was a 1-0 game at the time, and no matter the extent to which Scherzer was dominating, Jose Martinez is capable of tying the game or putting himself in scoring position with a single swing. The missed opportunity was compounded when Wainwright wound up allowing two more runs in the eighth. Speaking of the eighth, why Shildt allowed Wainwright to face Adam Eaton is another mystery. Eaton of course doubled to extend the Washington lead.
Here's how Shildt explained both of those key decisions:
"What goes into it, a guy's got 11 strikeouts, is still hitting his spots. I think he probably made two mistakes, the one to Taylor, cutter, got the ball up the patch, put a swing on it. But then you looked at the Turner at-bat and he bloops one in. Then you look to the Eaton at-bat, I thought he was going to be able to execute. And just watching he was executing everything he was doing. So you take your chances with a guy that's in the moment, in the competition, that's pitched as well as he has, that is still executing his pitches, and he more than deserved that opportunity, and he snuck one down the line on him."
All that makes sense on a certain level, but it doesn't change the reality that the Cardinals were losing in the sixth inning when he let Wainwright bat and were within range in the eighth when he let a perhaps tiring Wainwright face an opposite-side hitter with strong numbers against him. That's managing like it's May 12 instead of October 12, when the only ethos should be "win today's game." Yes, Wainwright was pitching well, but that's largely moot when you're down on the scoreboard and running out of outs in a near must-win contest. Again, tactical urgency was in order in both instances, just as it's even more in order now that the Cardinals are in longshot position.
Beyond that, it's perhaps time to consider some lineup adjustments. Dexter Fowler, besides being a defensive liability in center, is now batting .069/.156/.103 during the current postseason. To expand the sample, that comes on the heels of a poor September for Fowler. It's probably time to give Harrison Bader a start in center, .
As long as we're throwing around slash lines, though, the Cardinals as a team are batting .070/.145/.088 through two games of the NLCS, and such depths can't be attributable to one player. Overall this postseason, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are the only St. Louis hitters producing at high levels. So there's no easy answer, and perhaps no amount of lineup manipulation can allow an average offense to break through against these starting pitchers. However, as one of Shildt's predecessors in St. Louis, Tony La Russa, was fond of saying in so many words, you can always do something. The time for something is now.
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