On Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals dropped Game 2 of the National League Championship Series to the Washington Nationals. The Cardinals are now in an 0-2 hole as the setting shifts to Nationals Park, and the odds of a St. Louis comeback are not promising. Empirically, host teams who have fallen behind 0-2 in a best-of-seven series in MLB history have won just three of those 25 sets -- or 12 percent, per ESPN Stats & Info.
There's no telling if the Cardinals will be able to overcome their self-imposed hole -- it doesn't seem likely at this point, but it never does. So, let's reframe the topic at hand and ask instead: What must happen for the Cardinals to make things interesting? Here are five things -- strategies, events, whatever -- that need to happen for the Cardinals to do just that.
1. Hit better
Hey, we never claimed it was going to be MENSA-level stuff.
The Cardinals have been held to just four hits through the first two games of the series. According to Emma Baccellieri of Sports Illustrated, the Cardinals recorded at least seven combined hits in consecutive games throughout the regular season. As a team, St. Louis is hitting .070/.145/.088 with just three walks and 18 strikeouts in 57 at-bats.
It's hard to score when you can't hit, and it's darn near impossible to win when you can't score. Ergo, the Cardinals need their offense to come alive.
Obviously it's not that easy -- especially when Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are the next two probable starters -- and it's worth remembering that the Cardinals' lineup was middle-of-the-pack during the regular season. Per FanGraphs' wRC+ measure -- a catch-all metric that adjusts for ballpark -- the Cardinals had the worst regular-season offense of any playoff team, including the Wild Card Game losers.
But there's a difference between having a blah lineup and what's going on so far. It's likely -- just based on how the sport works -- that better times are ahead for St. Louis' offense. Whether it proves to make much of a difference in the series' final result is to be seen.
2. Be aggressive on the basepaths
One way to overcome a series (and seemingly a talent) gap is to embrace higher-variance strategies. In other words, do things like attempt more stolen bases.
The Cardinals ranked fourth in baseball in stolen bases during the regular season, and heretofore are three-for-three in stolen-base tries in the NLCS. They'll need to get more runners on base before they can ratchet it up, but they should consider doing just that -- particularly when Kurt Suzuki is starting behind the plate for the Nationals.
During the regular season, Suzuki ranked 45th out of 57 in pop time on throws to second base, according to Statcast. (Yan Gomes ranked 14th.) Suzuki has never been one to throw out many runners (23 percent career), due in part to a slow transfer, but this year has been a low point even for him, as he permitted 45 of 50 prospective thieves to succeed. The pitcher who was victimized most often? Mr. Strasburg, who yielded 16 steals on 18 tries.
Surely the Nationals will be mindful about this, and will take measures to protect against the stolen base whenever someone reaches in Game 3. But the Cardinals should force the issue and gamble more often whenever one of their better basestealers -- be it Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman, or even Marcell Ozuna -- reach base. Heck, let Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt get in on the fun -- both have proven to be smart about picking spots. Additionally, the Cardinals should keep this in mind during the middle to late stages of the game, when they'd be more comfortable deploying Harrison Bader as a pinch-runner.
There's risk in trying for steals, and a failed attempt will look stupid. But you're already in an 0-2 hole and the only way to dig yourself out against a better opponent is to take chances.
3. Get a dominant outing from Flaherty
Well, and to have your stud pitcher do his thing.
The Cardinals' have their best chance of winning a game whenever Jack Flaherty touches the ball. He'll be on the mound in Game 3, and would line up for a Game 7 if it gets that far. Flaherty ended the regular season on an absurd note, holding opponents to a 1.22 ERA and .450 OPS against in his final 17 starts. In two postseason appearances, he's yielded four runs in 13 innings, all the while fanning 16 batters and permitting just two walks.
The Cardinals need Flaherty to shove on Monday, more so than normal because of Strasburg's presence. He should be up for the task based on his recent track record.
4. Be aggressive with the bullpen
During the regular season, the only remaining playoff team with a better bullpen ERA than the Cardinals was the Astros. Yet, so far in the NLCS, the Cardinals have been reluctant to leverage an apparent strength, with only Ryan Helsley and Andrew Miller being permitted to notch more than an inning (and Miller's required two appearances). Carlos Martinez, Giovanny Gallegos, and John Brebbia have combined for an inning.
We'll acknowledge that Gallegos and Brebbia had rough Septembers -- Gallegos permitted nearly three homers per nine innings -- but the aforementioned Miller had an 8.10 ERA in the final month. It's not that simple, of course, as there are multiple variables at play -- including how each pitcher's arm is feeling this late in the year.
Still, unless there's something seriously wrong with Gallegos and Martinez underneath the hood, the Cardinals could probably stand to be more aggressive with their bullpen, beginning with Dakota Hudson's start in Game 4. Hudson's numbers the second time through the order during the regular season weren't great, and the Cardinals should be mindful of that entering his outing.
We're not saying yank Hudson in the third or fourth, but if he starts getting squared up then they shouldn't keep him in the game just for the sake of trying to give five innings out of him -- not when it could lead to a sweep or a 1-3 series deficit.
5. Get lucky
Every great comeback necessitates luck. The Cardinals need to summon all their Devil Magic, or whatever it's called these days, in order to give themselves the best possible shot at making this into a series -- and perhaps even advancing to the World Series.