It’s getting closer to showtime, and we’re in for an evening showcase of baseball royalty on stage. Red vs. Blue. And no, I’m not referring to state politics. The Cardinals and the Dodgers have challenged each other through the decades, often delivering unforgettable games and memories. Perhaps they will leave us with something new to remember in Wednesday’s National League wild card game.
The Dodgers were the better team, obviously, all season. They have 106 wins to submit as evidence. The Cardinals, however, played like the best team in baseball in their last 25 games of the regular season, going 21-4 in a late-season reinvention. And the Cardinals enter this wild-card game of chance as the best version of themselves.
As reliever Andrew Miller said during the team’s rollicking 17-game winning streak: “We were waiting for that day that offense, defense and pitching all clicked together. And it arrived.”
This is more like an NFL playoff game. The outcome can turn on one play, or misplay. Or maybe on a long home run. The usual baseball postseason precedents aren’t as meaningful in the wild-card age. These wild card games tend to be on the wild side.
This is certain: The Dodgers are the betting favorites, the fan-polling favorites, and the overwhelming choice in the baseball-pundit prediction markets.
So what can the Cardinals do to win this game? I’ll offer a few factors that could make a difference, and swing the win to the St. Louis side.
Just so you know in advance I’m avoiding things like, “They can’t be shut out by Max Scherzer,” or “they can’t blow the save,” or “Adam Wainwright must give the Cardinals a heckuva start.”
We all know that Scherzer is scary. Matter o’ fact, he did not allow a run in two starts and 14 innings against STL this season. The pride of Brad and Jan Scherzer faced 53 St. Louis hitters in the two games; they managed only 10 hits, one walk and one hit batter. Oh, and he struck out the Cardinals at a rate of 41.5 percent. In nine plate appearances against Mad Max with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals failed to get a hit and struck out seven times. Mercy!
Adam Wainwright took on the Dodgers at Busch Stadium on Sept. 8. The Cardinals prevailed 5-4. Waino went 8 and ⅓ innings, giving up seven hits (including a homer) and four earned runs. If you watched the game you’ll remember that he pitched better than the line indicates. Wainwright was touched for two runs in his first eight innings, and the Dodgers got to him in the top of the ninth when a rising pitch count made him vulnerable.
In no specific order, here are my keys to a Cardinals’ victory:
1) Hit Home Runs: The St. Louis baseball republic loves to babble on and on about small-ball, which is smart baseball. I guess it makes us feel better and seem sophisticated when we emphasize the importance of getting the runner over with a productive out. Hey, it’s a SAC FLY! Old school! Wee Willie Keeler! Yes, those things can be helpful and I’ll deal with them later. But in wild-card games, home runs carry enormous influence — and frequently determine the game. This is also true of the regular season. It’s more difficult to homer in the postseason — with hitters facing better pitchers and all of that. But it must be done to enhance your chances of winning.
Since the two wild-card format was put into place in both leagues in 2012, and extending through the 2019 postseason, here are a few quickie numbers for your consideration.
— The teams that won the wild-card game have out-homered the losing side 25-12 overall. And that includes an 11-6 HR count in the NL wild-card games.
— Teams that fail to homer in games played under the current wild-card system have a record of 3-8 overall, and 1-4 in the NL game. Colorado was the only NL side to win the wild-card playoff without homering, defeating Chicago 2-1 in 13 innings back in 2018.
— NL teams that hit just one homer — and only one homer — are 4-2 in wild-card encounters.
— Scherzer is one of the greatest pitchers of his generation and a certain Hall of Famer. But he’s also a heavy fly-ball pitcher who ranked 37th among 39 qualifying starters in ground-ball rate. He’s given up 23 homers this season while pitching for the Nationals and Dodgers. Only six of the 23 have come with men on base – but two were grand slams. And it’s possible to do some early damage; 17 of the 23 homers against Scherzer flew during the first four innings.
2) Two-strike hitting: The Cardinals were ineffective in this area for the first half of the season with a.156 batting average on two-strike counts. But they showed substantial improvement after the All-Star break, ranking sixth in the majors with a .187 average. The boys are in for a difficult assignment in this one. When Scherzer had opponents backed into a two-strike count this season they batted .123 and struck out 55 percent of the time. And RH batters hit .120 with a 61% strikeout rate against him in two-strike situations. Yikes.
3) Be aggressive on balls hit to the Los Angeles outfield. Be careful with Mookie Betts in right field, but otherwise be bold and challenge those LA outfield arms. This season Dodgers outfielders finished last in the majors with only 12 outfield assists. They were 24th among 30 MLB teams Outfield Arm Runs Above Average, at minus 5. And overall the Dodger outfield was 21st in defensive runs saved above average at minus 6. Considering Scherzer’s extreme fly-ball rate, any non-crazy chance to test those outfield arms could be awfully important.
4) Exploit the Dodger defense in other ways: The Cardinals rated among the top base-running teams in the majors, ranking third with a net baserunning gain of plus 77. They were tied for sixth in the majors in extra bases taken percentage at 43%. And the Cards made the fewest outs on the bases majors. They are athletic, schooled well, and smart. The Dodgers aren’t reliable on the defensive end; as a team they rank 18th in the majors with minus 5 Outs Above Average. That includes the No. 19 ranking in Outs Above Average (minus 5) by LA’s infielders. The Dodgers may give the Cardinals a couple of extra outs to play with by failing to make plays that should be made.
And then there’s Dodger catcher Will Smith; this season opponents attempted 96 steals against him and 72 made it. That gave Smith a 25 percent caught-stealing rate. Smith and Yadier Molina each played a near identical amount of innings this season. But opponents attempted only 44 stolen bases on Molina and got in safely only 18 times; he had a throw-out rate of 41%.
5) Use the smart-baseball card: OK, this is for my “small ball” peeps. The Cardinals were very good at this during the season — all season, and not just during their hot September.
–The Cards were tied for second overall and No. 1 in the NL with a productive out percentage of 29.4 percent. A productive out is: (a) a successful sac bubt by a pitcher with less than two outs; (b) advancing any runner with one out; (c) advancing the runner from second to third with no outs.
— The Cards were third in the majors and first in the NL by scoring a runner from third base with less than two outs. Their success rate was 53.6 percent.
— The Cards were third in the NL and seventh overall at getting a runner from second to third base with no outs in the inning. Their success rate was 54%.
— The Cards ranked eighth in the majors and fourth in the NL with 44 sacrifice flies. And third in the NL (and overall) with 40 sac bunts.
If this wild-card affair plays out as a slow-scoring game — and a run must be scored by any means necessary — the STL smart-ball skill could make a difference. And if the Cardinals don’t hit homers, they’ll have to get it done in other ways. Smart ball can help the cause.
6) The Cardinals must play up to their defensive reputation: Whether it’s outs above average (first) or defensive runs saved (second), the St. Louis defense is elite and a huge component in their run-prevention goals. And this is particularly important in this wild-card game. This season no MLB starting pitcher benefited from defense more than Wainwright. The Cardinals were 25 outs above average in his starts, tops in the majors. They were No. 1 in outfield outs above average (10) and infield OAA (15) when he pitched. The Cardinals can’t be sloppy defensively in this one. Compared to the Dodgers, the STL defense gives their pitchers a distinct advantage. Any team can have a bad night on defense — but the Cardinals can’t afford to do that now.
7) Mike Shildt must be proactive in handling his pitchers. He can’t be Mike Matheny all over again. If this game is close — no matter who has the lead — Shildt can’t let it get away by waiting too long to go to his bullpen if such a move is the bright thing to do. Yes, I expect Wainwright to be terrific. I think most of us expect that he’ll give the Cardinals a helluva chance to win. Since June 3, the Cardinals are 18-4 when he starts a game, and he has a 2.58 ERA in 146 and ⅔ innings. In Waino’s 13 most recent starts he has a 2.36 ERA and the Cardinals are 12-1.
OK, but what if Wainwright isn’t himself? What if he lacks sharpness, isn’t getting strike calls on borderline pitches, or clearly begins tiring? In a winner-take-all game, this is no time for Hero Ball managing. Shildt can’t allow a minor deficit to become a major deficit, and he can’t allow a small lead to slip away. But if Waino is Waino — with Uncle Charlie dancing in the shadows — then there isn’t much to worry about in his part of the competition. (By the way: Waino has a 1.27 ERA win games with Joe West behind the plate.) But with a rested and fully stocked bullpen, there’s no reason to push it.
8) Get the jump. Take an early lead. Sounds good. Sounds easy. It won’t be easy against Scherzer. But this would be a boost. It would put pressure on the Dodgers, who must be feeling antsy about having to play in a wild-card game after winning 106 games.
9) Money-time: Over the last two months the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the majors at hitting with runners in scoring position, posting a .280 average. If they get chances tonight — and the opportunities against Scherzer may be limited — the boys have to cash in.
I hope you all enjoy the game.
I hope the Cardinals make you happy.
Thank you for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.