By Rob Rains
The Cardinals will be trying to win their first postseason series and advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2014 when they take on the Braves in the Division Series beginning on Thursday.
Here are five keys for the Cardinals to win the series:
1. Win game one.
The first game of any postseason series is always critical, but it picks up additional importance when the series is the best-of-five games and the first game is on the road, as is the case for the Cardinals in this matchup.
Now, add in the fact that the Cardinals will have their 23-year-old ace, Jack Flaherty, ready to start game two and it’s easy to see why a win in the opening game, which likely will have Miles Mikolas on the mound, could put the Cardinals in a great position to win the series.
An opening victory also might put a little doubt in the minds of the Braves, who struggled in the final part of the season. They coasted to the division title, leading by at least four games, since the All-Star break. Putting them in a position of having to win a game against Flaherty to avoid being down 0-2 in the series – and then facing three consecutive potential elimination games – might be too tough of a challenge to overcome.
The Braves also have injury concerns, another reason why it could be important for the Cardinals to jump on them early in the series. Ronald Acuna Jr. is recovering from a strained groin and did not play the final four games of the regular season. Freddie Freeman is dealing with bone spurs in his elbow and hit .128 since Sept. 11. Ender Inciarte, a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder, has been ruled out for the series because of a hamstring injury.
The Braves are expected to start Dallas Keuchel in game one. He lost his last three starts in the regular season, allowing 12 runs in 16 combined innings against the Phillies, Giants and Mets.
2. Keep it clean.
In any game, a team increases its chances of winning if it can play error-free baseball, avoiding mistakes that give an opponent extra outs and free bases on walks, fielding mistakes, etc. Those hiccups also have a residual effect of forcing a starting pitcher to throw extra pitches which could force a team to go to its bullpen sooner than it wanted.
This is especially true in a playoff setting, against teams which are good at taking advantage of an opponent’s mistakes. Luckily for the Cardinals, this is one of the strengths of this year’s team.
By any metric available, the Cardinals were one of the best defensive teams in the league in 2019 and also one of the best when it came to running the bases. They eliminated many of the mistakes in those areas which plagued them in recent years, and the result was very noticeable.
As manager Mike Shildt said during the final weekend of the regular season, “We want to keep our strengths our strengths” which is why the Cardinals will try to put their best defenders on the field as much as possible.
In games in which the Cardinals did not commit an error this season, they were 66-43. In games when they committed at least one error, they were 25-28.
In a series that is much more likely to have games decided by 3-2 scores than 8-6, playing clean baseball picks up even more significance.
3. Avoid middle relievers.
In an era where teams have often started bringing in relievers earlier and earlier in the postseason and try to diminish the importance of the starting pitcher, the Cardinals need to go the opposite direction. The deeper the team’s starter can go in the game, the better their chances should be to win.
In the team’s 28 games in September, the starters had a combined ERA of 2.40. The relievers had a combined 4.90 ERA for the month, much of that compiled against the so-called “middle relievers.”
If the Cardinals starter can get through at least six, and better yet seven, innings before handing the game off to the bullpen, it would give Shildt a much more favorable chance to get the matchups he wants in the final two innings, probably relying on Giovanny Gallegos as the primary setup man before Carlos Martinez would get the ball in the ninth.
One luxury the Cardinals could have in the first two games of the series is being able to use Dakota Hudson as a reliever, if he is not scheduled to start until game four, to cover a critical inning or two in the middle of the game.
4. Hope Andrew Miller finds his past postseason form.
Andrew Miller is still going to be called upon in critical late-inning situations, and he needs to find his past postseason form and especially eliminate his control issues when he comes into a game, most likely to face Freddie Freeman or Nick Markakis.
One of the reasons the Cardinals signed Miller last winter was because of how effective he has been in past Octobers. He has pitched in the playoffs each of the last five years (only 1/3 of an inning last year) and in his 33 postseason innings over those seasons has allowed a total of four runs, a 1.09 ERA, with 48 strikeouts.
Miller has not pitched like that for much of this season, however, and is coming off a particularly bad September. He allowed 10 runs in 10 innings over 13 appearances in the month and in his last 11 games, also allowed five of eight inherited runners to score.
Can he pitch this October like he did in 2016, when he was named the MVP of the American League Championship Series? The Cardinals hope the answer is yes.
5. Get a hit with a runner on third.
One of the more inconsistent aspects of the Cardinals’ offense this season was how many times they had a hitter come up with a runner on third, often with less than two outs, and could not bring him home.
According to the statistics on the Baseball Reference website, the Cardinals were just 1-of-10 this season with a runner on third and no outs, with three sacrifice flies. With two outs and a runner on third, they had a combined nine hits in 60 at-bats. With two outs and a runner in scoring position on either second or third, the team combined to produce a .200 average.
Because of how important runs are in the postseason, missing out on those chances as often as they did in the regular season could prove critical to the Cardinals’ chances of winning the series.
Of the Cardinals regular lineup, their most effective hitter with runners in scoring position this season was Yadier Molina with a .305 average. Their worst hitter with a man on second or third among the regulars was Paul DeJong, who had a .193 average in those situations, but he did lead the team with six sacrifice flies.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports